There Is No Debate: Young Stars Of "The Great Debaters" Revisit An American Yesteryear in Denzel Washington's New Film

Whitaker, Smollett, Parker
Whitaker (no relation to "Debaters" co-star Forest Whitaker), Jurnee Smollett and Nate Parker of "The Great Debaters", directed by Denzel Washington, at the film's Los Angeles premiere on December 11, 2007.  The three stars talked to Omar P.L. Moore recently.  "The Great Debaters" opens on December 25 across the United States and Canada.  The film is distributed across North America by The Weinstein Company.  (Eric Charbonneau/WireImage)

By Omar P.L. Moore/

December 17, 2007

San Francisco


"Dang . . . don't age meh!", mocks Jurnee Smollett to an interviewer during a conversation held recently at The Four Seasons.  The interviewer made the mistake of reminding the actress who debuted in Kasi Lemmons film "Eve's Bayou" that she had been an activist for ten years.  Ms. Smollett, 21, firmly but playfully corrected her questioner that it was "nine!" years.  Her organization Artists For A New South Africa is dedicated to fighting the scourge of HIV/AIDS, a disease that has hit especially hard in the African nation, where more than 35% of its population infected with the deadly virus.  She credited her experiences as an activist with helping along her performance as Samantha Booke, a student debater at all-black Wiley College in East Texas in 1935, in Denzel Washington's second directorial effort "The Great Debaters", which opens across North America on December 25.  "I've been in public speaking since I was twelve, and also just being in this cocoon that is my organization, this cocoon of knowledge, I've been fortunate to be around a bunch of people who just kind of, you know, throw a bunch of books at me, or sayings at me, and . . . flood me with information . . . about the world in general -- America, South Africa -- or just injustices, in general.  So it helped me out a lot.  No one's ever asked me that (about her activism and its affect on her acting), and I don't talk about it a lot because it's difficult sometimes to talk about things that are so personal to you."  Smollett was just seven years old when she lost a crew member from her television sitcom "On Our Own" to HIV/AIDS.  Even though a harrowing experience at such a tender age would have a strong effect on a person in any situation, Ms. Smollett said that she still had to go beyond her offscreen moments with to bring the character of Miss Booke to life.  With her insights and the way she presents herself, Jurnee Smollett sounds as if she has been living life for longer than just two decades.  Her onscreen character Samantha possesses the same strength and confidence that Ms. Smollett does when she speaks during this interview.  

"The Great Debaters", produced by Oprah Winfrey and Mr. Washington's "Antwone Fisher" producer Todd Black, along with Kate Forte and Joe Roth, is about a black debate team at Wiley College which went undefeated for three years in the 1930's and then faced off against Harvard, the best debate team in America.  The new film is inspired by the true story of Wiley College's undefeated debate team of 1936-1939, managed by English professor Mel Tolson, a multifaceted person who also was a union leader and organizer during the time.  Mr. Washington plays Tolson in the film, which on December 14 was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture Drama, by the Globes' Hollywood Foreign Press Association.  Robert Eisele's screenplay takes the true story of Wiley's sterling debate team, which included Henrietta Bell, Henry Heights and James Farmer, Jr. -- the latter would become leader of the Freedom Rides in the South and a prominent figure of the Civil Rights Movement -- and creates a fictional story about the team's journey through a very real Deep South in America where racism was so openly flagrant, resulting in deadly consequences for many a black person, and a voyage through the team's growth as young adults and leaders.  In addition to Denzel Washington, Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker also stars, playing James Farmer, Sr., the legendary preacher and father of the junior Farmer (played in the film by Denzel Whitaker, who bears no relation to the Oscar-winning actor of "The Last King of Scotland".)

Mr. Washington's new film is as moving, stirring and passionate as his debut directing effort "Antwone Fisher" of 2002, and showcases the talents of young and rapidly rising acting stars Nate Parker (who plays the Henry Heights-inspired character Henry Lowe), and Ms. Smollett.  On this day in mid-December the trio are just having lunch brought to them, and although one of the three doesn't look satisfied with what is apparently a bungled food order, the mishap hasn't done anything to dampen their spirits as they enthusiastically entertain questions about "Debaters".  Denzel Whitaker, 17, who worked with Mr. Washington on the Antwone Fuqua-helmed "Training Day", described his experience on set with the actor-as-director like this: "Definitely, he was a father figure and a mentor to us . . . even in the auditions it was all about setting a comfortable and professional tone . . . it wasn't about seeing Denzel with his Oscars and coming in you know, saying, 'hey!  Look at me!  I'm directing you now!' . . . He was generous with his knowledge.  He shared with me his acting, his directing.  He also shared with me just quotes that I wrote down at home and just things that I could take on in life and apply them to everyday and help me to be a better person.  For that, I'd love to thank him and Miss Pauletta (Pauletta Washington, the director's wife) of course, because they're two wonderful mentors, as well as Forest too . . . not only [is] he a great actor, but he is also a generous and humble guy." 

While Mr. Whitaker (and the other two cast members assembled on this afternoon) dole out heaps of praise for the film's director, another cast member sings the praises of Denzel Whitaker in the film's production notes: "You could tell from the very first meeting that little Denzel is quite the remarkable kid.  He's very astute, very intelligent.  The scenes I've done with him have been right on," remarked Forest Whitaker.  Also in the film's notes, Kimberly Elise, who plays young Mr. Whitaker's onscreen mother, says, "He has that sort of sensitivity where he allows himself to be vulnerable and open on camera,".  Miss Elise says that she received a Mother's Day card from the teenage actor "that touched my heart."

Father figure and mentor: (clockwise from left) Jurnee Smollett, Nate Parker and Denzel Whitaker agreed that their director Denzel Washington was a great mentor to them during the filming of "The Great Debaters".  (Photo: David Lee/The Weinstein Company)

Nate Parker offered a glimpse of his character's trajectory in "Debaters".  Henry Lowe, a whip-smart, headstrong, and a trouble-maker stands up to Mr. Washington's unorthodox Tolson character, and one scene between them carries a monumental amount of power.  Mr. Parker will later speak about a side of his Henry Lowe character that he reveals in a quiet moment on screen.  Initially though, he said of his character that "what spoke to me was Henry Lowe's turmoil, his inner struggle.  The struggle between who he was and where he wanted to be.  Where he was and what society told him he needed to be . . . for black men I think it was especially difficult because very often we were terrorized -- we couldn't really try to learn to read.  We couldn't eyeball a Caucasian person -- we had to call little (white) kids "sir", and "ma'am".  It had to really strip your dignity and crush your sense of pride as a human being.  For being so full of intellect it had to be difficult for him.  So for me attacking this role, I really wanted to show those dimensions, the layer where he was black in this Jim Crow south, the layer that he was an intellect that wanted his best to absorb as much as he could to use that (intellect) as his weapons toward this injustice."  Mr. Parker, like his two "Debaters" colleagues and co-stars, is far more mature than his years of age would ever suggest.  He is eighteen.  Of the film, Mr. Parker reveals that "one of my favorite scenes was the one I had on the boat with Samantha because it allowed me that rare moment of vulnerability for Henry Lowe."  Parker contextualizes his character's existence in this moment with Samantha: "Finally a mirror turned to myself -- it was one of those moments where I said to myself, 'you know, 'who I am?  Where am I from?  What am I doing here?  Why am I here?  Am I alone?"  (Mr. Parker has just asked these presumably rhetorical question in rapid-fire succession.) 

By necessity actors have a level of introspection that effectuates a deeper probe of the characters they play, and Mr. Parker eloquently distills his character in a way that a number of actors twice his age would not be able to articulate nearly so concisely. 

"The Great Debaters" began lensing in May 2007, ending production in mid-July 2007.  To prepare for the roles, the trio received assistance from Texas Southern University in Houston, according to the film's production notes, where for two days Ms. Smollett, Mr. Whitaker and Mr. Parker were given a crash course on parliamentary debate, oratory, debating skill and technique.  There were other facets of research that the three young stars had to do, including reading of a book called Without Sanctuary, which detailed the lynchings that occurred during the 20th century.  "Groups would gather around and post in newspapers prior to actually when someone was getting lynched, you know, 'hey, come out and see such and such,' and, 'we're gonna lynch him on this tree, in this rope,' and it was publicized . . . and it was actually applauded," said Mr. Whitaker, who further commented, "it's sad to me, you know, to look on society like that -- take pictures of lynchings and send then around on postcards to all their friends and family.  It's sad.  I think that's what surprised me most (while doing the research for the film.)"  Adds Smollett, "and just reading all those different books, it's the nitty-gritty details that get to you."  Commenting on then-U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal War on Crime policies of the Depression era, she said that "the guy that headed this whole war on crime effort left lynching out.  So as a citizen of the country in 1935, that speaks volumes to you about how unimportant your country feels you are, you know?  And yet at the same time, these people did not lay down and give up.  They spoke their voices powerfully.  They shouted from the rooftops if they had to, you know, and they used the power of their tongue."

Though, as intimated from the actors' comments the film hardly shies away from the gritty and gruesome times for blacks in the South in the 1930's in the Great Depression era, "The Great Debaters" provides an uplifting look at leadership, evolution and adulthood, and focuses overwhelmingly on the growth of the three debaters and the life experiences which make them stronger.  Nate Parker, who plays Henry Lowe, said, "who would have ever thought that a black school back then would be allowed to debate a white school . .  . given that education in those times was separate and unequal, you know, it seems like it would be a very tough battle uphill . . . to do something like that."  After reading Mr. Eisele's script and realizing that it was inspired by a true story, Mr. Parker was "'so ashamed that my first thought was, 'this cannot be.'"  It never occurred to him, he said, to learn of the feats of Wiley College, and that these achievements had not been taught to him while he was in school.  "It was so out of the scope of what I was taught that I -- it was almost inconceivable.  To me, I was shocked at myself . . . not only that this happened, but that I had no idea (that it had.)"  All in all, Mr. Parker gained strength from the pain of the real-life strife of America's uglier past time when preparing for the film, turning the knowledge of events previously hidden from his education and curriculum and that knowledge "inspired me to really dig into my research, to really try to shine a light on other areas of that time . . . the other people who went through those things at that time."

"The Great Debaters", Denzel Washington's second directing effort, opens across North America on Christmas Day December 25.  The film is distributed by MGM and The Weinstein Company.

Click here for audio excerpts from the Interview of Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker and Nate Parker by Omar P.L. Moore

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  2007.  All Rights Reserved.




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