In his second film as director, Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington presents an inspiring drama of triumph over prejudice and ignorance based on true events of some 75 years ago. Alan Silverman has this look at The Great Debaters.
In the early 1930's at Wiley College, a small all-Black school in Texas, Professor Mel Tolson greets his new class with the words of African-American poet Langston Hughes. His goal is to challenge these young people to strengthen their minds; and his method is to form them into an inter-collegiate debate team.
This was a time and place in America when Black students were not welcome ...often not permitted ...on the campuses of major universities; but as the Wiley team scores victory after victory, they can no longer be ignored or marginalized.
Work hard, Professor Tolson assures his debaters, and you can achieve. "Do what you've got to do so you can do what you want to do" is how he puts it. Along with producing and directing the film, Denzel Washington stars as Tolson; and he acknowledges that theme is a philosophy he also uses with his own children. "I don't know if it came from me," says the star. "I must have heard it somewhere else; but it was a theme in the movie: 'do what you've got to do, so that you can do what you want to do.' I call it a 'sports movie.' In those days, they considered it a spectator sport. It was a very popular event to go to, so that was interesting. The fact that there were only 360 students at this college and they were going up against these big schools ...that was very fascinating."
As he did with his debut film as director (2002's Antwone Fisher), Washington cast talented, but relatively unknown young actors as the Wiley College debate team members: Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett and Denzel Whitaker. Then Washington says he challenged them not just to portray, but to become debaters. "We set up a camp for the young actors. I met Dr. Freeman, who is the debating coach at Texas Southern University, one of the top debating schools in the country; and he put them through their paces," he says.
"Mr. Denzel was very adamant about us researching and knowing what we were talking about and being well versed in the process of debate," says Nate Parker, who add it helped him and his co-stars understand a lot about their characters. "It's a testament to research and preparation. Any time you're going to stand up in front of people and speak passionately about something, it helps for you to know what you are talking about. That is what helped us in the film. You see the film and these speeches that, of course, were written by someone else, but we studied and researched all the details behind those speeches so we could be passionate and so they meant something to us so we could be believable to you."
Smollett adds that making the film also became a powerful lesson in living history. "As you dig deeper and deeper and hear all the stories ...first-hand accounts of what it was like to live in the 'Jim Crow' [segregated] South and what it was like to live through the Great Depression. They knew education was their ticket. That's the thing everyone told us and a lot of the first-hand accounts were saying: education was their ticket. You were either a sharecropper or an educated person. There was no in between," he says.
Denzel Whitaker portrays the youngest member of the team: teenager James Farmer, Jr., who would grow up to establish 'CORE' - the Congress for Racial Equality - and become a leader of the American civil rights movement. "First of all I think there's a little pressure from wanting to do the actual person justice. Also, (it was) a time period when African-Americans weren't accepted in society. It is hard and kind of devastating to see it. Of course, I've learned about it in our history books, but to actually play the character is a little bit different because you can relate to what your ancestors were going through. For me, it just brought me closer and helps me to understand what I learned in the history books. It is not just text any more," he says.
"I felt, not an obligation, but a connection, if you will, with Mel Tolson and with Dr. Farmer and all of these people that accomplished what they accomplished," says Denzel Washington, who adds, however, that he sees the history as directly relevant to issues of today and adult responsibility to guide and mentor the next generation. "Whatever troubles our young people have are our fault. Period. I don't care how you slice it. We created this environment. We created this world that they are born into and it is our responsibility to try to create an environment for them to excel. That's what happened at Wiley. There's a line I say in the film: "I and every other professor on this campus are here to help you to find, take back and keep you righteous mind." "This is what we have to do. We can't just say 'well, it's up to them and they have to figure it out.' James Farmer Jr. (and the other team members) did not excel in a vacuum. It was because someone was there and made the sacrifice for them to excel."
The Great Debaters also features Forest Whitaker as James Farmer Sr. John Heard plays the racist local sheriff. The film is produced by TV personality Oprah Winfrey.