The Great Debaters is inspired by the true story of how professor Melvin B. Tolson (played by Denzel Washington) formed the first debate team at Wiley College -- a black liberal arts institution -- in the 1930's Jim Crow south. The film was just nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Picture of the Year, and it co-stars Forest Whitaker. Debaters is Washington's second film as a director (his first was Antwone Fisher). Cinematical attended a press junket earlier this month with Washington and the film's young debaters: Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett, and Denzel Whitaker. Yes, the co-star of a movie with Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker is named Denzel Whitaker! To avoid confusion, we'll refer to them as they refer to themselves -- Big Denzel (Washington) and Little Denzel (Whitaker).
What did you guys do to prepare for this film?
BIG DENZEL: We set up a camp for the kids. I met Dr. Freeman, who is the debating coach at Texas Southern, which is one of the top debating schools in the country. I interviewed him and put him on film and asked if we could set up a little mini-camp for the young actors and he put them through their paces.
NP: We arrived and learned all about parliamentary and impromptu debate. Denzel was very adamant about us researching and knowing what we were talking about, and being well versed in the process of debate. So we got the Texas Southern University team, and they took us through it and gave us a class course. They told us we should be more persuasive, being that we're actors! So the first day we learned about debate, the second day we broke into teams and we debated. And the morning of, we were watching CNN and MSNBC and reading the Wall Street Journal. You should have seen us, we took it very serious, and we defeated their freshman and sophomore team.
BIG DENZEL: This was just a really good story. I call it a sports movie. In those days, that's what they considered it, a spectator sport -- it was very popular. That was interesting to me, the fact that there were only 360 students at this college and they were going up against all these big schools. When I interviewed Mel Tolson's son and Henrietta Wells -- the character Jurnee plays is loosely based on her, she debated in 1931 -- what they talked about is how prepared they were. They weren't intimidated. It's a movie, so there are big dramatic strokes in it that maybe didn't happen in two hours in their life. Maybe it happened over 5 or 10 years. But the fact of the matter is, when they got up on that stage, they were not intimidated by anyone. In our film, we changed it. I said I wanted their opponent to be Harvard. In actual fact, the U.S. champions were USC. There was no question that everybody they went against they beat, so it didn't matter who we had them up against in the movie, Oxford, Harvard, USC. Didn't matter.
What about Big Denzel inspired you?
NP: His integrity. It wasn't even so much watching him act or direct but watching him in every other detail of his life. As a young actor, sometimes it's difficult. You see what Hollywood has done to certain people who have gone about it the wrong way, and you say to yourself, "Is it possible for me to be in this business for 35 years?"
BIG DENZEL: Watch it, watch it!
NP: ...but hold on to my integrity. If in 35 years I can look back on my career and say I did things with a sense of morality and integrity, then I'll be happy. It was important to me watching him every day, to see if that was who he was. And he didn't let me down. In every moment, whether he was on set, off set, on the phone -- he carried himself in a way that inspired me to be more like him.
BIG DENZEL: Wow. So there!
JS: In addition, it's his humility and his devotion to the project. At the end of the day, he's able to check his ego at the door and was so devoted to making the project honest and being the ultimate collaborator. He was our leader, it was his vision. But at the end of the day, we were all in it together. It was a team effort. For him to be able to check his ego at the door and ask us what we thought was so amazing to me. It spoke volumes about his character.
LITTLE DENZEL: Personally, I've always looked up to him, from the beginning of my acting career. He's so comfortable in everything he does. He's so intelligent.
BIG DENZEL: Ha! I'm a good actor!
LITTLE DENZEL: But seriously, everything he's told me I have on my computer. I look at his words every time I go on an audition. He is so passionate, you can see that he loves what he does every day. And he still has a love for it. I want to be where he's at years from now and have the same passion, and to do the roles that are inspiring other people.
Denzel, you're a mentor to these young actors. As a director, who do you look up to as a mentor?
BIG DENZEL: I have a great appreciation now for what a director does. I had no idea! I just thought it was Action, Cut, Press Junket. There's a little bit more than that. I've been very fortunate to have worked with a lot of great filmmakers. I went back and I looked at a lot of their work and suddenly things clicked and made sense. What I learned from Spike Lee, from Ed Zwick, from Jonathan Demme or Ridley Scott or whoever -- all of that was getting stored in the old computer and now I'm getting a chance to use it.
Is the film affecting the real-life Wiley College, where the original debaters came from?
JW: There was an article on the front page of the New York Times saying enrollment was up, and the studio gave this whole makeover to the exterior part of the campus. I was so proud because this little college in Texas has given birth to so many great minds. We're giving a salute to everyone who has come before us, the people who have worked so tirelessly to make it where we can sit up here and talk with all of you. I'm very proud.
LITTLE DENZEL: I'm glad we're finally getting our message out. People are becoming interested in debate. We're trying to get out that intelligence is powerful and it's cool to be intelligent. So to see high enrollment rates and people interested in school, I think we're already getting what we set out to do.
NP: We had a screening a couple of nights ago and a young man stood up, maybe 15, and he expressed what the film meant to him -- that knowledge is power. You need to go to college. He said that something clicked inside of him when he saw the progress we gained because of the things that came out of our mouths. And that really hit me. Education is the key, it's the way out.
Are we losing the art of debating today or has it just morphed into something else?
BIG DENZEL: We're not developing that muscle that imagines like we used to. We went from spoken word to radio to television to film or computer. I got a letter from Henrietta Wells and one of the things that was beautiful about it was how well it was written. My kids write like chicken scratch because they don't have to write anymore. I don't know that debate will ever be as popular as it was but I think the spoken word is still popular. It's no coincidence that one of the dominant mediums contributing to our culture right now is hip-hop or rap. That's getting back to poetry, whether you like what they're saying or not. There's good poetry out there and bad, but I wanted to make that connection to the spoken word. It was important for me to make a movie where young people speak, so that "F the Police" is not the only thing we think young people have to say. That type of thing is what we end up writing about or what ends up on the airwaves, but there are other rappers that are very intelligent, that have a lot to say, like Common or A Tribe Called Quest or other groups. These young actor are basically doing what rappers do, they spittin' in competition. It's verbal jujitsu, absolutely.
The Great Debaters opens Christmas Day.