Denzel Washington pulled triple duty on the dramatic film The Great Debaters. Washington not only stars as a professor who changed the lives of his students and put together a debate team talented enough to take on much larger universities, the Oscar-winning actor also produced and directed the film.
The Great Debaters is set in 1935 and is based on a true story. The film traces the emergence of a small African American college’s debate team from obscurity into the national limelight as they challenge the more prestigious debate teams, breaking down color barriers in pursuit of excellence. Washington says getting the film done was a four year process. “The script came across my desk, I think January of four years ago, next month,” said Washington. “I worked on the screenplay for a long time, between jobs I would shoot and come home. I would sit with the writers. I worked with Bob Eisele. When I came on the project Bob Eisele had written the original screenplay. When I came on it, Susan was working on the screenplay. I worked with her, then I worked with other writers, and then I went back to Eisele again.”
“It was a process. I might be home for four or five months, we would get work done, he or she would go off writing, they would send me stuff. I got home again and I would look at it. Then I guess I finished American Gangster in November of last year. The next day, I had forgotten about it that day, it was a long plane ride home from Thailand, and American Gangster was in my rear view mirror. It was done. I had a lot of time to work on it, then that intensified in the last four or five months before shooting began. I had enough time, I didn’t feel rushed.”
Asked at the Los Angeles press conference for The Great Debaters if he’s interested in telling more stories about African American history, Washington replied, “"I don’t know what I’m going to do next. I like to keep it close to my chest. This was just a good story, a really good story, and I call it a sports movie. In those days that is what they considered a spectators sport. It was a very popular event to go to, so that was interesting. There were 360 students at this college and they were going up against these big schools. That was very fascinating.”
“When I interviewed Mel Tolson’s son and Henrietta Wells, the character of Samantha Brooke (Jurnee Smollett), which is loosely based on her, she actually debated in 1931, what they talked about was how prepared they were. They weren’t intimidated. They were prepared. It was a sort of cocoon, if you will. It’s a movie so there are big dramatic strokes in it that didn’t necessarily happen in two hours of their life. Maybe it happened over the course of 20 or 30 years, maybe it took 5 or 10 years, but the fact of the matter was that when they got up on that stage and went against anyone, they were not intimidated by anyone.”
Washington continued, “In our film, we changed it. I said I wanted it to be Harvard, in actuality, the national champions were USC. There is no question that everybody they went against they beat. It didn’t matter who it was. Oxford, Harvard, USC, Cambridge, it didn’t matter."
Washington observed that the art of debate is being lost. “"We aren’t developing that muscle and magic like we used to. We went from spoken word, to radio, to television, to film, to computers. I got a letter from Henrietta Wells, one of the things that was beautiful about it was how well it was written. The penmanship was beautiful. Kids write like chicken scratch because they don’t have to write anymore.”
“It’s not the sport that it was, talking about current topics. You have this big debate but many times there will be 10,15, 20 in the audience. There are ways. It seemed to make a turnaround post World War II. I think that was the advent of television and it just wasn’t as popular anymore. I don’t know what that indicates.”
“It’s not like it was, but I think that spoken word still is popular. It’s no coincidence that we have hip-hop or rap. That just gets right back to poetry, whether you like what they are saying sometimes or not. There is still poetry out there, even bad poetry. So I didn’t do it in an obvious way, but I kind of wanted to make that connection - connect to the spoken word.”
Professor Tolson was a role model to many young, impressionable students looking for guidance. Academy Award-winner Washington’s also viewed as a role model by younger actors, but that didn’t play any part in deciding to fill the cast of the film with a group of relatively unknown actors. “I didn’t look at myself as a role model. It’s an opportunity, in this case and with these young people, to share what I’ve experienced with them, after 35 years of experience,” explained Washington. “At the same time, it was inspiring to me, too. To work with them and to work with Forest Whitaker was inspiring. He is a heavyweight in this business. He made a sacrifice to be in this film and that was great for me.”
The racial discrimination of 1935 portrayed in the film seems so long ago, but Washington’s quick to point out one chilling similarity between that decade to current events. “I’m on the cover of Ebony this month, Oprah and I, and it’s a nice cover, nice picture, and in the corner it talks about nooses,” said Washington. “The whole thing with the noose coming back now? I thought, ‘Wow, things have changed, but they haven't changed.’ On the January cover of 2008, the cover of Ebony magazine, it’s talking about the nooses. I guess it wasn’t even news back then and maybe that is the difference between then and now. It wasn’t even news then.”