Kimberly Elise walks the talk.
Beloved by fellow thespians and fans alike, the Minnesota-born actress captured the world stage with her breathtakingly poignant portrayal as a timid ingénue in Beloved, the film adaptation from prized author Toni Morrison (awarded the Pulitzer, Nobel and Tony awards among others).
Elise’s “Beloved” costar, Academy Award nominee, philanthropist and talk show titan Oprah Winfrey described her as one of the best actors of our time.
Several movies later (among them: “Set It Off,” “Pride,” “John Q” and Tyler Perry’s smash hit “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” Elise and Winfrey are brought together again in the critically praised biopic, “The Great Debaters,” starring two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington (“Glory,” “Training Day”), Oscar winner Forest Whitaker (“Last King of Scotland”), Jurnee Smollett (“Eve’s Bayou”), Nate Parker (“Pride”), Jermaine Williams (“Stomp the Yard”) and Denzel Whitaker (“The Ant Bully”).
Winfrey’s Harpo Films produced “The Great Debaters” in partnership with The Weinstein Company and Metro Goldwyn Mayer.
Transforming in her role as Pearl Farmer the devoted wife and supportive mother, through this composite figure, Elise harmonizes the adversarial interplay between her character’s intellectual though pragmatic husband, the righteous Rev. James Farmer Sr. (F. Whitaker), and their teenage son, Junior (D. Whitaker, no relation to F. Whitaker), who pushes back against his father’s perceived tolerance of a racist Jim Crow South.
This is a dramatic period piece, set in the 1930s in Marshall, Texas, home of the historic Wiley College, for which this story centers. Elise’s northwest upbringing shed no light on this slice of African American history of which she found inspiring to learn about Wiley’s legacy and fame as national debate champions during that era under the tutelage of Professor Melvin B. Tolson (Washington).
Albeit, the incendiary ethics of Tolson whose seemingly forceful approach to eradicating the social ills of the South was also met with resistance from James Farmer, Sr., the powerfully dynamic and opposing figures shared a mutual respect that cradles their unlikely partnership in this absorbing account.
Elise’s Pearl, seen and rarely heard from, is a trajectory of compassion and strength in “Debaters.” Her artistic interpretation embodies the essence of this stoic character, a true testament to Elise’s maturity and creative sensibilities in knowing what to do with a good role when it comes her way.
Agile and dexterous on and off screen (Elise is a runner), I spoke to the divorced and private mother of two teenage daughters about her imprint on “The Great Debaters.”
LA Sentinel: Tell me how you took so little yet packed so much into your abbreviated onscreen role as Pearl Farmer. The performance was memorable, powerful. How did you inform your character?
Kimberly Elise: Thank you. She’s (Pearl) a great character and Denzel is a great director, simply put. Working with so many fantastic actors on this movie was such a great aspect too. I also had a commitment to showing as much of this woman as I could in a limited amount of screen time that was available to her in a way that would help to elevate everything else.
LA Sentinel: I truly appreciate your modesty, but, I am really asking you to go further into describing your abilities and talented arsenal of on screen talent. You are a remarkable actress.
Elise: It’s the same thing I do for any film role, whether large or small, and that’s just trying to go to a truthful source to surrender the character and allow it to flow.
LA Sentinel: As an actor, you’ve had an opportunity to work alongside Denzel Washington on two other occasions (“The Manchurian Candidate,” “John Q”). Describe the experience working with him in the director’s chair?
Elise: The biggest difference I saw between ‘Denzel the director’ vs. ‘Denzel the actor’ was his aura on the set. He was so passionate about making this film. He’s a very intelligent man and that’s what you have to be as a director. There are so many demands on your intelligence and your vision and I think that was very stimulating for him and very exciting. As actors, typically, we’re very singular and our “own person” kind of goes away so that your character can step forward. This sort of gave me a more full perspective of Denzel as “Denzel” and this really excited, euphoric, never-sitting-still energy that he exhibited on this project.
LA Sentinel: While this film is filled with electric masculine performances, enough cannot be said about young Jurnee Smollett whose portrayal of Samantha Booke (inspired by Henrietta Wells) was exhilarating. Share a bit about working with her.
Elise: First of all, when I heard that Jurnee got the part I was dancing all around my house just overjoyed. She’s one of my favorite actresses—young or old—and I thought that this was a special part that called for a special actress. I think Jurnee cast as Samantha was the perfect match. I hadn’t seen her in a while so, when we first saw each other at rehearsals, it was like two old friends running toward each other, as fast as they can, laughing and hugging each other. We were so happy to see each other and I was so happy for her. I was happy that she would get a chance to have the light shine on her so brightly.
LA Sentinel: A very celebrated arc of this film is the balance of the contributions made from the women in the story, what they brought to the debate and the telling of this story. During a screening of “Debaters,” both Alice Walker and Angela Davis were in attendance and they got a chance to speak to the young debaters (Parker, Smollett and D. Whitaker, also in attendance) in a Q&A following the movie. It was such a powerful moment in contemporary history, given the attachment of Oprah Winfrey to “Debaters,” who received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for Alice Walker’s “Color Purple;” along with the monumental significance that Angela Davis has brought to the discussion about women in our society made it a surreal occasion. Could you speak to the largesse of women and our role in the history of this film?
Elise: That’s so interesting because I had a Caucasian studio executive ask me, “Why would you want to take such a small role in the movie?” I let them know that I was coming from a whole different perspective. I informed them that this movie reflects my history and these characters are ‘my people’ and, that we were all ‘a voice’ in this film. Further, that I was not so egotistical that I had to have a big part or be in every scene to know that I was making a difference. I knew that mine (Pearl) was a voice of power and that it helped bring that story to fruition. I think as women, that’s what we do: we’re willing to step into whatever role or position we’re called for and it’s an honor to be a part of this film.
Moreover, I did it because I am there for Oprah in whatever she’s doing because she is such a magnificent force. But, even if she had not been producing this film, I would have wanted to be a part of it because it is so important. What’s the use of having the gift if you can’t share it at all levels? So, that’s how I feel about it as a woman and as a black woman. I will step up in any capacity that I can because it’s going to make a difference.