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Articulation, Astuteness, Accomplishment, Assertiveness…the list goes on. Words we've all heard before --somehow, when used to describe the tenets of the black community-- doubters are seemingly surprised, sometimes questioning that these attributes reflect the ethical code of our cultural heritage in this country; objectives gleaned from hard-working parents of the deep South who wanted more for their children, burdened by a racist society that often denied access.
I speak of a period in our history that predates most contemporary assumptions about today's society, particularly where black youth are concerned.
Well, along comes an epic tale that unveils not only the aptitude and fortitude of our ancestors, as well as the hope for young minds of the future, but also displays the resilience of the indomitable spirit that cannot be snuffed out.
THE GREAT DEBATERS is a film for the ages: redeeming, brilliant and absorbing with a cast that is equally exemplary. While my praise of this film may seem lofty, it is a reliable, dramatic account of Professor Melvin B. Tolson's triumphant reign as coach of the storied Wiley College debate team and their acclaimed run as national champions (circa 1930s).
DEBATERS cast includes: Nate Parker (Pride, Dirty), Jurnee Smollett (Roll Bounce, Eve's Bayou) and Denzel Whitaker (The Ant Bully, Training Day) talked about their roles in this laudable work, helmed by Oprah Winfrey and two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington (as Tolson).
Prolific and award-winning author Alice Walker (The Color Purple) called THE GREAT DEBATERS, “a gift.”
Q. In your portrayal of James Farmer, Jr, you deliver a powerful speech during the Harvard debate scene; since presidential candidate Barack Obama attended Harvard, do you see any parallels in his candidacy?
Denzel Whitaker (cast as James Farmer, Jr.) The way I feel about the Harvard speech is (that) debate is all about relating your topics and being sincere as well as getting across the facts. So, to have a debate or speech delivered (by Barack Obama) that addresses our democracy is a speech about the people and it relates him to the people. For him to relate 'to the people' makes us (the Debaters) feel that he is a better candidate.
Q. What is your interpretation of “debate?”
Jurnee Smollett (cast as Samantha Booke): I would just have to agree with little Denzel (17-year-old Whitaker). Debate is about you believing 'what you say' and 'saying what you believe.' It's not about shutting your opponent down with words, the key to it is being passionate and that was one of the things that “D” said to us (referring to Washington) when we went to debate camp. He said that technically, “we” should be better debaters and that we'd better win because we're actors. He said we should be better because as actors we should be believable and sincere.
Nate Parker (cast as Henry Lowe): We arrived (at Texas Southern University) and learned all about parliamentary (procedures) and impromptu debate. (Big) Denzel was very adamant about us doing research and knowing what we were talking about as well as being well-versed in the process of “debate.” The team at Texas Southern took us through and gave us a crash course. The first day, we learned “how to debate” and the next day we “debated.” In preparation for our debate against the team, we read the Wall Street Journal, watched CNN, MSNBC and anything we could get our hands on and it paid off. It's a testament to research and preparation. Anytime you're going to stand up in front of people and be passionate about an issue it helps to know what you are talking about. That preparation is what helped us in the film. When you see the film and you see us give speeches that were written by someone else, we have studied and prepared and have learned all the details behind those words so that they meant something special to us.
Q. Did you win the debate at Texas Southern?
All: Yes, we did (laughter).
Q. What inspires each of you about working with Denzel Washington?
Nate Parker: It's his integrity. It wasn't so much as watching him perform and direct but watching him in every other detail and aspect of his life. As a young actor, being in this business, 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 to be in this business for 35 years and hold onto my integrity. If I can look back on my career 30 years from now and know that I've maintained a sense of morality and integrity then I'll be happy. So, it was important to me in watching him everyday to see if that was 'who he was' and he didn't let me down. Every moment, whether it was off set or behind the camera, he carried himself in a way that inspired me to be more like him.
Jurnee Smollett: I would just add to what Nate is saying. His humility and devotion to the project was so impressive. At the end of each day he was able to check his ego at the door. He was so devoted to making the project honest and to being the ultimate collaborator. As the director, it was his vision, but he made us all feel that it was our project, together. He was that way with everyone on the set whether you were doing makeup or wardrobe or whatever. He made everyone feel that they were invested in the project. It was a team effort and for him to be our leader --with the most awards-- and ask what “we” thought was so amazing to me. Those aspects spoke volumes about his character.
Denzel Whitaker: Personally, I've always looked up to him from the beginning of my acting career. Everything he does is so intelligent. All the advice and quotes he's given to me I wrote down and keep them in my computer. I look at them before I go to auditions. I particularly liked watching him when he came on set. He was passionate everyday and you could tell that he loves what he's doing, still. I, too, would like to be where he's at right now, still with the same passion and love for the work and taking on projects that inspire other people.