The director gathers his cast around for a good old fashion debate
Last week, Denzel Washington brought a couple of cast members over to the Four Seasons to talk about his second directorial effort The Great Debaters. In the film, Washington stars as Melvin B. Tolson, a professor at Wiley College, East Texas. In 1935, he inspired students to form the school's first debate team, which went on to challenge Harvard in the national championship.
Set against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South and inspired by a true story, The Great Debaters chronicles the journey of a brilliant but volatile coach who uses the power of words to shape a group of underdog students from a small, modest black college in East Texas into an elite debate team while challenging the social mores of the time. The tale culminates with the group receiving a ground breaking invitation to debate Harvard's championship team.
Denzel had a lot to say about his latest project, as did the three cast members he drug along with him. They included Nate Parker, Denzel Whitaker, and Jurnee Smollett. Here is that conversation:
What is the best thing about directing?
Denzel Washington: That's a tough one. There's not one thing. I can't say the best thing about it. The best thing about it is getting the opportunity to do it. In this case, just seeing these three young people do what they've studied hard and worked hard to do. I know as an actor how difficult it is to get in this position, to get the opportunity to get good parts. People talk about Academy Awards and this and that. I always say you can't be considered unless you have a good role. And good roles are hard to come by. So all three of them have great roles and great opportunities.
Can you talk about being able to offer three young new actors this opportunity?
Denzel Washington: Well, if the movie had been about three 70-year-olds, I don't think it would have been new actors. They might have been. I didn't decide to do this film because I saw a great opportunity to work with young actors. I read a piece of material that interested me and that I was moved by. These were the young people that won the parts.
Can you guys talk about the importance of grounded speeches in our current political climate?
Denzel Whitaker: How do I feel about grounded speeches? Debate is all about relating your topics and being sincere as well as getting across the facts. In terms of politics, to have a grounded debate or a speech from someone like Barack Obama, I think it relates him to the people because democracy is all about the people. So, for him to relate to the people, that makes us feel that he is a better candidate.
Jurnee Smollett: Debate is about you believing in what you say and saying what you believe, and really shutting down your opponent with words. The key to it is being passionate. That was one of the things Denzel said to us when we went to debate camp. He was saying that technically we should be better debaters. He said, 'Y'all better win because you're actors and you should be able to believe what you say and be sincere.' I think that's what we were able to do at debate camp.
Denzel Washington: We set up a camp for the kids. I met Dr. Freeman, who's the debating coach at Texas Southern, which is one of the top debating schools in the country. I interviewed him and actually put him on film. I asked him if we could set up like a mini camp for the young actors. He put them through their paces.
Nate Parker: We arrived, we learned all about parliamentary and impromptu debate. Denzel was very adamant about us researching and us knowing what we were talking about and being well versed in the process of debate. We got with the Texas Southern University team and they took us through and gave us a crash course. Like Denzel said, we should be more persuasive being that we're actors. On the first day we learned debate and on the second day we broke into teams and we debated. If you could have seen us in our van driving over, Little Denzel has the paper open. Studying the day's facts. We took it very seriously and we defeated their freshman-sophomore team. It paid off. Any time you're going to be able to stand up in front of people and speak passionately about something, it helps for you to know what you're talking about. That's what helped us in the film. You see the film and you see these speeches that were of course written by someone else. But we studied and we researched all the details behind those speeches so we could be passionate. You know what I mean? They meant something to us so that we could be believable.
Did you win?
Nate Parker: Yes, we did.
Denzel Whitaker: Oh yes, we won.
Do you think you will direct more stories like this? Ones that focus on black history?
Denzel Washington: I don't know what I'm going to do next. I like to keep it close to the vest. This was just a really good story. I liked it. I call it a sports movie. You know, in those days, that's what they considered it. A spectator sport. It was a very popular event to go to. The fact that there were only 360 students at this college and they were going up against these big schools. That was very fascinating. I interviewed Mel Tolson's son and Henrietta Wells. The character that Jurnee plays is loosely based on her. She actually debated in 1931. And what they talked about was how prepared they were. They weren't intimidated. They were prepared. It was a sort of a 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 twenty or thirty years or five or ten years. But the fact of the matter was that when they got up on that stage and when they went against anyone, they were not intimidated. We did change some of it. I said I wanted it to be Harvard. In actual fact, the national champions were USC. But there was no question that everybody they went against they beat. So it didn't matter who it was. Oxford, Harvard, USC, Cambridge. It didn't matter.
What inspires you about Denzel Washington?
Nate Parker: What inspires me most about Denzel is his integrity. It wasn't even so much as watching him act or watching him direct, but just watching him in every other detail 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 went about it the wrong way, and you say to yourself, "Is it possible for me to be in this business for thirty-five years and hold onto my integrity?" If in thirty-five years I can look back on my career and say that I've walked around with a sense of morality and integrity, then I'll be happy. It was important for me watching him every day to see if that was who he was. He didn't let me down and every moment, whether it was off set or on the phone, he carried himself in a way that inspired me to be more like him in the future.
Jurnee Smollett: At the end of the day he was able to really just 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 doing this together, whether you were the prop master, whether you were in the background, whether you were doing wardrobe or whether you were in front of the camera. We were all making a film together. It was a team effort. And for him to be our leader and to be the one with the most awards, 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.
Denzel Whitaker: I've always looked up to him from the beginning of my acting career. I just love how he's humble. Everything he does is so intelligent. I write down his quotes. Everything he's told me, I have them on my computer right now. I look at them before I go to auditions. Just sitting behind his chair while he was filming, just seeing how he came on set. I remember I was talking to our producers Todd and Molly about this. Just when he came on set, he was passionate. You could see he loved what he does every day. He still has a love for it, for being in the game, and I just loved that. I'd love to be where he's at right now years later and have the same passion and do roles that are inspiring to other people.
Can you talk about putting the film together?
Denzel Washington: It was a four-year process. The script came across my desk about four years ago. I worked on the screenplay for a long time between jobs or when I would come back home. I'd sit with the writers. I worked with Bob Eisele. When I came on the project, Suzan-Lori Parks was working on the screenplay, I worked with her, then I worked with Horton Foote for a while, then I worked with Tom Everson, and then I ended up going back to Bob Eisele. So it was a process. I might be home for 4 months, 5 months, we'd get intense work done, he'd go off or she'd go off writing, they'd send me stuff, I got home again, I'd look at it, and then I guess I finished American Gangster November of last year. It was a long plane ride home from Thailand and by the time I landed, American Gangster was in my rear-view mirror. It was done. So I had a lot of time to work on this and then that intensified in the last four or five months before shooting in May. I had enough time. I didn't feel rushed. But at a certain point you gotta get on with it and let the actors start to speak, put everybody in a room. We'd sit in my office and we'd talk through a scene and tweak this and how do you feel about that line, and as they've heard me say, I sort of play all the parts anyway. In working on the screenplay, I would stand up and read them and just shape it and mold it. The process didn't finish until Tuesday when they finally took the picture from me.
In the film, you play a role model. Did you look to any role models you've had in your own life?
Denzel Washington: I guess. I've reflected on everything else. I guess I did. I don't really look at myself as a role model. It's an opportunity in this case, with these young people, to share what I've experienced with them; you know, thirty-five years of experience. At the same time, it was inspiring for me too to work with them, to work with Forest Whitaker who is a heavyweight in this business and for him to make a sacrifice, which he did, to be in the film was great for me. So no, there wasn't any one person I thought about. I felt an obligation but a connection, if you will, with Mel Tolson and with Dr. Farmer.
Did you ever look to Spike Lee for directorial advice?
Denzel Washington: We didn't talk a lot but I have a greater appreciation, even in the first film I directed, especially, a greater appreciation for what he does as a director. I had no idea. I just thought, 'Action! Cut! Press junket!' There's a little bit more than that. I had studied Spike's film. I've been very fortunate to have worked with some great filmmakers so I went back and I looked at a lot of their work and suddenly things clicked and make sense that I may have learned from them. From Spike, from Ed Zwick, Jonathan Demme or Ridley Scott or whoever that I hadn't been able to apply yet. But now, as a filmmaker, I'm able to apply them. All of that was getting stored in the computer and now I'm getting a chance to use it.
How did you guys relate to the time period?
Denzel Washington: We're on the cover of Ebony this month, Oprah and I. It's a nice cover, nice picture and, in the corner, it talks about nooses, the whole thing that's going on with the noose coming back. I'm like 'Wow! Things have changed but they haven't changed.' On the January cover for 2008, the cover of Ebony magazine is talking about nooses. I guess it wasn't even news then. Maybe that's the difference between then and now. It's news. It wasn't even news back then.
Denzel Whitaker: What I have to say about that is, first of all, I'm playing a real life person, James Farmer Jr. First of all, I think there's a little pressure with wanting to do the actual person justice with playing the role. Just playing in a time period where African-Americans weren't accepted in society, it's hard and kind of devastating to see. Of course, I've learned about it in our history books and what not but to actually play the character is a little different because you could relate to what your ancestors were going through. We're thrown into situations, especially like the lynching scene or the pig farmer scene, and we're thrown into situations where they'll pull a gun on us or we're sitting in a car scared for our lives and we feel it as actors and, emotionally, we have a sense of disturbing images and kind of being scared in that situation. For me, it just brought me closer. It helps me to understand what I learned in the history books. It's not just text anymore. I could say that part of me kind of lived it. It's sad what America did. I look back on it and I definitely have a shame for America, a shame for human society as a whole. I'm glad we're coming far away and we're progressing ahead but things today like nooses and prejudice overall is still holding us back and, hopefully, with this film and other things in the future, we can overcome that.
Jurnee Smollett: Through the extensive research that we all had to do, as you dig deeper and deeper and just hear all the first-hand account stories of what it was like to live in the Jim Crow South and what it was like to live through the Great Depression and what it was like to know the fact that your cousin was lynched not too long ago and yet the government has declared a war on crime and left out lynching. It's this crazy feeling to know how society wants to dictate to you what place you should stand in. Yet, you have all these emotions going on inside, all this frustration feeling like 'Well, shouldn't I be entitled to be free?' So they knew that education was their ticket and that's what everyone told us. That's the thing a lot of the first-hand account stories were saying, that education was their ticket. You were either a sharecropper or you were an educated person. There was no in between. It speaks volumes to how far we have come and how far we have come in such a short amount of time. It was a lot. It was heavy, doing the research on the lynchings. There is this book called "Without Sanctuary" that talks about how the lynchings were photographed often times by the lynch mobs because they would take these pictures and put them on the back of these post cards and send them off to family members saying 'Look what we did on a Saturday night.' They had their children there and they had food there and they had the bands there. It was hundreds of people who would kidnap people from jails before they were given a fair trial. There was no such thing as a fair trial and so, when you digest all of this stuff, it sometimes hits you heavy on the heart and it's hard. But then, at the same time, it makes me very, very proud because I know I'm standing on the shoulders of great people. I'm standing on the shoulders of the Ida B. Wells and the people who really, really fought and I'm so humbled by it.
Nate Parker: Yeah. It was a task, as a black man in America in 1935, to be compromised every day, to have to say 'Yes, suh' instead of 'Yes sir,' to dumb yourself down in fear that you may be lynched, hung by your neck, dragged down the street without justice. It was a task to take on that as a character. What it did was create a turmoil inside of the character. Here you have a man that is very strong. Born in 2007, he could be Obama. He was very intelligent but, in the period that he was born, he was put in a place where he'd be walking on the sidewalk and if an 8-year-old Caucasian boy was walking down the street, he'd have to get off the sidewalk. And there's something to be said about having to literally compromise yourself every single day. No matter how much you know. You can read a thousand books but when you see a young white boy that says 'Hi,' you have to say 'Hi, suh.' It was just a task to take on that burden, to take all that in and make myself vulnerable to it and allow that turmoil to come out on screen. It was definitely a great responsibility. I remember we had all this research they'd given us like pictures of lynchings and I lined them up across my mirror to remind me every day when I walked into that trailer, what my job was. I think, as an actor, sometimes you're tempted to surface certain things. You've done your research, you walk on set and you do a scene, but I think that those pictures reminded me of the veracity of that time period. That these were people that, without any kind of trial, were killed and there were no reports and it was expected that no one would care. So, I tried to remember that. I tried to carry that in my heart, carry that in my step, everywhere I walked when I was on set and I was in scenes, that was the chip on my shoulder. It wasn't just 'I want to be a rebel,' it was 'I'm drinking to suppress those demons, that constant reminder that I was inferior.' 'I' meaning, of course, the character. So with all our research it was a responsibility for us all to tell the truth of these people so that, when you looked on that screen, you saw truth, you saw what they went through, not actors acting.
Do you think we are losing the art of debate?
Denzel Washington: We're not developing that muscle that imagines as well as 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, the penmanship. My kids write like chicken scratch because they're used to typing on the computer. They don't have to write anymore. It's not the sport that it was. Talking to Dr. Freeman, they do have these big debates but he said many times there will be ten, fifteen, twenty people in the audience. There were others ways to... it seemed to make a turn around post World War II. I think, with the advent of television, it just wasn't as popular anymore. I don't know that it ever will be like it was but I think the spoken word still is popular. It's no coincidence that one of the dominant themes contributing to our culture now is Hip-Hop or Rap which is getting right back to poetry whether you like what they're saying sometimes or not. There's good poetry out there and bad poetry. And, I kind of wanted to... I didn't do it in any obvious way, but I wanted to make that connection to the spoken word. It was important for me to have young people speak so that 'F the police' is not the only thing young people have to say. But that is somehow what we end up writing about or what ends up on the airwaves but there are other rappers as well that are very intelligent, that have a lot to say like Common or A Tribe Called Quest or other groups. These guys are basically doing what rappers say, they're spittin' in competition. It's verbal jujitsu, right?
Nate Parker: Absolutely.
What do you hope younger audience members take from the film?
Nate Parker: That environment is not an excuse anymore. I think that if our characters could sit here now and tell you all the things, the many obstacles they had to overcome to simply graduate high school, to simply get accepted to college, to have to walk around on their campus and still, in the back of their mind, to be worried about having a pick-up truck come down and maybe picking them up for fun and ending their life. I just want these young people to understand that they can overcome their environment, period. They can overcome their environment, and it's inside of them. You know, a lot of people say, 'I didn't have support.' Then you pursue a teacher. Find a teacher that will inspire you. Find a guidance counselor. Look for someone that can 'have your back' in your journey, but don't allow your environment to put a glass ceiling on your success or progress in life.
Denzel Whitaker: For me, it'd be basically just get out 'knowledge is power,' of course. You know, that's always the message in life. But I kind of really understand it from doing this movie, and I really want to get that across, just for kids even my age, and my peers. I was watching Chris Rock the other day, and he was talking about, you know, some people take pride in being dumb. And you know, I thought it was funny, I thought it was a joke. But then when you really look at it, some people do. Some people don't take education seriously. And just like in that time, education was their only way out. You know, knowledge was the only way they were going to overcome, and getting every body's voice out. It was up to these debaters to get their voice out and let America know what we were feeling. And nowadays, with so many outlets...I mean, you got pod casts, you got the Internet, of course, and even in school, you have so many resources to get your voice heard, and yet I don't feel we're taking the opportunity to get our opinion out there, let it be known. And really, we're not even striving for education as much as we want to. So for me, just get out that education is important, knowledge is power, and that, as Jurnee said earlier, it's something to be said about shutting your opponent down with words instead of your fists. Even today--I'm not going to go all governmental on you guys--some people could take note from that. So let's get that word out.
Jurnee Smollett: And just to add that we, as young people, don't have to be voiceless bystanders. We can be pro-active. We have to get out there, you know? Whatever your passion is, whatever your cause is, we are all taking up space on this planet, and there's something about us not just absorbing everything and inhaling all the air. You know, we have got to take care of each other, we have got to give back, we've got to be pro-active. Like you were saying, there's so many things, so many different ways we can get our voices out there. There's the Internet, there's You Tube, there are so many different ways we can be creative. Marching and everything that our founding fathers of the civil rights movement did, there are so many other ways that we can do it today.
Denzel Washington: I would add also that it is our responsibility as adults, as parents. The bottom line was an environment was created for these young people at Wiley College. It didn't happen in a vacuum. It didn't happen in a vacuum. One of the things that was important to me, part of this story to tell, was that this young boy thought that his father was being less than a man, or that he had to kowtow, or that he had to shrink himself when he comes up against these pig farmers, and maybe he thought that Tolson was more of a rebel and more of the sexy guy, the hipper guy. But in the 11th hour, it was his own father that got Tolson out of trouble. So it is still our responsibility as adults to create an environment, which we have not done. If you look at politics or anything else, we spend so much time on the negative. And I'm not pointing fingers, but we have to create an environment. 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, you know? There's a line I say in the film. 'I and every other professor are here to help you...' Whatever Farmer and Tolson's differences were, it was because they cared about these young people. And we have to do that. And I'm sure people in this room do it. In your profession, do you bring young people in, do you mentor them, do you allow them to walk around a newsroom? I'm sure most of you do. And this is what we have to do. We just can't say, 'Well, it's up to them and they've got to figure it out.' James Farmer, Jr. and Henry Heights and Henrietta Wells did not excel in a vacuum. It was because somebody was there and someone made the sacrifice for them to excel.
The Great Debaters is set to hit screens this Christmas on December 25th, 2007.