Even though Denzel Washington has a penchant for portraying some pretty intense characters on the big screen (think Frank Lucas in this year’s American Gangster), he was the picture of composure at a recent press junket in Los Angeles for The Great Debaters.

In fact, as the majority of the journalists attending the event directed their questions to Washington, who was also joined by three of the film’s younger actors (Denzel Whitaker [no relation to either Denzel Washington or Forest Whitaker], Jurnee Smollett and Nate Parker), the soon to be 53-year-old actor reminded everyone that all the attention directed his way was only because “I’m the old guy.”

And his self-deprecating humor, not to mention a passion for his new movie that’s inspired by Wiley College’s winning debate team of the early 1930s, certainly made for some lively conversation during the weekend Q&A session.

Take One: Acting and Directing

When asked why he decided to direct and star in The Great Debaters, Washington didn’t mince words or put a slick public relations spin on what actually happened. “It's strictly business. I didn't want to star in the film,” he said. "But it was strictly to get the money. Basically, the studio said, 'Well, if you're not in the film, your budget is this. If you're in the film, this is the budget.' They sort of back you into a corner; they give you a budget that they know you can't make a movie for.

"And then I said, 'OK, I'll play a small role in it.' But that still wasn't enough money to make the kind of picture I wanted to make. And it's not a big-budget film; we only spent $25 million. But basically the number was going to be more like $10 or $12 million. So to make a film for that—which is a lot of money—but a period film ... it was going to be very difficult. So I am assuredly not interested in being in the films I direct, at all."

The Great Debaters marks Washington’s second appearance in the director’s chair (Antwone Fisher was his directorial debut in 2002), something he considers a “privilege.”

“Right now, this is new and exciting at this point in my life,” Washington shares. “I'm passionate about it, but I have no plans to direct another film right now; I'm going back in front of the camera, probably for the next couple of years, until my twins graduate from high school, at least. But Clint Eastwood is my hero. I really want to do both."

But what initially attracted Washington to The Great Debaters project wasn’t the opportunity to direct, however. It was the story that “moved him.” “When my agent sent me the script, I thought it was an interesting story about these young kids in this small school and how they overcame the odds. It’s like The Little Engine That Could—going against the great universities of the 1930s.”

In The Great Debaters, Washington plays Melvin B. Tolson, a man considered to be one of the best African American poets of the 20th Century. In the movie, however, Tolson’s belief in the power of communication, particularly in debate, is what motivates his students to make history—even against a revered university like Harvard, where the climactic final scenes takes place.
Take Two: Commentary on Racism

Since The Great Debaters is set in the Jim Crow South, the embarrassing prejudice that was so commonplace in that moment in history is also a prevalent theme in the movie. But Washington found the film’s message, how the power of knowledge was the key that could escalate these kids from underdogs to victors in a very uncertain time, inspiring and relevant—even for today.