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Denzel Pulls Double-Duty in Issues-Oriented Great Debaters

  • Christa Banister Contributing Writer
  • Updated May 09, 2008
Denzel Pulls Double-Duty in Issues-Oriented <i>Great Debaters</i>

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.

"Things are changing. And we look at the world in terms of our 50 or 60 or 80 years that we're here," Washington said. "When you look back at 400 or 300 years of slavery, and five years or 10 years of legislation, everything's not just going to be perfect necessarily, in my generation or your generation.

"But we do have to understand our place in history, and that we have to keep fighting and keep moving forward. There has been a lot of progress,” Washington continues. “But in the film, I always show young people, and how it affected kids because racism is taught. Hatred is taught. Ignorance is taught. You're not born ignorant; it takes education, to have narrow opinions. It comes from somewhere. So until we stop passing it on, from generation to generation, it's not going to change completely. But it is changing."

Take Three: A Lesson in Humility

Although he’s got two Oscars to his credit, one for Best Supporting Actor in 1989’s Glory and one for Best Actor in 2001’s Training Day, Washington understands the importance of not getting too prideful and believing your own hype, which isn’t always easy to do in the Hollywood limelight.

"I've been around a long time. What it's taught me to do is not get too high and not get too low," Washington said. "What people will say, what people will give you for it, whether they will and whether they won't ... that's all really gravy.”

And while it’s been prognosticated that Washington will be nominated yet again for an Oscar for American Gangster and The Great Debaters, Washington remains modest about his chances. "For me, what success is for The Great Debaters is getting every young person in America to see it,” he shares. “If Oscars help that happen, whatever helps that happen, I'm all for it."
Take Four: Sparking a New Love for the Art of Debate

Washington also hopes his new movie helps revive the art of competitive discussion in schools in a day where television and computer games have largely killed the once revered competition.

In fact, he hopes the film encourages today’s teachers and professors to create debating classes. "We're not developing that muscle that imagines as we used to,” Washington says. “We went from spoken word to radio to television to film to computer.

"My kids write like chicken scratch because they don't have to write anymore. Debate is not the sport that it was. ... It seemed to make a turn around post World War II 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."

Washington believes that hip-hop and rap music is today’s modern debating. "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,” Washington says. “There's good poetry out there and bad poetry."

Point taken, and one on which many parents would probably even agree.

Starring Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Denzel Whitaker, Jurnee Smollett and Nate Parker, The Great Debaters is rated PG-13 (for depictions of strong thematic material including violence and disturbing images, language and brief sexuality) and releases in theaters nationwide on Christmas Day 2007.

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