Oprah Winfrey says she always wanted to work with two-time Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington. Washington, a movie star who's been in the game for 25 years, is always looking to step up his game. So, when these two titans joined forces to bring to the big screen one of the most inspiring stories of our time – a movie about an all Black college debate team, you had to know “The Great Debaters” would be awesome. And it is!
Quite simply: The film honors the power of knowledge.
As Denzel Washington puts it in the movie to his young students at Wiley College, “your words are weapons”. It brings to mind something our parents have always told us – knowledge is power. A good education is your way out of poverty and your way up in the world.
The movie, which is nominated for a Golden Globe award, is set in 1935. Based on true story, “The Great Debaters” is inspired by Wiley College professor Melvin B. Tolson – played by Washington and the phenomenal success of his all Black debate team during one of the roughest and toughest racial times in this country's history in the Jim Crow South.
The film, produced by Oprah's Harpo Films, follows the struggles to build the debate team and find willing opponents at white colleges open to spar with the Black students played by Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker (no relation to Denzel or Forest Whitaker who also stars in the film) and Nate Parker.
During the L.A. Sentinel's advanced screening last week, the audience filled with many young people literally cheered throughout the film. With every victory and every challenge, you grow more and more invested in the film and the characters. You want them to win. And in the process, you learn a few debate skills of your own. (As Washington told his team – you wouldn't punch yourself in a street fight so don't punch yourself in a word fight. Use humor against your opponent, not yourself)
To keep it real, Washington sent the young actors through training with a real debate team. “We set up a debate camp. I met Dr. Freeman who's a debate coach at Texas Southern University – one of the top debate schools in the country – so I interviewed him and we set up a mini camp for the young actors and put them through their paces,” said Washington who was adamant about the actors researching and knowing what they were talking about and being well versed in the process of debate.
“Debaters” marks Washington's second time in the director's chair, following his 2002 film, “Antwone Fisher.” As in “Fisher,” Washington not only directs the movie, but stars in it as well. How he'd do it? It's clear to the Oscar winner, this is a real gift that he's not taken for granted. It's his chosen craft. He's studied it and perfected it so that everything he does seems effortless.
“When I'm directing, I can't focus the way I'm used to focusing as an actor. I've always taken 40 deep breaths for relaxation. We didn't have much time for that. Fortunately, I'm a good actor and I'd do 2-3 takes and move on and get to the others,” said Washington. And what he pulled out of the young actors will thrill you.
“This was just a really good story. The best thing about it is getting the opportunity to do it,” Washington says of directing “Debaters”. “Good roles are hard to find and I was truly moved by this when I read the material.” To all who know him, the director's chair seems to be a phenomenal fit for the actor. “I've never seen him happier,” says his wife, Pauletta Washington at the movie's premiere in Los Angeles. “This is his passion.”
“Directing is about collaboration, the production, the scripts, the actors, I love it. I love everything about it especially seeing these young people do well,” adds Washington. “And the fact that there were only 360 students at this college and they were going up against these big schools – that was fascinating.”
Washington interviewed Melvin Tolson's son and Henrietta Wells, the character that Jurnee Smollett plays in the film is loosely based on her. “What they talked about is how prepared they were, they were not intimidated,” said Washington. And it was Washington's decision to make Harvard the final challengers. In real life, little Wiley College knocked off USC, the real national debate champs.
Perhaps that's why Washington keeps calling “Debaters” – the little movie that could. He knows he's done something spectacular, however, the 52-year old A-lister won't say he's proud of what's he's done, but his producer Oprah Winfrey will. “I went into the ugly cry,” said Winfrey after watching the rough cut and confessing she wrecked her eye makeup. “I am truly proud of this film and the message.”
It's no wonder that young people who have seen the movie are inspired too! “To say, I'm inspired is an understatement,” said one student leaving the theatre. “I loved everything about it.”
The love is spreading. Enrollment at Wiley College is up. For the first time in 40 years, there are 900 students at the school. The administration building was given a face-lift – thanks to Oprah, Denzel and the filmmakers.
One week ago, Washington gave the ultimate gift. He put his money where his heart is. He donated $1 million dollars to revive the Wiley College debate program. Wal-Mart has endowed a Melvin B. Tolson Scholarship fund worth $100,000.
Is it possible that Wiley College could return to its glory years? Let's hope it does and let's hope it inspires a whole new generation of leaders. In the movie, you learn the school went undefeated for 10 years – beating not only Black schools, but white ones too! You also learn the college went on to groom civil rights leaders like James Farmer Jr. and Herman Sweatt, whose lawsuit against the University of Texas law school in the 1040's helped pave the way for public school integration.
We're witnessing something phenomenal here. It's clear this is movie AND a movement that every African American should be a part of and support.
Get on board. We've wanted Hollywood to tell these kinds of stories for some time. Borrowing from one of the most emotional moments in the film, I must say – “The Time is Now!. Go to the theatres, encourage everyone you know to go see and support the “The Great Debaters.”
Denzel and Oprah gave us all a great gift this Christmas.