The three year stars of “The Great Debaters” visited Dallas on the very day their fact-based movie, directed by Denzel Washington and co-starring him and Forest Whitaker, was nominated for a Golden Globe Award as best drama. Jurnee Smollett—who plays one of the members of a debating team at Wiley, a small black college in Texas that overcame the odds during the segregated 1930s to challenge squads from other universities (including a culminating match at Harvard)—had just gotten off the phone with ninety-six year old Henrietta Bell, the model for her character of Samantha Booke.
“[Samantha] was a composite,” Smollett said. “But the main thing is that she was the only female on the team. And she was the one that I tried to draw inspiration from. She helped me tremendously with my research, because when I read the script about a year and a half ago, I’d never heard about this story, and I started trying to find out…. I tried everything, couldn’t find anything. That’s one reason I wanted to be part of the project—because I didn’t know about it. I figured, not that may other people know about the story, either, and how many of us should know about it—a period of our history when there were so many people striving to defy their circumstances, using the power of the mind and the power of their tongues to do this. Henrietta said, ‘Education was the death of slavery, of mental enslavement. That was our ticket. You were either a sharecropper or an educated person.’ [These characters] are taking back something that had been stripped from them. If more of us would do that now, the world would be a much better place.”
Denzel Whitaker, who plays Samantha’s teammate James Farmer, Jr.—not a composite, but the man who became a celebrated Civil Rights leader, also emphasized the need for researching the characters. “The problem,” he said, “was that there’s not a great deal of [material on] James Farmer, Jr., when he was younger. Of course there’s a lot with him in the Civil Rights movement, which is passionate and inspiring. But this [story] before all of that. We had to find out background, and to do research they actually took us to Wiley College. We went to their library, and they had old books—textbooks, yearbooks, artifacts, printouts from newspapers, just everything we could grab onto about our characters. That was significant to me. And then D. sat down with me, and we talked about the role and kind of brainstormed how we would play him.”
Nate Parker said of his character, the brilliant but troubled rebel Henry Lowe, “My character is taken from Henry Heights, who was very much Henry Lowe. A lot of my research came from talking to Mrs. Henrietta and Mr. Melvin Tolson, Jr. [Washington plays the senior Tolson, the inspiring English teacher and coach who shaped the team into winners.] [Henry] had to deal with the day-by-day task of compromising himself as a black man because of his environment. He had to deal with the fact that he wasn’t considered the equal of his counterparts. That inner turmoil was what I really wanted to bring to the screen. He had to somehow put those demons down.”
When asked about being directed by—and playing scenes with—Denzel Washington, the trio were unanimously enthusiastic. “He was demanding, but I wouldn’t say demanding in a negative way,” Whitaker said. “I would say he expected you to really, really bring to the table what we were hired for. But the way he got it out of us was collaborative…he really respected our research. He never said, ‘Do it this way’—we’d never have to mimic him. He’d always come up to us and say, ‘What do you think about your character in this scene?’ or ‘How do you feel?’ And to me, it was like, ‘Why is this Academy Award winner, two times at that, coming up to me and asking me what I think?’ He trusted us on our research, and trusted that the information that we brought to him and the character we presented would be right for the movie. Denzel is all about collaborating. It’s definitely a team effort on the set.”
Smollett added, “The [Golden Globe] Award is kind of a celebration of all the sweat and all the tears that we collectively shed. Something I loved about his directing style [was that] he encourages you to do it a lot of different ways, seeing—as he says—‘what kind of stuff is in the air.’”
And Parker added, “I never once felt that I was acting ‘against’ Denzel, or Mr. Tolson. He stressed the importance of being honest to whatever moment you’re in. It was such a journey for all of us, and I never felt any opposition. Because this is Denzel Washington—he could have easily taken every scene, he could have made the movie ‘The Great Debating Coach’ if he’d wanted to. But that wasn’t his goal. I would even argue he did the opposite. In a lot of scenes he stepped back and allowed us to shine as young actors.”
The three showered similar praise on Forest Whitaker—especially Denzel (no relation), who plays the son of Forest’s character, the stern but loving preacher James Farmer, Sr. “He was so approachable, really a humble guy, so generous with his knowledge,” Whitaker said. “It was definitely a bond off screen, and I think that only helped our performances on screen.”
Whitaker and the others marveled especially over one scene that Forest and Denzel played together, done without any edits, in which their two characters argue over Tolson’s radical politics, moving from gentility to contention and then back again. “Just to watch these two heavyweights that I admire going at it in one scene, it was incredible,” Whitaker said. “To watch them butt heads, to watch the change from light-hearted conversation to how they heighten it to a serious tone—the levels—you would definitely see these are two seasoned actors. And they weren’t trying to overpower one another.”
In the end, the actors said, everyone’s effort was directed to being true to the story. That’s why Smollett took such pride in Henrietta Bell’s reaction to the film. “She said she was gratified that we did her character justice,” the young star recalled. And Parker and Whitaker expressed the hope that if the figures they were playing could have lived to see “The Great Debaters,” they’d feel the same way.