In Denzel Washington’s second directing effort, the Oprah Winfrey produced The Great Debaters, he takes what he learned from his debut, Antwone Fisher, and uses it to make the inspirational true story of one small all-black school’s rise to the top of the college debating ranks in the Jim Crow South.
Washington also stars in the film as the rebellious Melvin B. Tolson. Known for his American Modernist poetry and a contemporary of the Harlem Renaissance, in the ‘30s Tolson was a professor at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. There he coached the debate team and in 1935 his team beat the University of Southern Carolina for the national championship (though in the film they go up against Harvard for the title).
In a role that’s a far cry from the stern, calculated and brash Frank Lucas in American Gangster, Washington’s Tolson unveils a side of the actor we rarely see. Yes, he gives that Denzel stare when he needs it, but there’s also a playfulness about the character that at times makes him seem absentminded (he even spouts out a song or two). Then there’s the excellent casting of the three main debaters, Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett and Denzel Whitaker, who plays James Farmer Jr. at 14-years-old, the youngest of the debaters and the most famous, as he’d go on to co-found the Congress of Racial Equality and become a leading voice in the civil rights movement. The three virtual unknowns give riveting performances under the guidance of Washington. Rounding out the cast is Forest Whitaker (no relation to Denzel, or as Washington calls him “little Denzel”) who plays Farmer’s father who’s also a respected professor. Though he doesn’t have much screen time Whitaker makes the most of it, particularly one powerful scene where he accidentally hits a pig with the family car, and with his son watching on, must take the degrading comments from the white farmers who own it as he throws the dead carcass in the back of their truck.
In both Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters Washington took on the films with an interest to only direct them, not star, and you can see that as there are chunks of time in both films where Washington is nowhere to be found these aren’t vanity projects, instead Washington wants to show he can helm films that can be successful without having to carry the films. Washington makes some interesting storytelling choices in Debaters. One is the opening of the film, a stirring montage that shows Tolson and the three debaters’ path to the classroom set to a juke house tune. In a three-minute sequence you see the different environments all of them are coming from and inevitably use those experiences to become talented debaters.
Washington knows that to get what he wants he must first give the financiers what they need, and that’s his name up on the marquee as an actor.
He talked about this dilemma, along with taking artistic liberties with this lesser-known historical moment when Filmmaker interviewed him over the phone a week before the Golden Globe nominations where announced (the film got a nomination for Best Picture). The Weinstein Company opens the film on Christmas Day.
Filmmaker: How did you get involved with this project?
Washington: Oprah’s company has been working on it for ten years or so and about 4 years ago it came across my desk. I read it, I liked it, I thought it was very interesting. I sat down with Harvey Weinstein and his squad and the Harpo people [Oprah’s production company] and made a decision to do it. So in the last three years leading up to February of this year when we really went full blown into production, we just developed the material and worked with some great writers, the original writer, Tony Scherman and Robert Eisele and just [went through] the development process.
Filmmaker: Were you always looking at this as a directing venture?
Washington: I was brought on to direct, they were talking about acting and I wasn’t. But you know what are you going to do I understand it’s business, if I wasn’t starring in it the budget would have been about half of what it was, which was about $25 million, especially with the period piece like this, and people want to get paid too.
Filmmaker: So what was it about this that made you want to direct it?
Washington: By the time I got to the Harvard speech [at the end of the film] I was like, Oh man this just breaks my heart, this is great stuff. And I just liked it.
Filmmaker: Was Tolson someone that interested you or Wiley College?
Washington: I never had heard of Tolson and didn’t know about the college, I knew about James Farmer because of the Congress of Racial Equality, but didn’t know anything about it, so that was refreshing.
Filmmaker: And then you began researching?
Washington: Yeah. What really turned the corner was about two years ago, I had been down to Wiley a few times already, but this time we went down to Wiley and we tracked down Henrietta Wells who was on the 1931 team, she was the first female debater [Jurnee Smollett’s character, Samantha, was based on Wells]. So we flew her in, we flew in Mel Tolson’s son, who is a bright 80-plus year old and we just asked them questions and I video taped them and they were so sweet and there was so much history and I was like, Wow, this is amazing. We didn’t get them in the film, but I did shoot them and we’re going to incorporate them into the DVD. They are just walking history. So that’s when I really got excited and I said this has got to be done, here are the real people, and thank God we made the film because Henrietta is 96 now and she’s slowing down, she’s not doing too well but she got to see the film. Molly Allen, the co-producer, took a DVD of the film and showed it to her. She stood in front of the TV screen during the love making scenes. Henrietta was like, “No, we didn’t have none of those shenanigans.” [laughs]
Filmmaker: What was her reaction to the film?
Washington: I wish I could have been there but she was so proud. I mean we shot at Wiley. That’s why I look forward to next week, we’re doing a screening at Wiley and I said there’s no way I can miss that because that’s what it’s all about. It’s these kinds of stories, they don’t make the news and it’s a great story. This little town of Marshall in the eastern corner of Texas, these bright young people. It’s a unique situation because these professors, these two in particular, Farmer and Tolson, were highly educated men who couldn’t teach at Columbia or those kinds of schools in those days. So you had these high powered professors and you had only 360 students and it was just a great unique situation for learning and they were strong. And [the students] were fearless, they thought they could beat anybody. They were so well trained and studied so hard they said, “We knew we’re as good as anybody,” and they proved it.
Filmmaker: But like most “inspired by a true story” films you do take some liberties…
Washington: Like that in reality they beat the University of Southern Carolina not Harvard?
Washington: Yeah, we changed it, but they beat Harvard, too. USC was the national champions but who cares.
Filmmaker: You don’t feel like people who don’t know this history will see the film and be mislead?
Washington: That’s why it’s “inspired by a true story,” that’s what we say. And hey, when two people walk down the street in a movie there’s not a 97 piece orchestra playing behind them in real life. It’s a movie, its manipulation. It’s not a documentary and I’m not saying to anyone that it is, the bottom line was they debated the national champions in 1935 and outdid them, whether it’s Fordham, USC, Harvard. I believe they did go up against Harvard and Cambridge and Oxford and Michigan, but the two schools could decide whether it was a competition debate or non-competition debate and 9 times out of 9 the school against Wiley would choose non-decision because they didn’t want it to be known that they were beaten. And the reality was Wiley wasn’t allowed in the debating society back then so even when they won it wasn’t official because they were black. So there are all kinds of truths.
Filmmaker: That’s a whole other story.
Washington: Yeah, that’s a whole other movie, exactly. And I didn’t want to get bogged down in this so I’m the first one to say “inspired.”
Filmmaker: With this film you play a part that’s not the usual Denzel character we know. Tolson is very theatrical…
Washington: He sings. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Yeah. How did you go about developing this character?
Washington: Interviewing Henrietta and some of the other people from that time they said he was a bit absentminded, they said he’d come in wearing pajamas, two different color socks, and a buddy of mine, a professor at Harvard, he said, ‘Denzel, sometimes you got facts and figures in your head and you leave the building and you look up you’re two miles away and you don’t even know how you got there,” so these guys are just brains and there’s eccentricities. My hair is kind of crazy looking and I had no plan to sing actually, one day I just did it but the germ of the idea came from interviewing some of the people who were taught by Tolson.
Filmmaker: So you went in wanting to have fun with the character.
Washington: Yeah. I didn’t plan this, but it shows that education can be fun. We did a screening the other night for SAG members and there was a 15-16 year old kid there and he got up and talked about what he like about the film was that it showed it was cool to be the smart guy. And he was talking to us adults in the room basically saying everything we see on television is it’s not cool to be smart and he liked that. That’s why I like the casting of little Denzel, he’s sort of an awkward guy, he’s not the perfect handsome young hero but he’s smart and the character he plays is smart and yes he’s young and yes he’s not mature enough to get the girl and yeah she goes off with the other guy and he’s walking on his shadow on his way home, he’s a child but he’s smart and then Henry Lowe’s character was based on a real guy, Henry Hights who they said was quite the renegade, quite the womanizer and drinker but he was brilliant, he was probably one of Tolson’s most brilliant students. You look at Henry today, and this might be a stretch, but that guy today might have been a gang banger, he might have been a drop out and in fact it took Henry six or seven years to get through school and they stuck with him, the didn’t give up on him.
Filmmaker: I want to talk about the cast, especially the three main leads, were you involved or did Oprah say these are them?
Washington: No, to Oprah’s credit, she completely left me alone, she said, “It’s your baby, do what you want,” and I did. And casting was a long process and they won the parts. I kept bringing them in, I don’t know how many times they read, probably four or five or six different times they came in and I matched them up with different people and finally matched them up with each other and they deliver.
Filmmaker: Were you looking for a cast that wouldn’t be that widely known?
Washington: Well, unfortunately there aren’t that many African-American young actors that are widely known anyway. I mean Denzel Whitaker or who? Who is at his age that is widely known?
Washington: Yeah. End of story. [laughs]
Filmmaker: It seems with your directing projects you have to also act in them to really get the ball rolling on the project. What do you do to get that respect to attach yourself as a director without having to worry about also acting in it?
Washington: Make successful films. I think it’s a process. I don’t mind that I’m in it. I think I’m good casting, actually. For this role in particular, I could see how a director would want to cast me in it, it made sense.
Filmmaker: But does that frustrate you that you can’t just go by your directing merits?
Washington: No. Because I got to do what I wanted to do. And I said early on, I said, “You know what Denzel, either embrace it or don’t do it, you have a choice.” So I embraced it and I’m already getting offers to direct things that I’m not in. I mean Clint Eastwood, sometimes he’s in the films he directs sometimes he’s not.
Filmmaker: Why directing? In your career you’ve seen what directors go through on set, with studios, why do this?
Washington: I enjoy the collaboration. For me, just out of my own curiosity it’s a natural progression. I was more and more curious. I’m on the set all the time, 200 days out of a year or whatever it is and this guy is over here doing all of these things and I’m just curious, “Why do you have the camera over there? What’s that shot about?” And I remember some director told me, “You should think about directing you have good ideas,” and I’ve been developing material for 15-20 years anyway with a production company. It starts with developing your character, sometimes that requires rewriting and tweaking, there’s a lot of improvisation, like on Training Day I’d say 50 percent I said I made up anyway so you start directing yourself first then you help others, just a progression.
Filmmaker: What’s the progression been like from directing Antwone Fisher to this?
Washington: Preparation. Now I know what to do, I had no idea before, I was just in a panic. Now I know how to use my time. Staying later each night, getting there 2-3 hours early the next day, working on the weekends on what we’re shooting the following week. For me, I used to wonder why it took some directors so long between films and now I understand because it requires a lot and if you’re not passionate about it it’s too hard not to care. I wouldn’t want to be in a position to just be doing a job and fortunate for me I don’t have to be in that position, I got this other little side career going. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Yeah, the acting thing is a little something.
Washington: Yeah, just a little something. [laughs]
Filmmaker: I really liked the opening sequence to the film. Is that something that came together in post or did you always have an idea to open like that?
Washington: I sort of rewrote that. I was watching some movies and in the original screenplay the opening was more about Lowe at the club and his fight and there was another scene at school introducing the James Jr. character, and I remember watching The Hours and seeing how they’d intercut these different scenes to establish everybody and that’s where I got the germ of the idea and I just started putting the idea down on paper. I knew I wanted a heartbeat pumping under the whole thing and [music supervisor G. Marq Roswell] was bringing me all kinds of wild music and I said I want something thriving. I didn’t want to do a film about debating, laid back, I wanted to punch you right in the face before you knew what was going on and come in really hard and basically introduce all of the characters and get a sense of what’s going on and just developed it. I just wanted to get you right into the film. And you’re not sure what’s going on but it all makes sense later.
Filmmaker: How did you get Forest Whitaker involved? I don’t think you two have ever been in a film together.
Washington: No, never been in a film. And I just begged him to come on. He worked 14 days. I knew I needed someone with that weight on the other side to anchor the picture. For me, so much of the story is this 14-year-old boy’s decision about life. He sees Tolson and looks at him as the cooler guy who does what he wants yet his father bows down to a poor pig farmer. But at the 11th hour it’s his father that gets Tolson out of trouble so things aren’t always what it seems. And it all comes together for him with the speech at Harvard and little Denzel delivers.
Filmmaker: Any directing jobs coming up?
Washington: Nothing I’ll say but I’m working on a couple of things. I don’t want to direct anytime soon because my twins don’t graduate until June ’09 so I’m not directing anything before then.