Photo: Kwaku Alston
The first time I read the screenplay for The Great Debaters, I was riveted. But I wasn't prepared to be so deeply moved by it a second time, when I watched the film (which is coproduced by my company, Harpo Films) with its director and star, Denzel Washington. He showed me a rough cut; three tissues and one makeup-smeared face later, I had what I call an emotional headache (and I mean that in a good way).
The story is inspired by the life of Melvin B. Tolson, a professor at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, one of the first black Southern colleges. Tolson formed a champion debate team that dared to challenge segregation by debating white college teams in the 1930s, a time when lynch mobs were still commonplace. Along with Denzel as Tolson, the film stars Forest Whitaker and Kimberly Elise, as well as three incredible newcomers who play the members of the debate team.
After more than 30 years of acting and two Oscars—Best Supporting Actor for Glory in 1989 and Best Actor for Training Day in 2001—Denzel has discovered a new passion: directing. The Great Debaters, which opens on Christmas Day, is the second film he's both directed and starred in (the first was Antwone Fisher in 2002). Yet he says his most significant role is played away from the film set: He's the father of four—John David, 23; Katia, 20; and twins Olivia and Malcolm, 16—and he has been married to actress-singer Pauletta Washington for 24 years.
His own parents, Denzel Sr., a Pentecostal minister, and Lennis, a hairdresser, divorced when he was 14. When Denzel began to get into trouble on the streets of Mount Vernon, New York, Lennis, though barely able to get by on her wages, scraped together the money to send him, his older sister, Lorice, and his younger brother, David, to boarding school in upstate New York. After graduating, he attended Manhattan's Fordham University, where he made a decision to try acting in the school's production of Othello. His successes have been building ever since.
When he was a young man, Denzel was told by an influential visitor to the Boys & Girls Club that he could be anything he wanted to be. That sentiment and Denzel's deep spiritual beliefs, as well as his belief in the importance of education, are pivotal elements in his life, and he has instilled them in The Great Debaters.