The Great Debaters on Oprah
"If you love to go to the movies and leave with a feeling of pure joy, of exhilaration, of hope...The Great Debaters is the movie for you," she says. "It's a stand-up-and-cheer kind of thing."
This film, which is set in the 1930s, chronicles the journey of Professor Melvin Tolson, a brilliant but volatile debate coach who uses the power of words to shape a group of students into an elite debate team. In their pursuit for excellence, Tolson's debaters, who hail from a small African-American college in Texas, receive a groundbreaking invitation to debate Harvard University's championship team.
Watch a sneak preview of The Great Debaters!
Academy Award® winner Denzel Washington works his magic on screen and behind the scenes. He directs the film and stars as Professor Tolson. "In every breath, in every shot, I can feel [Denzel]," Oprah says. "His choices, his decisions have made this movie what it is."
Denzel says the film's story captured his attention from the start. "[The script] was a good read," he says. "Usually if I can just get through it pretty quickly and just feel good about it, then I know it's good for me. ... Sometimes you don't get through [a script]."
During his first reading, Denzel admits he got a little choked up during the final scenes. "When I got to the end and [read] the speech this young boy makes, I was getting a little teary eyed," he says. "I just thought it was unique and a story that I didn't know anything about."
After acting in more than 30 films, Denzel says he was ready to move on and try his hand at directing again. He produced and directed his first feature film, Antwone Fisher, in 2002.
"I have a passion," Denzel says. "I love seeing other people do well. Nothing gives me greater joy than watching."
Working with the young actors he cast in the film was also a thrill for Denzel. "I grew up in the Boys & Girls Club, and I worked with children," he says. "That was my life's work before acting—helping kids. I've coached all of my children as I've said many times, and I enjoy that."
Denzel says the demands of directing didn't leave him much time to prepare for his own scenes, so he relied on an acting technique he's used for years. "I just take breaths to sort of relax," he says. "I would just take 40 breaths and that was my preparation. I'm like, 'Okay, Mel Tolson. Mel Tolson.'"
At one point during the movie, Denzel's character inspires his students with lines from "I, Too, Sing America," a poem by African-American poet Langston Hughes. "It was just great to get the opportunity to recite poetry on film [and] to bring up the names of these greats [like] Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen," he says.
In another scene, co-star Forest Whitaker tells the young actor playing his son, "We do what we have to do so we can do what we want to do."
This line, Denzel says, is something he and his wife have been saying to their four children, John David, Katia, Olivia and Malcolm, for years. "That was just something I threw in the film, and it worked well," he says.
Not long after his big win, Forest signed on to help Denzel bring another true story to theaters. "I did a Hallelujah holy dance when yet another Oscar winner joined the cast," Oprah says.
Forest says he heard about the film while shopping at a mall in East Texas. "Somebody said, 'Denzel Washington had been here,'" he says. "It's a little small town, a little small community and I said, 'Really?' They said, 'He's telling the story about the debate team from here.'"
It wasn't long before Forest received a phone call from Denzel. "It just seemed like it was meant to be and it was pretty exciting," he says. "[Denzel] said he was going to do a great movie, and it was something special and I could help him. I was excited."
After admiring Denzel's work for years, Forest says acting alongside him for the first time was an amazing experience. On set, he says he also appreciated Denzel's directing style. "I think as an actor, clearly he knows how to deal with you as an actor," he says. "But when you see the way he paints this story with the images, it's pretty impressive."
"It was an opportunity to get a chance to try to pay homage to this kind of a man," he says. "There's a sternness. There's a certain way of raising kids because of the environment and what can happen to them. It was a great chance to get to do that."
Denzel says he told Forest not to make his character "too nice," because he was from a generation of African-American fathers who were strict with their children. This parenting method was adopted, in part, to protect children from the hostile racial climate of the 1930s.
"It's love but it's different," Forest says. "As you can see in the movie, if you take the wrong step, you know, you can die."
In one scene, Denzel says Forest captures this intensity without saying a word. He simply gives the young man playing his son a look. "This guy can act right here," Denzel says.
As young actors, Jurnee, Denzel and Nate say working with two Oscar® winners was an honor. "It's inspiring," Nate says. "To work beside someone that is in that place you want to be, it makes it easier. You say, 'This is a goal that's attainable. If I work hard and I dream big and I trust God, maybe one day...'"
"You're on your way," Denzel Washington says.
Denzel and Nate's audition for their dramatic roles proved they had acting chops—but it took a physical toll! During their callback, an intense scene from the script got a little too heated. "During the audition, we were fighting. There's emotions raging all over. Nate actually busted my lip open, and I broke the buttons off of his shirt," Denzel says.
The pair's intensity paid off—they landed the roles. "Then I was bawling. I was crying all over the place, and [I held] a Coke can to my lip so there wasn't much swelling," Denzel Whitaker says. "I'm running downstairs, telling my mom, 'Mom, I got the part! I got the part!' She's like, 'Who did this to you? Who busted your lip? I'm going after him.'"
Another big surprise came when Denzel learned Forest was going to play his dad. "I was just like, 'Here goes. The press is going to have fun with this,' because of the last name," he says. "But I was so excited to work with two Oscar-winning actors."
That work paid off for all the debaters, but especially for Jurnee. In one scene in the film, she gives a passionate on-screen speech on equality that hits close to home. "It was such a personal topic," she says. "You internalize all of the words that you are actually saying."
Before filming began, Nate took on another assignment. "I read an article that said [Denzel Washington] required a character biography before the person goes on set," he says. So Nate started writing Henry's backstory, and by the time he was done, it was over 100 pages long! After a script read, Nate gave his opus to Denzel. "He looked at it [and said], 'Why do you write so small? You young people write so small!'" Nate says.
"Chicken scratch," Denzel jokes. "They can't write. No penmanship."
"At the very end of the movie is when all of it rushed and hit me right in the heart, and I was like, 'Oh my gosh. We did this. It happened, and it's real,'" Nate says.
By the time it was over, Denzel Whitaker says he was feeling emotional—and impressed by his co-stars' performances. "I called up Nate and I was like, 'Nate, you did a great job! You guys did great! What a performance!' I was pumped by the end of the movie. I was very inspired. I was overwhelmed with emotions," Denzel says. "I was like, 'Jurnee, you did an amazing job!' We hadn't seen each other for a while, so we were all giddy. I called myself a little school girl, just getting all giddy."
"We learn to do by doing," is another piece of Denzel's advice. "He would trust our research and just throw us in there and say, 'Do what you prepared yourself to do.' And it helped us a lot," Nate says.
Denzel Whitaker says he, too, wrote down his director's advice. "I just love to soak up his knowledge," he says. "Denzel, he just has knowledge. There's so much to be said. And when you listen to him speak, you just better soak it all up, because it comes in handy in life."
Jurnee says Denzel's generosity with knowledge as a director and actor is a rare thing in a person so famous. "Someone who has as many awards as he has, they could easily walk into a room with those awards on their shoulders, really try to intimidate you," she says. "That wasn't him at all."
While Denzel's advice and quotes inspired the cast, Forest provided Denzel Whitaker with another set of lessons to draw on. "Forest taught me how to really grab and dig into the character, find the undertones," he says. "Between the two, there was definitely a mentorship, a father-ship, and I'm just proud to be a part of this."