Great Debaters Bring Insight to Studio

The Great Debaters 3

Jurnee Smollett (from left), Nate Parker and Denzel Whitaker in The Great Debaters. David Lee/The Weinstein Company/Dimension Films hide caption

itoggle caption David Lee/The Weinstein Company/Dimension Films
The Great Debaters

Jurnee Smollett (from left), Nate Parker and Denzel Whitaker in The Great Debaters. David Lee/The Weinstein Company/Dimension Films hide caption

itoggle caption David Lee/The Weinstein Company/Dimension Films
The Great Debaters 2

Jurnee Smollett (from left), Denzel Whitaker and Nate Parker in The Great Debaters. David Lee/The Weinstein Company/Dimension Films hide caption

itoggle caption David Lee/The Weinstein Company/Dimension Films

Learn More About the Film

Nate Parker, 28, Jurnee Smollett, 21, and Denzel Whitaker, 17, portray the debaters in The Great Debaters, which opened in theaters on Tuesday. The three blossoming actors are powerful and moving both on and off camera. They visited NPR studios to discuss the film and the impact that stories like The Great Debaters continue to have on American society.

Taking on the Responsibility

Whitaker — no relation to co-stars Denzel Washington or Forest Whitaker — plays James Farmer Jr., the only one of the debaters based on a real person. Getting into character and telling his story required Whitaker to take on a heavy responsibility to make sure he did the job right. It's "one of those stories that needs to be heard," Whitaker said.

Smollett and Parker also thought the story was too important to pass up when they read the script. Smollett was thrilled to play a role that broke stereotypes, as both a woman and an African American. And Parker used visual aids to help him capture his character, who had "daily been stripped of [his] dignity." He collected pictures of lynchings to place on the mirror in his trailer. "Every time I walked out of the trailer, I was reminded of this period and reminded of what was going on inside of me."

Most Precious Asset: Time

In the film, the debaters are coached to the top by professor Melvin B. Tolson, played by Denzel Washington. Tolson inspires the students to organize a debate team and then pushes them to exceed their goals and aspire to greatness.

"That relationship is a relationship that needs to be echoed in 2007 by our role models to these young people," said Parker, whose character, Henry Lowe, has the most developed relationship with Tolson. Parker explained that time is the most precious asset a mentor can give, and the time Tolson spent with Henry ultimately changed him from an unsure student to an exceptional speaker and leader.

Relevant Today

The film, which takes place in Texas in 1935, centers on Wiley College, an all-black university where a new debate team is formed that ultimately defeats Harvard. The team faces challenges, with onlookers booing the students when they are on stage and some getting up and walking out. Even on set, the atmosphere was emotional for Smollett.

"I could see their stares. I could see their disbelief in me," Smollett said. "And to defy their circumstances and not allow them to define me was something that rarely people did."

That situation still rings true today, she said. Smollett frequently visits schools in California and says she is always saddened by the disparity in classroom conditions for poorer students compared with their more affluent peers.

"Why is it that some children nowadays don't have the access to education like other children do?" she asked. "It's not just color; it's class."

'What Is the Purpose of Being Excellent?'

One of the core relationships in the film is between Parker's character and Whitaker's. As the debate team's success seems to make no impact on society, it is their relationship that raises the question, "What is it all for?"

"Lowe's character is the one that tells me ... we're making a contribution to society by actually going on to debate Harvard," Whitaker said. He said he hopes people will watch the film and recognize the power of words and how young people can be heard.

For Smollett's character, Samantha Brooke, it's about never quitting.

"If we quit ... we give them the consent to make us feel bad and make us crawl up in a little ball and just stop," Smollett said. "It you stop, then you're telling them ... that you're right."

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