The Great Debaters stars Washington as Professor Melvin Tolson. He’s the debate coach at Wiley College – the little learning institution that could. Tolson did the unthinkable: He comprised, then led a team of four African-American students to a national victory over Harvard University’s championship team during the racially heated 1930s.
To tell such an inspirational story, the actor-director would need to find young talent who could help realize each of the unique characters in the script, while bringing that special something to the piece. He struck gold in Nate Parker.
This wondrous breath of fresh air is creating a wealth of buzz for his portrayal of bad boy Henry Lowe. In the film, his character is a smart guy with an occasional taste for loose women and trouble.
In real life, Parker is a highly responsible and dedicated actor with a strong need to give back to the community. When he’s not shooting, this dynamic performer dedicates his time and focus to working with kids from Los Angeles’ Compton neighborhood.
“I’m a Christian, and I’m a believer that God gives us all a platform,” he says of his philanthropic efforts.
Parker hopes to one day travel abroad and assist needy children, although he says he really wants to “start at home.”
While the role of Henry Lowe may have been a coveted one for many black actors in Hollywood, Parker seemed to have had an early lock on the part. Before meeting with Washington, he put together a comprehensive dossier on who he thought Henry Lowe was. After meeting with the filmmaker, Parker discovered his vision for the character was incredibly similar to Washington’s.
For 17-year-old actor Denzel Whitaker, The Great Debaters provided the opportunity to work with former cast mate and namesake Washington. The two were previously seen in the film Training Day. This time, Whitaker had the chance to receive working guidance from his mentor. His character, James Farmer Jr., is the young son of an African-American academic portrayed by Forest Whitaker. In the film, he discovers a secret that his cherished Professor Tolson is hiding – one that divides their small town.
Farmer is also a young man on the cusp of adolescence. He develops a schoolboy crush on the new girl in town named Samantha Booke.
Did this talented teenager receive any pointers from his Washington? You bet.
“Denzel – he’s just great! He would always tell me his little notes and we would compare them with mine, and then we’d sit and figure it out.”
When he’s not on the set, Whitaker is an avid gamer who loves to shoot hoops and play golf. What’s next on the roster for him? “Film school,” he says.
Then, there’s Jurnee Smollett. Fans may remember her as Samuel L. Jackson’s precocious daughter, Red, in Eve’s Bayou. In The Great Debaters, she’s all grown up. Her role as the feisty and loquacious Samantha Booke is truly inspired. Smollett is pleased at the reaction that she is receiving for her efforts. Her onscreen grace and beauty coupled with her ability to hold audiences captive are pretty astounding.
But Smollett gives credit where credit is due. She confesses that her ability to argue convincingly was the product of a lot of study.
“The first day they taught us style and then the second day we actually had to put into practice what we learned, which was a challenge.”
Fortunately for these rising stars, they received their education of sorts in an idyllic setting.
“We shot in Shreveport [Louisiana] for maybe 90 percent,” says Parker. “Shreveport is so beautiful.”
That beauty was captured magnificently by award-winning cinematographer Phillipe Rousselot (A River Runs Through It, Henry & June).
And moviegoers are taking notice. The word of mouth on The Great Debaters is strong, but nowhere near as compelling as the talent who contributed to it.
The Great Debaters is currently in theaters.