Denzel Washington, The Great Debaters
Credit: David Lee

If Denzel Washington had his way, he wouldn’t have appeared on screen at all for his second directorial feature. Turns out he didn’t really have a choice. ”It’s called money,” the two-time Oscar winner says. ”They’re not going to give you enough money unless there’s someone of a certain name to [act in] it.” So Washington plays Melvin B. Tolson, the real-life poet and English professor who, in 1935, coached a small, all-black, East Texas college debate team to national prominence. Forest Whitaker appears as one of the students’ parents, while 20-year-old Jurnee Smollett (Gridiron Gang) portrays Samantha, a debate whiz kid. ”She has this dream of being a lawyer,” says the actress of her character. ”She packs her entire life away in the hopes of being able to join this debate team, because it’s the kind of training she needs.”

After putting his cast through a rigorous two-day ”debate camp” at Texas Southern University (”we took them down there and just threw them to the wolves, basically,” says Washington, ”which is how I like to do it [as an actor]…just to see where you stand”), the director (Antwone Fisher) shot in Boston and around Shreveport, La. Smollett says the Louisiana shoot soon became a running joke: ”Chiggers and mosquitoes and humidity and rain and heat. There was this one scene we shot on a lake. We’re standing on the bank, and there’s a snake wrangler off camera a few feet away from us, catching the snakes.” Washington, for his part, didn’t let the pestilence get to him. ”I was too busy moving,” he says. ”They couldn’t catch me. That’s for people sitting around.” A good case for productivity if we’ve ever heard one.

The Great Debaters

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 123 minutes
  • Denzel Washington