The Great Debaters is inspired by the true story of how professor Melvin B. Tolson (played by Denzel Washington) formed the first debate team at Wiley College -- a black liberal arts institution -- in the 1930's Jim Crow south. The film was just nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Picture of the Year, and it co-stars Forest Whitaker. Debaters is Washington's second film as a director (his first was Antwone Fisher). Cinematical attended a press junket earlier this month with Washington and the film's young debaters: Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett, and Denzel Whitaker. Yes, the co-star of a movie with Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker is named Denzel Whitaker! To avoid confusion, we'll refer to them as they refer to themselves -- Big Denzel (Washington) and Little Denzel (Whitaker).
What did you guys do to prepare for this film?
BIG DENZEL: We set up a camp for the kids. I met Dr. Freeman, who is the debating coach at Texas Southern, which is one of the top debating schools in the country. I interviewed him and put him on film and asked if we could set up a little mini-camp for the young actors and he put them through their paces.
NP: We arrived and learned all about parliamentary and impromptu debate. Denzel was very adamant about us researching and knowing what we were talking about, and being well versed in the process of debate. So we got the Texas Southern University team, and they took us through it and gave us a class course. They told us we should be more persuasive, being that we're actors! So the first day we learned about debate, the second day we broke into teams and we debated. And the morning of, we were watching CNN and MSNBC and reading the Wall Street Journal. You should have seen us, we took it very serious, and we defeated their freshman and sophomore team.