Denzel on Directing, Acting, Fathering and Mentoring
Denzel Washington stepped behind the camera for the second time to make The Great Debaters, an inspirational bio-pic about Professor Melvin Tolson, the debate coach at a small black college in the South, whose inexperienced team, in 1935, shocked the world by taking on some seasoned nationally-ranked competition. Here, Denzel, who also plays Tolson in the picture, opines on everything from acting to directing to being a role model.
KW: How do you feel about directing?
DW: I have a new career. In the last seven years, I’ve directed two films, and I’m passionate about that. To get the opportunity to do that, and to enjoy a measure of success, and not just success but to hear people respond in a positive way to the film is a great feeling for me. They say that 80% of a director’s job is casting.
We found four great young actors and gave them the opportunity of a lifetime as far as their acting careers are concerned. There are some brilliant performances by these young actors. They’re well on their way.
KW: What sold you on the script of The Great Debaters?
DW: It was a great read on many levels. I think it’s a really wonderful story about language and education. And, like I’ve been telling people, I also look upon it as a sports movie. They’re the little train that could, and they go up against Goliath. And it’s set at a time in our country when there was a lot of turmoil and racism and poverty and the Depression. But they came through all of that and were able to find a way to focus their energy, come together as a unit, and go up against the big boys and knock ’em off the pedestal.
KW: Do you think that the old-fashioned values that Melvin Tolson instilled in his students will lost on the youth of today?
DW: In my opinion, we live like a fast food society. Get there quick. Do it fast. Everything’s fast-fast-fast. But faster is not necessarily better. There’s a process to reaching a goal and, unfortunately, a lot of kids find that out when it’s too late. In many ways, in our society, it’s our responsibility, if not fault, that we’ve sold our kids a bill of goods for a dollar, basically. I think the way that these young people are being taught by Tolson and Farmer [James Farmer, Sr.] in The Great Debaters is still going on now as well. I don’t know that it’s always news. It’s not always popular, but it is effective.
KW: But how could you expect today’s role models to try to reach kids who embrace gangsta rap and the materialism, misogyny and self-destructive associated with that thug mentality?
DW: Young people join gangs because that’s where they find love and support and people who believe in them. That means somebody dropped the ball, and they look like you and me. We’re adults. We’ve dropped the ball. So, we have to reach out, we have to not give up on our youth. I struggled as a teenager, and got into trouble, but my mother never gave up on me. So, I think they’re our responsibility as adults.
KW: Why did you want to bring The Great Debaters to the big screen?
DW: It’s history, that’s why I wanted to capture it. I said, “We can’t miss this.” There’s a lot there, and we need to pass that on. These things need to be shared and celebrated.
KW: What’s the picture’s storyline?
DW: In 1935, there was a little school with 360 students, Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. They had four young debaters, three guys and one girl. They came together as a team, and beat everybody in America, basically. It’s also the story of one of the kids [James Farmer, Jr.] who’s played by a young actor by the name of Denzel Whitaker, if you can believe that. His character is learning about becoming a man. He sees this one professor, Melvin Tolson, who seems to be the cooler guy. And he sees his father who sometimes seems to kow-tow or shrink in the face of racism. But he begins to understand, as he matures, what his father was doing to actually protect him. So, he’s becoming a man, and learning about love. It’s about a 14 year-old who falls for an 18 or 20 year-old girl. We’ve all been through that. The movie’s also about another character that’s brilliantly played by Nate Parker, Henry Lowe, this drinking and carousing kid who matures in the process of the story. And at the moment when he’s about to achieve the greatest victory in his life, he makes a sacrifice and gives the opportunity to this other young boy. And it’s the story of one of the first female debaters, black or white, played brilliantly by Jurnee Smollett, who overcomes her fear of debating and is able to get up there and stand her ground as a debater and as a young woman. And, of course, it’s about a couple of guys that Forest [Whitaker] and I play who helped them to do those things.
KW: How would you describe your character?
DW: Mel Tolson, he’s the coach. I make the speeches, kick ’em in their butt, push them out the door. They do what we taught them to do. And I sort of stand back on the side, and watch them achieve their goals. It’s about passing on knowledge, responsibility and power. In 1935, African-Americans understood the importance of education as a way out.
KW: What do you think of today’s black kids having a higher high school dropout rates than those of a generation ago?
DW: I’m a parent. I think we’re responsible for the problems that young people have. I believe that. I don’t blame them for any of it. I blame us for what we haven’t done as mothers and fathers, not sticking together as a unit. I think we’ve done a terrible job, a shameful job. So, I try to take advantage of every opportunity I get to share what I know with young people.
KW: Why did you decide to cast Forest Whitaker as your co-star?
DW: Needless to say, Forest is one of the great actors of our time, and a wonderful human being, so I basically begged him to be in the movie. I’m just grateful that he was willing to play this part, to give the film an anchor. Once I knew I was going to be in the film, I needed someone with an equal strength and weight because, as I was saying, this young boy is torn between these two powerful men in his life. So, I appreciate the presence of an actor who had that weight. Forest could easily have played either part. The only reason I’m playing Professor Tolson is because they made me in order to get the money to do the film. [Laughs] But I also think it’s good casting, and that I’m the right guy for the job.
KW: Sounds like you were a little hesitant about appearing in the film at all.
DW: In the movie, my character says, “You do what you have to do, so that you can do what you want to do.” What I wanted to do was direct, so what I had to do was act in order to do that. Life does not work the other way around. As I tell my kids, “You pay now, or you pay later, but you gotta pay.”