The Great Debaters: Jurnee Smollet Speaks Her Mind

For radiant young actress Jurnee Smollett, who grew up on television in shows like Cosby, spinning her magic on camera for The Great Debaters was no big deal, even if it was Denzel Washington directing and putting her to the test in more ways than one.

As a college student in a small Texas town with big dreams of becoming just the third black female lawyer in that Jim Crow state in the 1930s, Jurnee’s character Samantha Booke is nurtured into self-realization as a proud and talented woman by Denzel’s fiercely dedicated debating coach, Melvin B. Tolson.


During this conversation, Jurnee talks about her own personal journey through the life-affirming experience of The Great Debaters, and Denzel Washington as a real inspiration off camera too. And a project that was not just a film, but an education.

Was there anything about getting into the debating process yourself for this movie, that surprised you?

JURNEE SMOLLETT: Debate is about you believing in what you say, and saying what you believe. And really shutting down your opponent with words. But the key to it, is being passionate.

And that was one of the things that Denzel said to us. He said, y’all better win, because you’re actors! And you should be able to believe what you say.

What inspired you about Denzel?

JS: At the end of the day, he was really able to just check his ego at the door. And he was so devoted to making the project honest, and being the ultimate collaborator. He was our leader.

It was his vision, but at the end of the day, we were all doing this together. Whether you were the prop master, whether you were in the background, or whether you were in front of the camera, we were all making a film together. It was a team effort.

And for Denzel to be our leader and to be the one with all those awards, for him to be able to check his ego at the door and ask us what we thought, was so amazing to me. It spoke volumes about his character.

How did you get familiar with a time period so far from your own?

JS: It was through the extensive research that we all had to do. And as you dig deeper and deeper, you just hear all the firsthand accounts of what it was like to live in the Jim Crow South, and what it was like to live through the Great Depression.

And just what it was like to know the fact that your cousin was lynched not too long ago. And yet the government has declared a war on crime, and left out lynching. So it’s this crazy feeling to know how society wants to dictate to you what place you should stand in.

And you have all these emotions going on inside, all this frustration. And feeling like, well shouldn’t I be entitled to be free? And they knew that education was their ticket. That’s what everyone told us. And that’s the thing a lot of the firsthand stories were saying, that education was their ticket.

You know, you were either a sharecropper, or you were an educated person. There was no in-between. And it speaks volumes about how far we have come, and in such a short amount of time.

But it was heavy doing the research on the lynchings. There is this book called Without Sanctuary, that talks about how the lynchings were photographed by the lynch mobs, they would take these pictures and put them on the back of these post cards.

And they would send them off to family members saying, look what we did on a Saturday night. They had their children there, and they had food and bands there. And it was hundreds of people who would kidnap them from jails, before they were given a fair trial. And there was no such thing as a fair trial.

So when you digest all of this stuff, it would hit you heavy on the heart. And that was hard. But at the same time, it made me very, very proud. Because I know I’m standing on the shoulders of great people. I’m standing on the shoulders of people like Ida B. Wells, and the people who really, really fought. And I’m so humbled by it.

What were some of the deepest personal impressions and emotions you came away with from being part of The Great Debaters?

JS: That we as young people don’t have to be voiceless bystanders. You know, we can be pro-active. We have to get out there. Whatever your passion is, whatever your cause is, we are all taking up space on this planet. And there’s something about us not just absorbing everything and inhaling all the air.

You know, we’ve got to take care of each other, we’ve got to give back. There are many things, so many different ways we can get our voices out there. And there are so many different ways we can be creative. Like marching, and everything that our founding fathers of the Civil Rights Movement did. There are so many ways that we can do that today.

Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network’s Arts Express.