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December 2007
An Interview with Denzel Whitaker

An Interview with Denzel Whitaker

by Wilson Morales

December 23, 2007

When you are an upcoming actor whose name happens to coincide with two of the most famous African Americans actors today and you happen to be in the same film with them, call it a blessing. For Denzel Whitaker, his dream team is here. In his first major film, he plays James Farmer Jr., one of four students and the youngest to be chosen to be part of the debating team in ‘The Great Debaters’, which was directed by and starring Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker. The film was produced by Oprah Winfrey and playing the other debaters are Jurnee Smollett, Nate Parker, and Jermaine Williams.

Set against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South and inspired by a true story, "The Great Debaters" chronicles the journey of a brilliant but volatile coach (Denzel Washington) who uses the power of words to shape a group of underdog students from a small, modest black college in East Texas into an elite debate team while challenging the social mores of the time, culminating with a groundbreaking invitation to debate Harvard's championship team.

Whitaker’s character, James Farmer Jr., was on Wileys' debate team at 14 years old after completing high school (and who would later go on to co-found the Congress of Racial Equality) is also depicted.

In speaking with blackfilm.com, Whitaker talks about his character, working with Denzel, and working with his co-stars, Jurnee Smollett and Nate Parker.

With your last name being Whitaker, have you been referred as his real life son, especially since you are playing his son in the film?

Denzel Whitaker: I knew folks would have a field day with this. No, I’m not related to Forest at all and no relation to Denzel either.

But you were named after him, right?

DW: Yes, I was.

How did you go about in being cast for the film?

DW: My mom actually found out about the role and we called my agent and she was like, ‘You need to get him a job. You need to get him an audition’. From there she was like, ‘Denzel, I have this role for you. You are really going to love it. It’s a really good script and also Denzel (Washington) is directing it.’ From there I was like, ‘Alright, I really want to read this.’ I read the script and instantly fell in love with it. I took it to my acting coach and we started working on it and about a few weeks later, I got the audition, my first audition. I went in and saw big D there and basically I did about five sessions of auditions and on the fifth audition, D sat me and Nate (Parker) down and told us we got the job.

How much did you know about James Farmer Jr.?

DW: None actually. I never heard of this story prior to filming the movie. It’s a story that I never heard in my history books. When I found out about it, I took it my history teacher and I asked him about it and he was like, ‘Oh yeah, I read this in college.’ I said, ‘Why aren’t we learning it now?’ and he said, ‘I don’t know. They are not putting it in textbooks’. I think it should be in textbooks because it’s a pretty significant story. It shows the intelligence of Black people.

Hollywood has to decide if this is a commercial film?

DW: Definitely. I think it’s one of those thing where they have been nurturing this project for years, and even then, it’s a story that needs to be told. When Denzel directs this, he comes from a sense of keeping it real, keeping it natural, and he also has this persona where it’s like this movie is fact, it’s history; and some people may not like it, but it definitely shows a side of us that’s intelligent. That’s why I think it’s mainstream. Of course, a lot of folks will see it because it’s Denzel, Forest, and Oprah. They are really drawn in the movies with the crowd right now.

What do you want this story to do for people?

DW: To show intelligence. I want it to show teens my age that it’s ok to be intelligent and that it’s cool. Back in the days of 1935, this is what people fought for. They fought for equality and they wanted to have an education whereas nowadays people are taking it for granted. There is something to be said about putting down your opponent with your words instead of your fist.

How was the shoot like in Louisiana?

DW: It was great. Shreveport is a cool town. There’s not much to do out there but we found stuff to do on the weekends. The hospitality is great. Everybody is really nice and there are all friendly. It’s a low key laid back atmosphere to be in. I will tell you this much. They had bugs, mosquitoes, and spiders, and all types of bugs and that wasn’t fun for me.

How was working with Nate and Jurnee?

DW: They were great. I couldn’t ask for a better cast, even Jermaine Williams. We were the four debaters. We bonded as a family probably within the first week of rehearsal. It was always a fun experience, never a dull moment. There were jokes behind scenes and if someone had a problem, we would be there. Any type of life situation that was going on, we knew about and we were there to help out.

What did you learn from Denzel as an actor and as a director?

DW: First of all, with Denzel, the three words that I keep faithfully that Denzel taught me the first week of shooting was ‘keep it simple’. Those words have stuck with me the most than any others words he’s taught me or any lesson that he’s taught me. For acting, he’s basically like my mentor now. I can ask any type of question about acting and I think this has brought me to a whole another level. I’ve taken acting classes before and they teach the fundamentals but I find that it wasn’t taught to me the way Denzel taught me. He was very caring about it. He said to play it truthful. He said that I didn’t have to impress anyone because there is no one to impress. He said to be real, be yourself, and keep it natural. That has uplifted me as a whole and brought me to be a better actor. Denzel is a great director as well. He has a great visual eye. He really sets up these beautiful shots and knows how to tell a story without having to go Hollywood and fancy. He tells the story the way it needs to be told.

How was working with Forest since you played his son?

DW: Forest was also a great guy. He was so caring and nurturing and he would wasn’t to sit down so we could rehearse the part and really go over the character. He helped me define the layers and what the character was feeling.

Do you have any upcoming projects?

DW: I reading a few scripts right now.

Do you see yourself as a debater?

DW: Yes, I do Debating is basically getting across your point in an intelligent, respectful, and argumentative way. I’m very opinionated. You have to sell, be persuasive, and come up to the audience that you are debating against and sell your point.

Why should anyone see the Great Debaters?

DW: It’s an intelligent piece of film, a great part of Black History, a stepping stone in what we need to know as African Americans. I believe it will bring back intelligence back for society. It will set us up for more films other than guns and street life. It’s also a fun film and inspiring.



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