Young cast of ‘The Great Debaters’ speaks

Published: Thursday, January 3, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 2, 2008 at 5:04 p.m.

In Denzel Washington’s new film ‘‘The Great Debaters,’’ we are introduced to a young woman who is poised, talented and determined to succeed as a college debater against a field of men, but she knows that to accomplish that goal she will have to overcome not only prejudice based on race, but also based on gender.

Her name is Samantha Booke and in the film, which is set at Wiley College in eastern Texas during the Great Depression, she becomes the first woman selected by coach Melvin B. Tolson to compete on the debate team at the historically black school.

Jurnee Smollett knew from the moment she read Robert Eisele’s script that the role of Samantha Booke embodied all the dramatic elements that young black actresses of this era crave but so seldom get to play on-screen.

‘‘I’ve gotten so many scripts where if you’re not on the sideline cheering your boyfriend on, you’re fighting with him about cheating on you or you’re just set dressing,’’ Smollett said, looking down and shaking her head.

Smollett, 21, no longer is standing on the sidelines. Her powerful performance — especially in one scene where she is at the podium, fire in her eyes, steel in her voice, demanding ‘‘Freedom now!’’ — makes Booke emerge not only as a top debater among her male peers, but also as a fearless champion for justice during a period of American history when blacks were still being lynched by the side of the road.

Washington, who directed the movie and stars in it too as professor Tolson, has said that Smollett was the first and only actress to read for the pivotal part.

Smollett has spent a lifetime before the cameras, from the time she was 10 months old appearing in Pampers commercials; to childhood roles in TV sitcoms such as ‘‘On Our Own,’’ where she starred with her real-life sister and four brothers; and CBS’ ‘‘Cosby,’’ or in films such as 1997’s ‘‘Eve’s Bayou.’’ More recently, she appeared in ‘‘Gridiron Gang,’’ starring Dwayne ‘‘The Rock’’ Johnson, and ‘‘Roll Bounce,’’ starring Bow Wow.

Smollett said that when she first read the script for ‘‘The Great Debaters,’’ she became ‘‘obsessed with the character’’ of Booke.

Some characters in the film, such as Tolson (Washington), team member James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker) and the boy’s father (Forest Whitaker), are based on historical figures.

Farmer would go on to become a leading figure in the civil rights movement, co-founding the Congress of Racial Equality. Booke’s character was inspired by Henrietta Bell, class of 1934, who was not a member of the award-winning debate team but was its first female member.

Smollett said she had tried to imagine how to play the role, but it wasn’t until Washington put her in touch with Bell, now 96, that she found the way. The two women’s budding friendship allowed the actress to alter in some ways her interpretation of the character.

‘‘There were a number of things about her I ended up making adjustments for. It was more of a quiet storm type of thing,’’ Smollett said. ‘‘From the beginning, I knew she was a girl from an affluent background, or as affluent as you could be back then for a ‘colored’ girl, (but) I was pleasantly surprised how similar the character I was building was to her.’’

Smollett credits much of her success to her own mother, Janet, who ‘‘had a very socially active life.’’

Although debating was new to Smollett, public speaking was not. Since the age of 12, she has delivered numerous speeches on behalf of Artists for a New South Africa, a nonprofit organization working in the U.S. and South Africa to combat HIV/AIDS.

But her years of activism couldn’t prepare her for one of the film’s most harrowing scenes, in which the debaters encounter a crowd of whites lynching a black man. Smollett said it was difficult for the actors to watch, even though it was a re-creation.

‘‘You know what I felt?’’ Smollett said. ‘‘I felt it could be me. If a few of the numbers — the mathematical equations were changed a little bit — it could have been me (living back then).’’

Earlier last month, while standing in the Miami airport waiting to board a flight, an airline employee told Smollett and one of her co-stars, Nate Parker, that they shouldn’t be in the line for first-class passengers.

‘‘The lady stops both of us and says, ‘No, no, no, coach is that way,’ ’’ Parker recalled. ‘‘Jurnee gets beet red and says, ‘We are first class, thank you very much.’ ’’ Parker said he later wrote a letter of complaint to the airline.

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