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‘Great Debaters’ Star Likes Unfamiliar Story

Denzel Whitaker turned 17 while shooting “The Great Debaters,” the new movie directed by and starring Whitaker’s namesake, Denzel Washington.Not only was “Debaters” a chance for Whitaker to work with Washington again (Whitaker appeared in “Training Day” with the Oscar winner), but it also exposed Whitaker to a little known, “remarkable, inspiring story.”

In 1935, professor Mel Tolson led the debate team at the African-American Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, to national prominence in defiance of Jim Crow.

Whitaker called the story “a piece of history that a lot of people hadn’t heard of before” ”even people in the world of competitive debating. Whitaker told on the phone from New York ”where’s he’s promoting “The Great Debaters” for its Christmas Day release ”that the story’s unfamiliarity is partly what drew him to it.

In “Debaters,” Whitaker plays James Farmer Jr., who enrolled at Wiley College at 14 and went on to become not only a top debater, but also one of the leaders of the civil rights movement. Born in tiny Marshall, Farmer eventually founded the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) in 1942. Almost 20 years later, he would organize the Freedom Rides into the Deep South.

He died in 1999, so Whitaker never had the opportunity to meet him.

“I just tried to gather as much research as I could,” said Whitaker, noting that he talked with many of Farmer’s friends, including Mel Tolson Jr., who grew up with Farmer at Wiley.

Farmer’s father, James Farmer Sr., was an administrator at Wiley College who held a doctorate from Boston University. He also knew seven languages and had his own gift for words. The Farmer family thus understood the power of language, and that recognition also drew Whitaker to the role.

Because the movie centers on Wiley’s debate team ”where James Jr. lands a spot ”the filmmakers decided to send the actors to “debate camp.” They spent a couple of days at Texas Southern University in Houston learning from the debaters there.

“The part that intrigued me most was the passion,” said Whitaker, adding that debating is very competitive. He also appreciated the amount of research that goes into staking out and defending a position.

“I hope it inspires people to join debating,” said Whitaker of the movie. It very well may. In addition to the story and the performances, the movie’s finale takes place at ”and was actually shot at ”Harvard University, whose ambience inspired the actors themselves.

Whitaker said his generation needs to speak up and be heard on a variety of issues. “Why not get out there and say it? The time is now,” he said. “You always have a voice. In 1935 not everyone did.”

“The Great Debaters” highlights a handful of people who were working to make sure everyone had a voice ”decades before Martin Luther King Jr. grabbed national headlines.

When asked what comes to mind when he thinks of the civil rights movement, Whitaker said, “I think of Dr. King and Rosa Parks.” He added that “The Great Debaters” tells the story of some of those who “laid the groundwork” for later efforts at social justice.

“They strived for my rights to be an equal person,” he said.

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for