The Great Debaters

"The Great Debaters" honors the real-life story of a 1930's black debating team.

ByMARY CLAUDE FOSTER
February 06, 2009, 8:11 PM

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 12, 2007— -- From deep in the color-divided South of 1930s East Texas, a generally unknown story of triumph by a black debating team from Wiley College emerges on the national stage this holiday season.

Denzel Washington directs and stars in "The Great Debaters," the movie based on that true story, which comes to theaters Christmas Day. Washington plays the team's coach, the invincible Professor Melvin Tolson.

Talk maven Oprah Winfrey, fresh off the Obama campaign trail, is one of the movie producers.

Watch Diane Sawyer's interview with Denzel Washington and Oprah Winfrey tonight on "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m. ET

But it was clear when the two stars sat down for an interview with "Nightline" that they had a lot more than Hollywood movie-making on their minds.

"The character that Denzel portrays, Melvin Tolson, he's not an aberration," Winfrey said. "You know, in our generation we lost some of that, but everybody understood that education was the open door."

Washington noted that in 1935, in the midst of the Depression, education was the only option.

"You're seeing sharecroppers and poor people and farmers and ex-slaves all around you. So without education, that's your future," he said.

The Tolson-led, all-black debate team from Wiley College that couldn't belong to the all-white national league still managed to win a national championship against an all-white team.

"What the film is all about for me is expectations," Winfrey said. "What people expected of you and exceeding people's expectations."

Two real-life characters in the movie -- Henrietta Wells, the only female member of the Wiley debate team, and Tolson's son, Mel Tolson Jr. -- told Washington not to get bogged down with racism, saying it was just a fact of life.

"There was no 'woe is me,'" Washington said. "You know, they were highly educated, and they were prepared. They went to these towns and … they said, 'We went up there and kicked people's behinds because we were good, and we were confident,' because they were nurtured, and protected."

The deep themes and emotional punch of the movie left its producer in tears when she saw it for the first time.

Winfrey said she was sitting maybe a foot or two behind Washington at the screening, so she tried to be quiet, silently crying and holding in her emotions.

At the end, Washington asked if she liked it.

"I had an emotional headache from watching and trying to suppress my emotion. So I only used about, you know, three tissues," Winfrey said. "But I could have used five or six, because I was trying to cry quietly and not go into the ugly cry in my first viewing."

Washington said there were a couple of times when he wanted to start crying, too.

"I think we all just responded to the material and to the story," he said. "When I read the script four years ago, I was just choked up."

Washington had never heard of Wiley College at that time, but the ideas in the script resonated with him.

"You pay now or you pay later. You got to pay. That's life, you know, and, and there are no shortcuts," he said.

Also inspired by the movie were the present day Wiley College students, who decided to form a debate club.

"The historical debate team was awesome," one student said. "We hadn't had a debate team here, but them bringing up the movie, it inspired students to come out and say, 'Hey I want to be a part of the debate team. I want to be a part of that movement.'"

Now a new crop of students hopes history will indeed fuel their future … with a little help from Hollywood.

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