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THE GREAT DEBATERS

About The Production
The Great Debaters is a fictional story inspired by Wiley College's winning debate team of the early 1930s. Academy Award winner Denzel Washington steps behind the camera for a second time to direct. He joins fellow Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker and co-stars as Melvin B. Tolson, the legendary coach. Harpo Films' Oprah Winfrey and Kate Forte produced with Todd Black (The Pursuit of Happyness) and Joe Roth (Mona Lisa Smile).

Filmed primarily in northeastern Louisiana with a few days in east Texas, production started on May 14, and ended on July 16, 2007. 

Then, production moved to Boston to film the key Harvard scenes at the prestigious Sanders Theatre in Memorial Hall as well as turning the Wang Theater's foyer into South Station circa 1935. Monday, July 23, 2007, was the last day of filming.

Some years ago writer Robert Eisele's friend Jeffrey Porro brought to his attention a two-page article "The Great Debaters” written by freelance writer Tony Scherman in the magazine, American Legacy. Eisele explains, "Jeff Porro is a Washington, DC speech writer, with a PhD in Political Science who knew my taste for social realism and gritty, intelligent stories.”

Eisele immediately recognized the debate coach, Melvin B. Tolson, considered one of the best African American poets of the Twentieth Century. Eisele recalls, "I was aware of Melvin B. Tolson's poetry since I'm a published poet myself, but I had no idea he had trained on his debate teams of the 1930s—the students who would become the Civil Rights leaders of the 1950s and 1960s.”

Some characters, like Tolson, James Farmer Sr. and James Farmer, Jr. are based on historical figures. Eisele recounts, "Jeff and I spent the next two years researching the facts about the Wiley team and interviewing many of the surviving debaters, including James Farmer, Jr. shortly before his death in 1999. It was an honor to speak to him, the man who led the Freedom Rides.” 

For many of the other characters, Eisele created composites. He was committed to making the debate team representational and staying true to their passion so he incorporated the stories about their experiences and relationships.

Benjamin Bell, a member of the 1936-1939 team noted in Scherman's article, "Schools were afraid of debating us. Every time they did, they got their pants kicked. How do you think they felt, getting spanked by a little Jim Crow school from the badlands of Texas!”

In an interview with Robert Eisele, Henrietta Bell, one of the first women members of the team, fondly remembered teammate Henry Heights who was a brilliant orator and the team anchor. "He was a freshman when I was a freshman. He was very suave and he could say anything in a debate. Sometimes it was brilliant but sometimes he could be ridiculous. When it came to the character of Henry Lowe, Eisele was able to instill a lot of the passion and energy that Heights was known for. Ms. Bell's spirit, drive and expertise were clearly captured in the character of Samantha Booke played by Jurnee Smollett.

For the article Scherman was also very interested in finding out how the debaters' lives turned out. "Hobart Jarrett, class of 1936, became an English professor at Brooklyn College; Hamilton Boswell, class of 1938, became a Methodist preacher; and Henrietta Bell, class of 1934, became a social worker. 

As for the flamboyant Heights, its thought he became a preacher but there's no trail of him since the mid-forties.

"Tolson loved doing this. He wasn't paid to do it, he was paid to teach English,” shares Tolson Jr. Scherman adds, "He loved the challenge of masterminding the debates, loved toppling vicious stereotypes, loved the laurels he was winning for Wiley and himself. Tolson loved to win.” It was this drive and commitment that Eisele and Porro wanted to build t

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