The Great Debaters Cast on Mentoring Future Leaders
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Hollywood heavyweight Denzel Washington doesn’t focus his time and energy on him. Instead, he looks for ways to work with others and see them succeed.
Whether it’s mentoring or being mentored, it’s key that you are open to others. This theme is paramount in his new movie, The Great Debaters.
True Characters Behind the Film
The Great Debaters beautifully tells the story of three young students representing Wiley College from the Jim Crow South as they successfully debate against the country’s top schools. It’s based on the true life of debater James Farmer Jr., and inspired by the lives of teammates Henry Heights and Henrietta Wells, who are represented as Henry Lowe and Samantha Booke in the movie. Their team participated in the first collegiate interracial debate in the United States in the 1930s.
No one doubts these brilliant students would have gone far in life on their own. But, an undeniable force helped drive them to achieve great things. He was Prof. Melvin Tolson, their debate coach and a literary artist who revolutionized the small college with his big ideas and unshakable hope for justice.
Taking these young souls under his wings, Tolson taught them how to break the chains of inequality and ignorance with the words they spoke on the debating stage. His influence on their education is unquestionable and through his mentorship each student fulfilled great callings.
Activist James L. Farmer Jr. was an integral part of shaping the civil rights movement in the 1960s. He was a leader of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and helped organized sit-ins and Freedom Rides. Flamboyant Henry Heights is believed to have become a preacher, but there’s no trail of him since the mid-forties. Henrietta Wells served her community as a social worker for many years.
Inspiring a Young Cast
In a similar way, Denzel Washington spoke into the lives of the three young actors who starred in these impressive roles.
One of the most important lessons in The Great Debaters is found in one of its memorable lines, a saying Washington has told his own children.
“We do what we got to do, so we can do what we want to do.”
It’s a response James Jr. has in a conversation with his father who is instructing him on how to keep his priorities straight. Meaning, you can accomplish anything if you have the passion, hard work, and education to back it up.
Although Washington understands the importance of debating topics in the public forum, he’s not one you’ll find there.
“I don’t need to debate. Talk is cheap, that’s my philosophy. I’m about doing. So, I don’t need to talk about it. I’d rather do it,” he says.
He’s a man of action. It’s not enough just to talk of change; you have to be one who’s willing to do something about it.
Washington’s character and mentoring encouraged the young actors he worked with on this project.
“What inspires me most about Denzel Washington is his integrity,” says Nate Parker, who plays the passionately outspoken Henry Lowe.
Parker describes Washington as a man who still has a sense of morality even after 35 years in the movie industry. When Parker looks back on his career years from now, he says he’ll happy if he's considered a man of integrity as well.
“It was important for me when watching him everyday to see if that is who he was. And he didn’t let me down,” Parker says. “In every moment, whether it was off set or if it was on the phone, he carried himself in a way that inspired me to be more like him in the future.”
“We were all making a film together. It was a team effort. And for him to be our leader and to be the one with the most awards, for him to be able to check his ego at the door and ask sometimes what we thought was so amazing to me. It spoke volumes about his character,” says Jurnee Smollett, an up-and-coming actress who stars as the feisty female teammate Samantha Booke.
Denzel Whitaker, the young actor in the role of James Farmer Jr., also sees Washington as a personal role model. He even jots down quotes his mentor says, everything he’s told him, on his computer. Before auditions now, Whitaker looks at them for encouragement.
“Personally, I’ve always looked up to him from the beginning of my acting career,” Whitaker says. “I just love how he’s humble.”
Mentors in the Bible
This concept of mentorship is rooted in God’s word. To teach and guide is very much a biblical principle, one that’s sure to have crossed Washington’s mind in his own Bible study.
Take a look at most of the stories in the Bible and you’ll find how important a mentor can be in the life of another. Moses taught Joshua and the elders of Israel. Elijah mentored Elisha. But, the influence just doesn’t stop with the mentored.
Eli taught Samuel, who in turn spoke into the lives Saul and David, one of Israel’s greatest kings. David mentored his son, Solomon, one of the wisest and riches kings to ever live. He taught the Queen of Sheba the wisdom of God and she returned to her people sharing it in the form of Proverbs.
Jesus discipled 12 apostles, who established the early Christian church. The world has never been the same because a few disciples took what they learned and taught others, who taught even more. The rest is Church history.
The impact one mentor has on another life is world changing. Create a good environment for those you mentor and speak wisdom into their lives, but also allow them to teach you. Even more than using words to encourage the young people around you, show by example.
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