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OFF SCREEN

There was no debate about training actors for this film

December 23, 2007|Pamela Chelin

THESE days, "debate" calls up images of candidates lobbing non sequiturs and pyrotechnic diversions at each other. But that's not the way it works, according to debate coach Thomas F. Freeman.

"An issue has little validity in a particular debate if it's not related to the subject," says Freeman, whose credentials include being a professor at Texas Southern University, church pastor and now consultant to Denzel Washington's new film "The Great Debaters."

Washington tapped Freeman to train a team of young actors for the movie, which is based on the real-life experiences of the debate team at Texas' Wiley College. The squad made headlines when its black students took on (and defeated) teams from white schools in the North in the 1930s.

The director and the professor compared notes over dinner, and before long, Freeman had set up a workshop that Washington called "boot camp" to help the actors perform more naturally.

So, what did Freeman aim to teach them about the nature of debate? "The best kind deals with facts and develops an argument in support of the facts," Freeman offers. "I don't teach students to take a position. I teach them to analyze the position and the facts. Search the facts, and if they contradict your opinion, your opinion isn't as valid you thought it was."

No argument here.

-- Pamela Chelin

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