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A proud graduate of the 'School of Janet'

Jurnee Smollett relished making 'The Great Debaters,' and credits her mom, an inspiration.

December 24, 2007|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

In Denzel Washington's new film "The Great Debaters," we are introduced to a young woman who is poised, talented and determined to succeed as a college debater against a field of men, but who knows that to accomplish that goal she will have to overcome not only prejudice based on race, but also based on gender.

Her name is Samantha Booke and in the film, which is set at Wiley College in eastern Texas during the Great Depression, she becomes the first woman selected by debate coach Melvin B. Tolson to compete on the debate team at the historically black school. It would go on to defeat numerous white teams from larger, more prestigious colleges and universities. The movie is inspired by real-life events.

Actress Jurnee Smollett knew from the moment she read Robert Eisele's script that the role of Samantha Booke embodied all the dramatic elements that young black actresses of our own era crave but so seldom get to play on-screen.

"I've gotten so many scripts where if you're not on the sideline cheering your boyfriend on, you're fighting with him about cheating on you or you're just set dressing," Smollett said, looking down and shaking her head.

"I always told my representatives, 'Look, I come from the 'School of Janet' -- that's my mom -- she raised me to know that I'm more than just set dressing. So, getting a script like this is rare."

Smollett, 21, is no longer standing on the sidelines. Her powerful performance -- especially in one scene where she is at the podium, fire in her eyes, steel in her voice, demanding "Freedom now!" -- makes Booke emerge not only as a top debater among her male peers, but also as a fearless champion for justice during a period of American history when blacks were still being lynched by the side of the road.

Washington, who directed the movie and stars in it too as professor Tolson, has said that Smollett was the first and only actress to read for the pivotal part in the picture, which is produced by talk-show host Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Films and due for release on Christmas Day.

Smollett has spent a lifetime before the cameras, from the time she was 10 months old appearing in Pampers commercials; to childhood roles in TV sitcoms such as "On Our Own," where she starred with her real-life sister and four brothers; and CBS' "Cosby," or in films such as 1997's "Eve's Bayou." More recently, she appeared in "Gridiron Gang," starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, and "Roll Bounce," starring Bow Wow.

Smollett said that when she first read the script for "The Great Debaters," she became "obsessed with the character" of Booke.

Like many others today, Smollett said she had never heard of the accomplishments of the Wiley College debating team, so she studied up on the college and the era at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City as well as at libraries in Los Angeles.

Some characters in the film, such as debate coach Tolson (Washington), team member James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker) and the boy's father (Forest Whitaker), are based on historical figures. Farmer would go on to become a leading figure in the U.S. civil-rights movement, co-founding the Congress of Racial Equality. Booke's character was inspired by Henrietta Bell, class of 1934, who was not a member of the award-winning debate team but was its first female member.

Smollett said she had tried to imagine how to play the role, but it wasn't until Washington put her in touch with the now-96-year-old Bell that she found the way. The two women's budding friendship allowed the actress to alter in some ways her interpretation of the character.

"We're both Libras," Smollett said. "She was born Oct. 11, and I was born Oct. 1, and that really changed the character I had created. There were a number of things about her I ended up making adjustments for. It was more of a quiet storm type of thing. From the beginning, I knew she was a girl from an affluent background, or as affluent as you could be back then for a 'colored' girl, [but] I was pleasantly surprised how similar the character I was building was to her."

Smollett gives credit for much of her success to her own mother, Janet, who "had a very socially active life."

"She marched and she did the sit-ins and she did voter organizing," Smollett said. "It built that whole warrior spirit inside of all of us. She told me, 'You've been given this talent for a reason. It's not for you to gloat in the fame, because there are always people around who will pat you on the back, but you have to know at the end of the day, you are to use this talent for a bigger purpose.' "

"The Great Debaters" was shot in small towns near Shreveport. La., and the production also filmed one day in Marshall, Texas, home to Wiley College, and at Harvard University in Massachusetts.

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