Posted Dec. 21, 2007 -- The young woman wearing the form-fitting gray pencil skirt, sleeveless black top and five-inch pumps seemed oblivious to the people camped outside her hotel suite as she strolled down the hall, trailed by a mélange of publicists, siblings, friends and other important-looking folks.
Although she was sporting her game face when she walked into her room, shrieks and laughter soon ensued once Jurnee Smollett, one of the stars of “The Great Debaters,” shut her door. She had just finished an interview with the History Channel, and she was very excited because history, as I would soon find out, is one of her favorite subjects. And, it didn’t hurt that Denzel Washington was doing the teaching.
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When the door opened Smollett, whom most folks remember from her role as Eve Batiste in “Eve’s Bayou,” greeted me with a smile, a firm handshake and then introduced me to her older sister, Jazz. When I mentioned that they are the only two girls in the Smollett clan – which includes four other brothers – Smollett sprang from her chair and gave me a high-five for doing my research.
Smollett, 21, had to do a little digging herself to take on her role in “The Great Debaters,” which hits theaters on Christmas Day. She knew nothing about the story or Henrietta Wells, the woman who inspired the composite character (Samantha Booke) that Smollett plays in the film. Wells was the first female debater on the Wiley College debate team and was part of the squad led by noted poet and educator Melvin B. Tolson, that went on to beat Harvard for the national title in 1935.
“I knew nothing about this story – and I’m to be entirely honest – it was a little enraging that I didn’t know anything about it,” said Smollett, a committed social activist who works with the Junior Defense League and is the youngest board member of Artists for a New South Africa. “My mom has raised us on knowing our past, and we’ve read books and discussed stories our entire lives, but we never knew about this story. It speaks volumes really about our history just being silenced. I wanted to be a part of something that was telling a face of history that we don’t know about.”
Smollett, a native New Yorker, enjoyed the journey.
“It was very humbling,” she said. “My research was pretty extensive, even before I auditioned for the role. Going back and re-reading a lot of the books that my mom had around the house, that led to me just going deeper and deeper and deeper. Pretty much anything post-Civil War, I wanted to know about. I read as much as I could. I read the authors that were mentioned in the script (Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen) and even some of the ones that aren’t, like Richard Wright. I really went back to the women, too, like Ida B. Wells and Charlotte E. Ray, who was the first Black woman to get her law degree, and the Marian Andersons. It was very humbling because I stand on their shoulders. Because they existed, I’m able to sit down with you right now.”
Although Smollett spent a lot of time with Wells, who is now 96 and still living in Texas, all of that bonding didn’t really influence the southern accent she developed for the role.
“You know that the weirdest thing was that when I read the script, I just heard it,” she said with a laugh. “That was a few months before I actually auditioned. By the time I had auditioned I just did that. Once I got the role, I asked D [Denzel] if I should work with a dialogue coach, and he was, like, don’t change a thing.”
Washington thought that Smollett’s performance was “simply brilliant.” And she had nothing but kudos for his skills in front of and behind the camera.
“One, he directs you in the way I would imagine he wants to be directed,” Smollett said. “He’s so in tune with us. He knows how to stay out of our way, and then he knows how to whisper one thing in your ear that just opens your world up. Most importantly, he’s a collaborator that encouraged us to trust ourselves.”
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