A Talk With Denzel Whitaker
Living With Racism

One might think that Denzel Whitaker is the son of Forest Whitaker, named for good friend Denzel Washington—especially given that he’s starring in The Great Debaters alongside both Washington and Whitaker. One might even think that his abilities are genetically inherited, given how well he does opposite these two award-winning dynamos.

But Denzel Whitaker, who first came across Washington’s radar during production of 2001’s Training Day, is unrelated to the older actors. Name recognition certainly helps in this business, though!

Courtesy of a national publicist, PtP Managing Editor Greg Wright had the opportunity to talk with Whitaker over the phone for a few minutes.

The whole age thing is pretty amusing to me in this film. I knew nothing about you going in, and when your character first shows up on screen, I thought to myself, “Holy cow! That kid is awfully young to be in college. He can’t be more than fourteen!” And then it turns out that is the age of the character—but you were sixteen and seventeen when you performing that role, right?

Denzel Whitaker as James Farmer, Jr.

Denzel Whitaker: Correct.

So how does it feel to be one of the few people in Hollywood who has no problem looking younger than his age?

DW: Well, that’s the thing. Hollywood likes older people who can play younger. It’s advantageous for them, and it’s advantageous for me.

But that turns the usual thing upsidedown. When you’re sixteen or seventeen years old, the last thing you want is to look younger, right?

DW: Right.

In the real world.

DW: In the real world, yes. But there are certain advantages. Some days, you want to look older. I guess that’s the thing about attraction.

Yeah.

DW: Yeah.

Which plays out for your character in the context of the movie, too. Because your character doesn’t get the girl, in part, because he’s younger.

DW: Yeah. Right, right. Exactly.

And I think we’ve all felt that frustration. In the production notes—and I don’t know if this is real, or if this is just what the publicists write—both Forest Whitaker and Kimberly Elise refer to you as “Little Denzel.”

DW: Yes.

How does that rub you?

DW: Great ways. It’s a compliment to be compared to Denzel Washington, for me to do my acting and be called that—and even before or after seeing my acting ability.

And your performance in the film was very impressive.

DW: Well, thank you.

Particularly the climactic scenes at Harvard. They’re particularly moving. I think it was just a couple of years ago about this time that Glory Road came out, which was also one of those true-to-life stories. And the tagline from that one was “Winning changes everything.” And at the time, that kind of rubbed me a little bit the wrong way, because it seemed to be telling the wrong story. It seemed to me that the injustice was the story there, and not the winning. Here, the story’s message seems to be very different, which is that winning isn’t what makes the difference—it’s what people do with ideas. Doing the right thing is what makes the difference.

DW: Very interesting. It’s not all about winning. The real story is that Wiley College went on to debate USC, who were the national champions [at the time]. And when they went to debate USC and won, USC did not give them the trophy. They did not acknowledge Wiley as the winners, because they were supposedly “out of their range” of society. So even though they didn’t get the trophy they were still winners. And they still went on and were national champions.

And the epilogue to the movie is what really drove the point home for me—which was that it wasn’t a single event like a debate changed things; it was how that event changed the lives of individuals, who then went on to other things that really did affect society and culture.

DW: Correct.

So what are your experiences with that? It’s interesting that the real Wiley team debated in California, because that’s where you grew up, right?

DW: Yes.

Now, obviously racism expresses itself differently in different parts of the country. What it means to be a minority in California isn’t the same as what it means to be a minority in Georgia or even Connecticut. What has been your experience with racism?

DW: Mainly, I’ve experienced basic forms of prejudice. The area I live in right now is predominantly Caucasian, and when we first moved up there—I’d say about twelve years ago—we were about the first African Americans. And even the deeds to the houses around us still say, “Sell to whites only.”

Really.

DW: Yes.

No kidding.

DW: And it’s one of those things. Just a couple of miles away is where one of the biggest clans of the KKK existed.

In California.

DW: Yes. So I’ve experienced it. I walked into a store to try on clothes, and the lady didn’t check other people’s clothes [that they were taking into the dressing rooms]. But she went through every single article [of mine] to make sure I had only five pieces, and that there wasn’t anything stuffed in the pockets. I’ve had that happen to me. I’ve had someone follow my mom and me around through the grocery market—right when we moved up—just to make sure we were putting all the items in our basket. And my mom had to turn around—and they ended up having to give us gift cards and roses, because they knew what they were doing was wrong. Just being prejudiced.

Well, I guess winning hasn’t changed everything. That’s really disappointing to hear. So where do we go from here? How do things improve?

DW: Well, I will say we have gotten better. In the areas where I live now, there are a lot more African Americans coming up. And we are becoming more diverse with other cultures as well, and different races. So that’s a great thing. To be honest, when you look back on our history, things were worse. We [have come] a long way. Before, you’d have to step off the sidewalk and say “Yes, sir!” to even as little as a five-year-old, a Caucasian five-year-old, walking down the street. So we have [come] a long way as a society toward being equal. But even today, the nooses are coming back into play. And that’s just as bad as burning crosses—hanging nooses on trees. So there’s still evidence of racism and hatred. As Americans, we still have a long way to go.

So within the Black community, is this film being held out as a symbol of hope for raising more awareness of race issues?

DW: It’s one of those things where you don’t hear people talking about lynchings; but when you do, a little dim light shines where there isn’t a lot of light. And this movie really kind of puts it in your face. But Denzel doesn’t beat it over your head; he says it’s not an issue of black and white, it’s about shades of gray. You didn’t see these people moping around; they didn’t walk around with chips on their shoulders and say, “It’s so racist—so I’m going to be evil toward the world.” They have their good sides, and their bad sides. Their good days and their bad days. And that’s one of the things that Denzel really pushed for. So yes, I think it will open up minds a little bit more, and expand on a little history that people don’t know about. It will get people a little more aware of what’s going on.

This was a Harpo Films production. Did you have an contact with Oprah Winfrey during production? Was she around much, or was she pretty hands-off?

DW: She was hands-on during pre-production, and then she pretty much passed it on to Denzel. She knew that he was going to nurture it and care for it, just like she did. And she trusted what he had to bring to the table.

Be sure to also read Greg’s review of The Great Debaters.