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Denzel Dazzles in Harvard Premiere

By Charles J. Wells, Crimson Staff Writer

Without the small red carpet spread on the ground outside, a passerby could easily have mistaken the black-tie event at the Carpenter Center on Tuesday night for one of the House formals.

But this wasn't just another Yule Ball. Inside the center's screening room, two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington premiered his latest film, "The Great Debaters," portraying the success of a black college's debate team over Harvard amid the segregation of the 1930s.

Representatives of Harvard's cultural groups and a select few lottery winners had access to the event's highly coveted seats, half of which were filled by prominent community leaders, both inside and outside of Harvard.

Washington shot the movie on campus this July after Dr. Allen S. Counter, head of the Harvard Foundation, said that Washington promised to debut the film at Harvard. A close friend of the actor, Counter said he was surprised after finding out that Washington would be keeping his promise.

Washington made the offer in light of the story's location and Counter's help in navigating Harvard's complicated filming guidelines, Counter added. The Foundation, an intercultural agency, hosted the premiere.

Washington directed and stars in the movie, and was present at the event—at least for part of it.

Counter introduced the film without Washington, saying "Denzel wants us to get this rolling." But it was unclear if the man of the hour even watched the movie with the audience or not, as he did not appear until after the final credits.

Pressed for time, Washington answered about 10 students' questions. First, he noted that in the real tale, the Wiley College debaters competed against students from the University of Southern California, not Harvard.

"We set the debate here because Harvard is the gold standard," he said.

But he added jokingly that "Yale is the platinum standard," in defense of the school his daughter currently attends.

Bryan C. Barnhill '08, president of the Black Men's Forum, asked Washington what vision he hoped the audience would take away from the film.

"I don't dare decide what the audience will take," the actor replied, saying he believes each individual takes away something different from a movie.

Notable black leaders who had gathered to honor Washington were scattered around the room, including Dr. J. Keith Motley, the first black chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Boston and the first black head of any major research university in the Greater Boston area.

Motley said the film's message of overcoming societal barriers is still relevant, as it forwards "the idea of being able to look beyond where you are in society and to achieve at levels beyond where some folks may not have dreamed for you to go."

Renowned opera singer Simon Estes sang "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" for Washington, adding a robust, operatic vibrato to a spiritual he said was a favorite of Martin Luther King Jr.

Washington was also greeted after the event by Mildred Boutin Prothrow, a 1941 graduate of Wiley College. The 90-year-old woman, wearing her college colors, said she personally knew each of the film's protagonists. "They were pretty much the same in real life," she said.

Prothrow said James Farmer, Jr., the young student who led the debate team to victory, was the reason she decided to attend Wiley.

After star-struck students and faculty alike approached the actor, Washington exited, stage left.

--Staff writer Charlie J. Wells can be reached at wells2@fas.harvard.edu.

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