Pulling Double Duty On The Great Debaters Was Never Denzel Washington's Plan

Denzel Washington received his 10th Academy Award nomination for his performance in "The Tragedy of Macbeth." The performance received widespread acclaim from a major director in Joel Coen taking quite a big pivot from his usual work. Entering his late 60s, Washington keeps showing us new, exciting things on screen that prove why he was one of our finest living actors.

Did you know Washington also directed a movie that came out in 2021? And that it starred Michael B. Jordan? Based on the film's paltry box office receipts, not many of you did. I saw "A Journal for Jordan." It was ... fine. The film is based on a memoir by Dana Canedy, played by Chanté Adams, and her relationship with an army sergeant who tragically dies in Iraq shortly after their child is born. It's a sentimental romance that traffics in some troubling male stereotypes about protectiveness and duty and near-propaganda for the military. It's the kind of mid-budget movie you would see constantly in the 1990s and feels almost unique nowadays, but it's not particularly inspired material.

This was Washington's fourth film as a director. Notably, though, it was the first he did not appear in. Going back to his directorial debut, "Antwone Fisher" in 2002, he had taken on major roles in his films, usually the leads. His film prior to "A Journal for Jordan" was "Fences," which scored him an Oscar nomination as a leading actor. Despite him being one of our finest actors, it was never his intention to be the star of his movies. "A Journal for Jordan" may have been the first film he did not appear in, but it was not the first he did not want to appear in. That would be his sophomore effort, 2007's "The Great Debaters."

'It's called money'

Getting a movie made is exceptionally difficult, even if you are one of the world's biggest stars. If you come to a studio without definite box office potential, you will face a mighty uphill battle. Sometimes you have to make concessions to get things done. Denzel Washington had to do this for "The Great Debaters." Initially, Washington was not keen on starring in the film. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Washington said he "hated" having to simultaneously act and direct "Antwone Fisher."

So when it came time to make "The Great Debaters," he had no intention of being in it, but the problem the studios saw was, how do you sell that this is a Denzel Washington movie even though Denzel Washington is not in it? Washington reluctantly agreed to star in the film, saying:

"It's called money. It's called: They're not gonna give you enough money unless there's someone of a certain name to do it."

Even Washington has to bow occasionally to studio pressure. Of the experience of acting and directing on the second go-round, he said, "It wasn't so bad, but I wouldn't really look forward to doing it again." Of course, that did not hold, since his next film was "Fences," and he once again took on the leading role. However, that was a bit different because he had played the iconic August Wilson role on Broadway for about 100 performances, including previews. He had lived with the part and was not necessarily doing the same kind of prep he would for roles he had never done before. "A Journal for Jordan" came around and he could finally do what he had wanted to do as a director since his first film: Just be a director.

Hilariously, the studio still wanted to make sure people knew "A Journal for Jordan" was a Denzel Washington movie, so we are treated to the strange choice of Denzel Washington announcing in voice-over, "See it exclusively in movie theaters this Christmas," in the film's teaser trailer. Yeah. That'll fool 'em.