April 14, 2024

News Release: March 19, 2008

Great Debaters' Robert Eisele and Jeffrey Porro to Receive Writers Guild West's 2008 Paul Selvin Award

2008 Award Recipient

Screenwriter Robert Eisele and his story collaborator Jeffrey Porro are slated to receive the Writers Guild of America West's prestigious 2008 Paul Selvin Award, celebrating written work that embodies the spirit of constitutional rights and civil liberties, for their thought-provoking screenplay for The Great Debaters.

Both writers, along with other Guild lifetime achievement and service honorees, will be feted at the WGA West's 2008 Honorary Awards Luncheon on April 23 at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles.

"This screenplay is a profound story of the power of words and collective resolve, two things which writers are always willing to employ and embrace,” commented WGAW President Patric M. Verrone.

Based on an inspiring true story, The Great Debaters - screenplay by Robert Eisele, story by Robert Eisele & Jeffrey Porro - chronicles the journey of English Professor Melvin Tolson, a brilliant but volatile debate team coach who wields the power of words to transform a group of underdog students enrolled at Wiley College, a black institution in the Jim Crow South of the 1930s, into an elite debate team. Regarded as an intense taskmaster who demands the highest standards from his students, Tolson - who also concealed another kind of literary secret as one of America's leading poets - challenged his era's social mores with both his unconventional teaching methods and then-radical political views.

Charged by a series of impassioned political and philosophical debates, the film's moving, still-topical screenplay charts the course of a group of African-American students discovering the power of their collective voice - and making it heard - in an era wrought with racism and discrimination.

Directed by Denzel Washington and released by The Weinstein Company and MGM (Metro Goldwyn Mayer) during winter 2007, The Great Debaters recently won four NAACP Image Awards, including Outstanding Motion Picture, Actor (Denzel Washington), and Actress (Jurnee Smollett), as well as garnering eight NAACP Image Award nominations, including Outstanding Writing in a Motion Picture for Eisele. The screenplay also won the Christopher Award, and the film earned a 2008 Golden Globe nomination (Best Motion Picture - Drama), as well as the National Board of Review's Freedom of Expression Award and the Producers Guild of America's Stanley Kramer Award.

In 1997, Porro first discovered a magazine article on the Southern student debaters featured in the film. Moved by their life-affirming true story, Porro and Eisele were inspired to conduct further research on the historical subject matter, ultimately interviewing all the living debaters at Wiley, which at the time (circa 1998) included renown civil rights leader, James Famer, Jr., who died in 1999. Collaborating on the story, the pair eventually sold the narrative as a pitch to Oprah Winfrey's own Harpo Productions, where Eisele was hired to write the film's screenplay.

Eisele, a three-time Writers Guild Award nominee, will see his original screenplay, Patriots, begin principal photography in April, directed by Tim Story and starring Forest Whitaker. In 2004, his ESPN telefilm, 3 (The Dale Earnhardt Story), received the second-highest rating for a cable movie. Eisele served as executive producer of Showtime's acclaimed cable series, Resurrection Blvd., winner of the 2001 Alma Award for Best Episodic Drama, and his writing on the show earned a 2002 WGA nomination for Episodic Drama. In 1995, Eisele received his second WGA nomination for penning the teleplay for USA's Lily in Winter (story by Eisele and J. Michael Riva & Julie Moskowitz & Gary Stephens) for which he also served as co-executive producer. The telefilm earned Eisele a 1996 Pen Center USA Literary Award nomination for Best Teleplay. Eisele's 1993 Showtime original feature, Last Light, garnered Eisele his first WGA nomination, as well as three Cable-Ace Award nominations for the film. Earlier in his career, Eisele's “Ordinary Hero” episode of TV's Cagney & Lacey won both a 1986 Humanitas

Prize and Imagen Award. His other writing credits include, among others, TV's Crime Story (story editor, 1986-87), and The Equalizer (supervising producer, 1987-89).

Founder and principal of his own Porro Associates LLC firm in Washington D.C., Jeffrey Porro is an in-demand communications strategist and speech writer whose clients include CEOs of Eastman Chemicals, the McGraw Hill Companies, Office Depot, and Bristol Myers Squibb. He has also written for former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, former President Jimmy Carter, and presidents of some of the nation's leading trade and professional associations. Porro holds a Ph.D. in political science from UCLA. Earlier in his career, he was an associate editor of Teacher Magazine, an assistant editor of the National Academy of Sciences' Issues in Science and Technology, and an op-ed and speechwriter for People for the American Way. He has also served as a Senate staffer, a State Department official, and an arms control specialist for the Arms Control Association. He was senior vice president of M&R Strategic Services, a Washington, D.C., political communications firm, from 1999 to 2002.

The Paul Selvin Award is given to that WGA member(s) whose script “best embodies the spirit of constitutional and civil rights and liberties, which are indispensable to the survival of free writers everywhere, and to whose defense Paul Selvin committed his professional life.” Selvin served as counsel to the WGAW for 25 years. Previous recipients include Allison Cross, George Stevens Jr., David E. Kelley, Eric Roth, Michael Mann, Jason Horwitch, and Don Payne.