Movie News & Reviews

KC debater’s life to become a movie produced by Brad Pitt and other powerhouses

In 2013, as students cheered and clapped, debate partners Elijah Smith (left) and Kansas City’s Ryan Wash displayed their trophies after winning two national debate titles. Wash’s life will be the subject of a movie.
In 2013, as students cheered and clapped, debate partners Elijah Smith (left) and Kansas City’s Ryan Wash displayed their trophies after winning two national debate titles. Wash’s life will be the subject of a movie. skeyser@kcstar.com

Ryan Wash, a fiery debater from Kansas City’s urban core whose unconventional style helped him win an unprecedented two national debating championships, is getting the big screen motion picture treatment.

And, boy, do we mean big.

Brad Pitt’s Plan B production company is teaming with Annapurna Pictures and Macro Ventures to finance, produce and distribute Wash’s coming-of-age film, according to Deadline Hollywood. Those are the companies behind such Hollywood darlings as “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Her,” “American Hustle,” “Selma,” the new, critically acclaimed “Detroit” and best picture winners “The Departed, “12 Years a Slave” and “Moonlight.”

Daniel Barnz (“Cake,” “Won’t Back Down”) will direct and co-write the script with Wash and Ned Zeman, a writer for Vanity Fair. Wash will also serve as an executive producer.

Wash confirmed the news to The Star but said he is not allowed to comment — for now.

But in an earlier interview from his days at Kansas City’s Central High School, he talked about the rigors of debate: “It’s tiring,” Wash said then. “It’s exhausting and sometimes frustrating. But at the same time, it’s inspiring. And if you’re dedicated, debate becomes your life.”

The not-yet-titled movie will detail Wash’s upbringing in Kansas City and the turmoils he endured — including the loss of his mother and coming to terms with his identity as a gay black man. He overcame those obstacles in large part because of the empowerment found in the world of competitive debating.

“It is a world that simultaneously inspires and betrays him, until he embraces his own identity and revolutionizes the debate establishment,” reports Deadline. “The ambition is an inspirational coming-of-age RuPaul infected debate-opera protest film with a sports-movie drive.”

Back in high school in 2007, Wash had told The Star he did not imagine himself as a debater. He won a chess tournament at Central, and the school’s debate coach, Jane Rinehart, sought him out.

Wash and other urban debaters infused the traditional debate format with personal stories and theatrical flair — pounding the desk, slamming his fist into his hand — testing the boundaries of norms that benefited the middle class and elite status quo.

“I personalize it,” Wash had said in the 2007 interview. “I want to answer how I would answer, not how the (standard researched evidence) card would answer. I answer in the way that is best for me. The controversy is that they (some judges and officials) don’t like our style of debate.”

Wash went on to debate for Emporia State University. In 2013, Wash and his Emporia teammate, Elijah Smith of New Jersey, won the National Debate Tournament policy debate championship, a first for an all-black team. They also won the Cross Examination Debate Association championship — the first time any team had won both titles.

Wash is now an assistant coach for New Jersey’s Rutgers University-Newark debate team, which won both of those tournaments earlier this year.

“One thing Ryan taught me,” Smith told The Star in 2013, “is that debate is not worth it if you’re not saying what you truly want to say.”

This is what they fought for, Wash said: “Everybody is welcome in debate. Debate can be home for you.”

Aaron Randle: 816-234-4060, @aaronronel

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