These kids are great philosophers.
— Carlos Alberto Torres, Director of Friere Institute at UCLA
“Number one fear in America: public speaking. Number two is death.” Thirty seconds in, Cal State Fullerton debate coach Jon Bruschke’s observation seems to sum up the focus of Resolved. A speedy montage of kids spewing words at incredible speed, their voices hiccupy and their faces pained, suggests the documentary is all about the rigors and contortions of today’s high school debate. “I was a nerd,” confesses former debater Karl Rove, “and being able to excel in something gives everybody confidence.”
You know what’s coming. But then Resolved turns into something else. Rather than focus solely on the huffing-and-puffing, frighteningly insular incarnations of geek-intensity, it is transformed by a veer to two debaters from Jordan High School in Long Beach, California, Louis Blackwell and Richard Funches. “Every Hollywood movie ever is about the long shot, the kids from the wrong side of the tracks who nobody thinks can win and they hit the one in a million jackpot,” says Bruschke. The camera pulls out from Louis as he speaks from a podium, wearing a Gorillaz t-shirt, his hand raised to emphasize his point. He and Richard look like this movie’s long shot. But their story is something else.
Premiering 16 June on HBO’s Monday Documentary Films Series, Resolved spends some minutes (aided by Sean Donnelly’s collage-animation) laying out the debate conventions Richard and Louis will challenge. Known as The Spread, the dominant style since the 1960s has been to speak as fast as possible, hundreds of words a minute offering discomforting evidence of months of research. “Since the invention of this new strategy,” says the narrator, “eloquence and persuasion took a back seat to debates which placed a greater emphasis on information and academic research.” Over decades, as The Spread (the name itself a collapse of the phrase “speed reading”) increased their rate of orating-and-gulping, participants turned to jargon, further sucking them into the whirl of a world of high school policy option debates — an ongoing press “to say more with less” — where no one outside can comprehend what they say.
By way of example, Resolved offers Spread superstars from Texas’ Highland Park High School. Sam Iola, a senior who teams with the gifted sophomore Matt Andrews for the 2005 season, the film indicating their social awkwardness alongside their brilliance: Sam, says a classmate, “is much better at debate than he is at life, as a bit of footage shows him unable to master the button that should open a campus building door. “I tried homework for a while,” smiles Sam, his darting eyes indicating his un-ease before the camera. Hardworking and focused in his own way, he doesn’t quite explain his decision to read Foucault rather than the assigned Plato (they’re both philosophers), but devotes himself wholeheartedly to his last season on the circuit, even as, he concedes, debating “just kind of seems like it’s frozen in time a little bit.”
At the same time, in another dimension of the debating world, the film follows Louis and Richard’s challenge to the conventions that Sam and Matt embody so completely. Jordan coach Dave Wiltz explains their decision in terms laid out by Paolo Friere, their style premised on three elements, “identity, purpose, method.” They want to “challenge the activity of debate itself,” include their personal experience in formulating arguments, to engage opponents in exchanges rather than overwhelm them “with a preponderance of arguments.”
It’s easy to be sympathetic to their cause. For one thing, you can understand what they say. For another, their fundamental case has to do with social justice and resistance to oppression. Certainly they stand out at tournaments, often the only black kids in sight. Filmmaker Greg Whiteley remembers spotting them at a Berkeley tournament while researching high school debates for the film he wouldn’t end up making: “Being the only two African Americans that I could see at the whole tournament, they stuck out.” Believing he needed to focus on winners, to go through a tournament season for the film, he was glad when, after his first encounter with Richard and Louis, they started winning, and so changed the project’s shape: “We were just lucky enough to be there and to be filming,” he says, when the team “caught fire.”
Aside from being an object lesson in the vagaries of documentary-making (your subject is not always what you think it is when you start), Resolved‘s evolution leads to a sophisticated critique of high school debating culture as it reflects broader socioeconomic and political structures. Richard and Louis argue against the oppressive exclusivity of the debating system per se. One participant resists the case: “They’re participating in the system,” he says, “saying the system is oppressive. I think that’s butchering the activity. I don’t think that’s how debate is supposed to be argued or debated.”
His concern is followed in the film by a similar sentiment expressed by former debater Samuel Alito (“Debating has certain qualities that should not be changed”) and then by Carlos Alberto Torres, Director of Friere Institute at UCLA: “They are searching for an authentic dialogue. How they will be received I don’t know. But look, revolutionaries are never well received until they actually act and transform reality.”
This transformation will surely be slow to come. (Witness one well-meaning Caucasian professor, in tweed hat and coat, declaring his version of Richard and Louis’ case: “We ain’t gonna play by your rules because you white boys have controlled this game for years and we are gonna play it another way.” Let’s just say his self-performance here is awkward.) Former debater Juan Williams notes the problem posed by even beginning the conversation, the importance of choosing words carefully: “When you yell racism in American life, it freezes the conversation. You wanna have conversations about things that are way outside the structures of debate.” In various ways, Resolved makes clear the opposition between old-school reading off well-assembled papers, a vested-interest style, and Louis and Richard’s more improvisational, hip-hop-inflected and equally well researched, style of discussion.
It only helps the film’s dramatic arc that during 2006, the year of the Jordan team’s rise, the national tournament debate resolution is, “The United States federal government should substantially decrease its authority to either detain without cause or search without probable cause.” It’s an incredibly apt question for Richard and Louis’s essential challenge. Not only does it focus the arguments through prisms ranging from Guantánamo Bay, racial profiling, and habeas corpus, through government surveillance, but it also sets up exactly for the Jordan team’s premise, that “We are not going to comply with this racist, sexist, homophobic, classist framework.” Instead, they speak in plain, passionate language, using exceptional means of persuasion and careful reasoning. Articulating a response echoed throughout the film, one participant asserts, “That was a debate about the real issues. That’s probably one of the coolest debates we’ve ever done, hands down.”
Indeed, the conversations initiated by Richard and Louis threaten status quos and open up new ways of speaking. They fight back against the abstraction and disengagement of debating from “the real world.” As Richard puts it, debating is “supposed to teach us to be political activists, yet it allows you to argue that nuclear war in some concept is a good thing.” He and Louis begin from another place, then lead their listeners “way outside the structures of debate.” More power to them.