Film Chronicles High-School Debate Teams Filmmaker Greg Whiteley's new documentary, Resolved, enters the world of high-school debate teams. Whiteley and one of the debaters featured in the documentary, Louis Blackwell, discuss the film.
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Film Chronicles High-School Debate Teams

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Film Chronicles High-School Debate Teams

Film Chronicles High-School Debate Teams

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos.


And I'm Noah Adams.

AMOS: Noah, I want you to listen to something.

ADAMS: Okay.

(Soundbite of movie, "Resolved")

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)

AMOS: Did you understand any of that?

ADAMS: It sounds like that guy is having a little bit of difficulty on that particular day?

(Soundbite of laughter)

AMOS: And there's spitting involved, Noah. Well, that's how high school debate sounds today. You remember a high school debate, right, where a student squares off behind the podium, making arguments and then shooting down the arguments of their opponents.

In the last two decades, debate's gotten faster and faster. The more arguments a team makes in the allotted time, the harder it becomes for their opponents to rebut those claims. A new film, "Resolved," documents the high stakes, high-speed world of high school debate. I spoke with the director of the documentary, Greg Whiteley.

Mr. GREG WHITELEY (Director, "Resolved"): One critic wrote it's more action-packed and fast-paced than "Transformers."

AMOS: You focus on two particular teams. Let's talk a little bit about them. Let's start with Sam and the boy.

Mr. WHITELEY: Well, Sam, when we catch up to him, he is a senior and he's widely considered the best debater in the country. And what makes him unique is he's probably, at some point, close to flunking out of his own high school. He's not a good student because of the way his high school kind of worked out.

When he was a junior, his senior partner had graduated, and so he had to take on a brand new debater. He picked this sophomore who quote-unquote "had lots of potential." He wasn't worthy enough to be debating with Sam. And so the debate team decided that he didn't get to have a name, so they just called him the boy.

AMOS: He had to earn his name.

Mr. WHITELEY: he had to earn his name, that's right.

AMOS: The second team you focus on are just as interesting for different reasons. And that's Richard and Louis from Long Beach, California. Tell us about them.

Mr. WHITELEY: These two kids completely hijacked my film. They're two kids from Long Beach. They go to Long Beach during high school. You would consider it an inner city school. They are two African-Americans. If you go to any debate tournament, you could go the whole tournament and not see one person of African-American descent.

And so to find them - they stick out in that way, but they also are just so engaging. As it turns out, by their sheer talent they're two of the top debaters in the country, which is extremely where it's A) it's extremely rare to come from the inner city and be able to compete at this level; and to B) be a person of color is an added dimension that is unique in the activity of high school debate.

I think the movie would have been something much different. Like I mentioned, they hijacked my film and the film is much more rich for it.

AMOS: Joining me in the studio are Dave Wiltz and Louis Blackwell. Dave coached Louis and his debate partner, Richard Funches, at Jordan High School in Long Beach, California. Dave Wiltz and Louis Blackwell, welcome to DAY TO DAY.

Mr. DAVE WILTZ (Debate Coach, Jordan High School): Thanks.

Mr. LOUIS BLACKWELL (Debater, Jordan High School): Thank you very much.

AMOS: Louis, you and Richard don't feature prominently in the beginning of the film. And until you arrive, I have to say, I had almost given up with all that speedy talk and the spitting.

Mr. BLACKWELL: That's what happens when you talk so fast. When you go to debate camps, they coach that. But when you get going that fast, like they have to breathe really weird, which they didn't show that much, but they had this really weird breathing, and they spit. And like sometimes it will get stuck right on the bottom of the lip, and it just, it bothers you so much and you want to say something, but you can't interrupt them.

AMOS: You two show up in the film. You're different than anybody else and you're winning. So let's listen to a clip. This is Louis. You are describing your thoughts right before you win the California State championship. You're competing against Bellarmine High School.

(Soundbite of movie, "Resolved")

Mr. BLACKWELL: And we're waiting on this hot-ass gym. The gym had to be like 200 degrees. It was hot as hell. It was so damn hot. And like the doors are closed and all these hot sweaty people who have been debating all day and they're wearing suits, it's like 20 minute speeches in between the events. So it's like a three-hour ceremony.

We're like, we're just nervous, our stomachs hurt. And they say Bellarmine. And me and Richard look, we're like...

Unidentified Man: From Long Beach, Jordan, Richard Funches and Louis Blackwell.

AMOS: So the public school kids win. How did you feel?

Mr. BLACKWELL: Oh, man. It's hard to describe how I felt. I mean, even today that's still is one of the best days of my life, easily.

AMOS: Dave?

Mr. WILTZ: It was probably one of the most unbelievable feelings I've ever had in my life.

AMOS: Now, after you win, you change your strategy and you begin to actually challenge the whole idea of how high school debate is done, and it's at this moment that "Resolved" takes a dramatic turn. So I want to play you a clip where Richard is using this new strategy.

(Soundbite of movie, "Resolved")

Mr. RICHARD FUNCHES (Debater): Like at this policy debate, let's argue. Let's not have a competition on who can say what the fastest. No one in Congress reads at a 100 words a minute. You know, like, we have to look at it like from a real world standpoint, like important issues are important.

AMOS: One of the charges that you make is not only are people talking too fast but debate in the way that it's carried out in this country is racist. The director told us that he thought that was a little too strong. Can you defend that?

Mr. BLACKWELL: When we look at the high school debate community and we see the way that it's largely white, 70, 80 percent white, largely absent of people of color, largely absent of women, and we don't question that, we just assume, well, that's just the way it is. And I think that when you begin to question why things are the way they are, it brings to light the fact that maybe this isn't the most fair activity, maybe this isn't the most equal across-the-board activity, like the way that it's offered to certain groups of people, the way that it's advertised, the way that the issues that are like made important in debate aren't necessarily issues that are going to be important to certain groups of people.

When women aren't ever discussed in debate rounds as people of importance or people who have an impact on what we do, then naturally women aren't going to want to be a part of that activity. When people of color aren't addressed as people a lot of times in debate, they're merely addressed as numbers, it's naturally going to turn off people of color. And we have to look not just at the actual activity itself but the way the activity functions sometimes to understand why like I would think that it's a racist activity.

AMOS: Dave, you are a coach; is it a racist activity or is it a question of expectations?

Mr. WILTZ: I honestly think it's both. I think it is - can be coined as a racist activity, but in the same way - and two examples pop to my mind; one is the prison system and the other is immigration reform. If black people make up 14 to 16 percent of our population, yet we make up 60 to 70 percent of the prison population; if immigration policy is going to disproportionately affect Mexican people or Mexican-Americans, then no, it's not racist at face value, but when you start to look behind the lines, yes, it is a very racist policy. That's what we're saying with debate, is that no, at face value it's not a very racist thing, but when you start to look behind the lines, saying for example that we're going to solve for racism, it takes on a different connotation when you have two African-Americans debating against. How are you going to solve for racism when racism is a part of our daily life?

AMOS: Do you think Richard and Louis brought heart back in debate, which was all about head, it's all this intellectual exercise?

Mr. WILTZ: Yeah, they definitely, they brought heart and passion and speaking and all those tangible things that we deal with on a day-to-day basis, they brought those back to the debate room.

AMOS: Was that a little shocking for the community of high school debaters?

Mr. WILTZ: Surprisingly, yes. And what our argument was, it should not be shocking. You talk like this every day outside the debate room; you should be able to handle yourself if we ask you a question at this speed.

AMOS: And you rattled people by taking the speed down to normal speech.

Mr. WILTZ: Exactly. And because they weren't used to it, it's not what they were expecting. And because of that, they had to actually engage. I think traditional debate - a lot of problems nowadays is just not engaging. There's no dialogue between the two teams. It's just I say my set of cards, you say your set of cards, I punch a hole in your case and hopefully I win. But what we did is we brought the dialogue back to debate, the things that have been missing since the '60s and '70s; passionate, good, encouraging, engaging debate was missing.

AMOS: Thank you very much. Dave Wiltz and Louis Blackwell, thanks for being with us on DAY TO DAY.

Mr. WILTZ: Thank you.

AMOS: David Wiltz and Louis Blackwell were featured in the documentary film "Resolved," about the competitive world of high school debate. It's now on the film festival circuit.

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