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Debate Movies: The Watch List

As we say goodbye to the last carefree days of summer, we say hello to the next season. Not just autumn – debate season! Before all the hard work begins, sit back and relax with a big bowl of popcorn and check out these movies about debate.

A collage of images featuring stills from films depicting the following: Melvin B. Tolson from The Great Debaters, Solomon and Diwata from Speech & Debate, Amy from A Sort of Homecoming, Jordan from Love and Debate, and Hal Hefner from Rocket Science.

The watch list is organized by year and contains fun facts, the featured style of debate, and some food for thought to get your juices flowing for the upcoming season. Do you love them or hate them? What do they say about debate and debaters? Let us know what you think of these movies on our Facebook page!

FICTIONAL FILMS

Explore the emotional world of fictionalized debate.

Speech & Debate (2017)

The movie poster for Speech & Debate (2017), depicting main characters Solomon, Diwata and Howie in front of a light blue background.
Courtesy of Wikipedia

“We get to say whatever we want. Why don’t we say it in a way that they don’t forget?”

Genre & Rating: Dramedy, PG-13

Synopsis: Three unlikely friends resurrect the dead Speech and Debate club to fight against a modern-day witch hunt in their Salem, Oregon high school.

Fun Fact: This independent film is an adaptation of the Broadway stage play Speech & Debate. Broadway stars Lin-Manuel Miranda, Kristin Chenoweth, and Darren Criss make cameos.

Featured debate: Lincoln-Douglas, along with persuasive speaking, dramatic interpretation, and group interpretation/reader’s theater

Forensics is seen from an outsider’s perspective as the trio find themselves misfits at both their school and at their first big-city competition.

Food for Thought: How can you use what you learn in debate to make change in your own community? 

Solomon, Howie, and Diwata don’t win trophies in debate, but they do apply what they learn to causes they are passionate about: free speech, a Gay-Straight Alliance, and the arts.

A Sort of Homecoming (2015)

The film poster for "A Sort of Homecoming", depicting actress Laura Marano as character Amy outside a university campus building.
Courtesy of Wikipedia

“If you want to succeed this year, you have to be a top researcher, a master of logic and reason and a persuasive speaker. You have to do it all. It’s a decathlon, not a sprint.”

Genre & Rating: Drama, NR

Synopsis: A successful New York news producer returns to her Louisiana roots after tragedy strikes and reminisces about high school debate.

Fun Fact: The star of the film, Laura Marano, competed in high school speech and debate while continuing her acting career for Disney Channel.

Featured Debate: High school policy debate

Screenwriter and political analyst Lynn Reed brought her experiences as a former high school policy debater to the film. The film shows the process of a whole competitive year from summer camp to the national championship.

Food for Thought: When you’re competing against the best, how do you resist intimidation?

Amy and her partner experience culture shock when they leave their small town to attend a prestigious debate summer camp. Amy is awed by the skill of her competitors and is left feeling self-conscious. Characters make tough decisions and gain the confidence to stand up for themselves in this film.

The Great Debaters (2007)

Film poster for The Great Debaters, depicting Denzel Washington playing Professor Tolson and his four debaters.
Courtesy of Movie Poster Shop

“Debate is blood sport. It’s combat. But your weapons are words.”

Genre and Rating: Drama, PG-13

Film Synopsis: An inspiring dramatization of the first predominantly black debate team led by Professor Melvin B. Tolson’s program at Wiley College.

Fun Fact: After starring in the film, Denzel Washington provided a million dollar donation to re-establish Wiley College’s debate team.

Featured Debate: Historical Pi Kappa Delta debate

The film fictionalizes some elements of Wiley College’s debate history but is a fine introduction to the team’s compelling true history.

Food for Thought: How can you speak up in spite of fear? 

Modern debaters can be inspired by Professor Tolson’s students as they risk it all, crafting winning cases while facing intense racial and gender-based discrimination.

Rocket Science (2007)

Film poster for Rocket Science, depicting main character Hal Hefner walking
Courtesy of Iceposter

“That year’s national debate topic was farm subsidies. If you don’t know how farming subsidies could inspire all this commotion, then you don’t know life and there’s nothing that can be said about it. Suitcases end marriages and farming subsidies launch cataclysms.”

Genre and Rating: Comedy, R

Synopsis: Hal Hefner, a shy student with a stutter, is recruited to the high school policy debate team after its star competitor drops out of school.

Fun Fact: Anna Kendrick features in one of her first major film roles and trained with a college policy debate coach to learn the rapid-fire art of spreading.

Featured Debate: High school policy debate

Director Jeffrey Blitz brought insider knowledge from his experience as a high school policy debater and stutterer. The actors viewed live high school debates to study the format.

Food for Thought: How do you deal with winning and losing?

Hal fails again and again as he finds ways to work with his stutter and performance anxiety. Debaters may relate to Hal or his teammates, who have their own way of coping with winning and losing.

Love and Debate (2006)

Film poster Love & Debate, depicting Gina Philips as main character Jordan in the arms of Adam Rodriguez's character in front of a night skyline.
Courtesy of IMDB

“We compete in a world where the bull stuff and politics that go along with policy making in the real world are eliminated and we get to go to the core of the real issues and debate the facts. I find that to be the beauty of this activity.” 

Genre and Rating: Dramedy, PG-13

Synopsis: Latina-Jewish Jordan Landa finally found her place in the competitive world of policy debate. But can she balance her family’s expectations, her budding romance, and the pressure of competition? 

Fun Fact: In this film (also known as Thanks to Gravity)Sean Astin, best known as Samwise Gamgee from the Lord of the Rings series, plays a supporting role as the high school policy coach.

Featured Debate: High school and intercollegiate policy debate

Director Jessica Kavana Dornbush was a former national debate champion and Harvard University debater and based Love and Debate on these experiences. As the film tracks Jordan’s progress, she encounters conflicting philosophies about policy debate and develops her own.

Food for Thought: How do you express your love for debate when the people around you just don’t seem to get it? 

Jordan’s life is split between the world of debate and the world of everyone else. Can she walk the tightrope between them? Jordan also must grapple with her identity, gender roles, and sexual trauma while trying to live out her dream as a successful competitor.

Thumbsucker (2005)

The film poster for Thumbsucker, which uses colorful squares containing doodle drawings and lists the name of the cast for the film.
Courtesy of IMP Awards

“It’s Debate Club. If you had done your research you’d have the confidence to have an opinion. And if you have an opinion that’s based on facts gathered from your research, then you are confident to speak… Speaking confidently wins minds.”

Genre/Rating: Dramedy, Rated R

Film synopsis: When high school student Justin tries to end his thumb-sucking habit, his world changes in unexpected ways.

Fun Fact: Despite lining up a star-studded cast featuring Keanu Reeves, Tilda Swinton, and Vince Vaughn, film director Mike Mills was rejected from dozens of producers worldwide due to “unmarketable” subject matter.

Featured Debate: Unspecified individual debate event

Justin takes a debate class and transforms from a shy speaker to a reckless but skilled star debater over the course of the film.

Food for Thought: Where does your confidence come from?

Justin feels there is something wrong with him and debate is just one way he attempts to fix himself. As Justin becomes more skilled, he and his coach disagree about whether confidence comes from the inside or your success being recognized.

Listen to Me (1989)

A film poster for the 1989 film "Listen To Me", depicting four students and their professor on a white background with the text, "It was the best time of their lives. A kid from Oklahoma. An immigrant's daughter. A senator's son. A society girl. And a college professor with a dream. They have one thing in common ... the will to win."
Courtesy of Wikipedia

“Debate as practiced here is rougher than football, meaner than ice hockey, and much more strenuous than wrestling. And because women can play it just as down and dirty as the men, it’s probably the scariest, most fascinating sport on the planet.”

Genre & Rating: Drama, PG-13

Film Synopsis: The Kentmont College Debate Team members come from different worlds, but come together with one goal: to win the national debate championship.

Fun Fact: Celine Dion’s duet written for the film, Listen to Me, helped convince producers to launch her English-language singing career.

Featured Debate: Intercollegiate policy debate

The film was partially based on the UCLA CEDA debate team and was shot at Pepperdine University.

Food for Thought: How can you passionately express your views while still making room for others?

The debaters at fictional Kentmont College must work together despite different experiences with disability, class, and gender. When the year’s controversial debate topic is announced, the students must fight strong personal feelings to make winning arguments.

Documentaries 

If you’d rather watch the real deal, check out these full-length documentaries or head to DebateVision to watch short documentaries and quality videos of real competitors.

Crotty’s Kids (2014)

The film poster for the 2014 film Crotty's Kids, featuring several students.
Courtesy of IMDB

Synopsis: James Crotty directs his personal story of coaching the Eagle Academy for Young Men debate team in the South Bronx.

Featured Debate: High school policy debate

Food for Thought: What does it mean to be part of the debate community after you stop competing?

James Crotty never thought he had the right personality to be a coach. When the debate team at Eagle Academy for Young Men was cut, he stepped up. He used his experience as a former high school and intercollegiate debater to become a coach and mentor.

Fast Talk (2011)

A film poster for "Fast Talk" with the subtitle "When Words Leave You Breathless".
Courtesy of IMDB

Synopsis: Director Debra Tolchinsky follows the Northwestern University policy debate team and asks: why are they talking so fast?

Featured Debate:

Intercollegiate policy debate

Issues for Discussion: What do you think debate should sound like?

The film’s title says it all: how did the rapid-pace “spreading” policy debate technique develop and lead to success? Tolchinsky focuses heavily on the stylistic aspects of policy debate from an outsider’s perspective.

Debate Team: Director’s Cut (2008)

The film poster for the Debate Team documentary, depicting a mushroom cloud and the text: "America loves a winner and will not tolerate a loser. DEBATE TEAM"
Courtesy of Debate Team

Synopsis: Competition is fierce as policy debaters for America’s top universities wage war with words.

Featured Debate: Intercollegiate policy debate

Food for Thought: What does competition mean to you?

By following four policy debate teams, filmmakers captured the pros and cons of competition. For the 10-year anniversary of the film, former competitor Tejinder Singh wrote on the subject: do debaters truly learn persuasion by competing? What if debate wasn’t a competition? Fans of the documentary might want to check out a novel by the director called The Debate: A Novel About Intercollegiate Debate.

Resolved (2007)

The film poster for the film "Resolved", depicting two students shouting at one another and words falling out of their mouth with the text: "Debate: Where ideas are the weapon of choice."
Courtesy of Alchetron

Synopsis: Two high school policy debate teams have clashing competitive philosophies.

Featured Debate: High school policy debate

Food for Thought: What would you change about debate?

This award winning film depicts two very different teams from Highland Park High School in Dallas, Texas and Jordan High School in Long Beach, California. Both are on a quest to qualify for the Tournament of Champions, but see the activity differently. One team sees inequality in debate and gives their all to change it from within.

Upcoming Documentaries: 

Untitled

Info: News Brief

Featured Debate: Intercollegiate policy debate

Synopsis: 2013 CEDA-NDT Champion Ryan Wash’s life story will be featured in a biographical film produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B studio.

The Debate

InfoFilm Website

Featured Debate: High school policy debate

Synopsis: This upcoming documentary will focus on the Massachusetts Newton South High School Debate Team and examine the experiences of female debaters.

We Affirm

Info: Film Website

Featured Debate: High school policy debate

This upcoming documentary aims to educate non-debaters about what policy debate is and how it changes the lives of debaters.

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