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In the climactic scene from the film The Great Debaters (2007), James L. Framer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), speaking for the motion “Resolved: Civil Disobedience is a Moral weapon in the fight for Justice,” rebuts the opponent team from Harvard University and clinches a win for his team, Wiley College, with the following words:

St. Augustine said an unjust law is no law at all, which means I have a right, even a duty, to resist. With violence or civil disobedience. You should pray I choose the latter.

(1:52:20 – 1:55:45)

Farmer Jr.’s words receive a standing ovation from the predominantly white, upper class, urban and educated on-screen audience, and cues audiences watching the film to two things. First, and unsurprisingly, it references Wiley College’s historic win against Harvard that was announced moments later in the film. And, secondly, it reasserts what today has become a culture-cliché, namely, civil disobedience or nonviolent protests against social injustice are moral, even desired, compared to violent demonstrations that benefit no one. In so doing The Great Debaters becomes more than a partly fictionalized account of an historic event – Wiley College was the first historically Black college from Jim Crow South to win a regional debate championship (they defeated the University of Southern California depicted as Harvard in the film) –, it functions rather as an ideological tool teaching its viewers about not only what social changes to desire but also how to act upon realizing this desire for social change. Simply put, mass movements demanding social changes are necessary, even required, but these must always remain nonviolent. The choice given in Farmer Jr.’s last sentence – “You should pray I choose the latter” – is therefore not so much a choice as it is an affirmation of nonviolent civil disobedience as the only moral form of protest against unjust social laws.

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This document was originally published in PsyArt by the PsyArt Foundation. Copyright restrictions may apply.