There is some controversy around the historical accuracy of the movie, specifically the names of the characters, and the closing “data” of their accomplishments listed at the end of the film (cf., New American Media, and Crosswalk.com) though it doesn’t seem critical to Rober Ebert. Regardless, the historical controversies seem to be minor, and those upset at the historical pieces seem to be argumentative, rather than critical.
What is of greater interest are the elements of race, racism, and the struggle to overcome. The strong theme of the movie is obviously the “mind”; that is, the ability to think, reason, and argue philosophically and morally. This is in contradistinction to the physical form of slavery, and the implemented tactic to oppress another group of people mentally and psychologically, rather than through brute physical means. I’m interested in how that kind of thinking and “oppression” plays in (or against) Darwinian evolutionary theories that I have also philosophized about on this blog. The power of rhetoric is very much a part of the biology of humanity.
The ending argument about “civil disobedience” then captures the essence of why debate, specifically in the midst of injustice, is so critical. How shall victory over oppression come? Two things, I think, stand out in that closing scene. One, in citing Ghandi and others, there is a philosophical and legislative piece to moral issues and injustice. That’s why there is a thing called “law,” and people like “lawyers,” and forums of contention called “courts.” However, the second and just as important piece is experience. The closing argument by James Farmer Jr. in the movie cites a personal incident, and invites the audience to appeal to their consciences and “real-life experiences” for their own conclusions to the issue of “the morality of civil disobedience.” Victory comes through both the law, and the mere conscience of the human spirit, two very different entities that are iteratively informed and dependent upon each other.
And this is why debates can happen. Because not only are there good arguments on both sides, there exists and indelible tension between objectivity and subjectivity, rationality and existentialism, affirmatives and negatives. And as elusive as “good” and/or “right” may be at times, may we never lose the fight to achieve the very best of both of those ethics at whatever costs possible without dissolving them, holding both sides of the tension equally and honestly in our hands.