My daughter was in a reminiscent mood the other night. She was talking about highlights from the previous school year. One memory that she was particularly happy about involved a homework assignment that created a shared experience: she had to watch a civil rights themed movie. “Hidden Figures” was chosen and we watched it together. She recalled how I declared one of the speeches from the film “easily in my top ten movie speeches.” Naturally she wondered what my top ten was but we never completed that conversation. However, she brought it up again and we did, in fact, have that chat. I will now share those results, sort of, with you.
Wait. Sort of? What the hell does that mean?
Okay. Here are my ground rules and reasoning.
- Lists like this are never completely stable. For example, I did not include two “revenge speeches” on my list, opting to include Maximus Decimus Meridius’ “Father of murdered son…” speech from “Gladiator.” But, sometimes, I find Wyatt Earp’s “I see a red sash I kill the man wearing it” rage fueled denunciation from “Tombstone” the pinnacle of revenge speeches. On other occasions it’s the famous “What I do have is a particular set of skills” from “Taken.” Top ten lists can be influenced by present moods and preferences between relative equals.
- Some speeches, however, go beyond moods and preferences between relative equals. Sometimes speeches speak directly to personal dreams, fears, hopes, desires, or values that are deeply imbedded in our psyches. When a speech collides with our humanity (for a reminder of my 5 core human traits please return to my “Black Panther” post) it becomes a true favorite, not easily displaced.
- A scene is not a speech. I would love to include Robert De Niro’s “The working man is the tough guy” from “A Bronx Tale” or the opening scene of “Inglorious Bastards” but those installments are better examples of dialogue than singular speeches. Perhaps a list for another day.
“Hidden Figures”: Bathroom Speech
This seems like the most logical place to start since it’s where the conversation started with my daughter. Katherine Globe Johnson’s (played by Taraji P. Henson) stirring pronouncement of personal dignity and deep self-respect in the face of ignorance and smug racial and sexist superiority was pure fire and inspiration. The fact she endured as much as she did for the proverbial “good of the team” adds an additional layer of connection. There is a common cliche that if you love a job or activity enough, who you work for shouldn’t matter. This thought, in my experience, is usually shared by superiors seeking to justify the poor or dismissive treatment of subordinates. Be a good team member often sounds like, “stop thinking and do what I say.” And while there is some truth to the reality we must sometimes sacrifice for the good of the team, personal integrity should never be part of that exchange. There was no doubt that Katherine loved math (a thought that, frankly, is mystifying to this writer). In the film she endures mistreatment for the good of the cause and the love of the work. Pushed beyond her considerable patience she unleashes a torrent of bottled up frustration and a plea for dignity. In the film we also witness an instantaneous positive result when Kevin Costner’s Al Harrison is moved to action instead of defensiveness and reprimand. We could stand for life imitating art in this manner more often.
“Lincoln”: Now is the Time
There are two main aspects of this speech that I will focus on. The first, much like the previous entry, brings the idea of human dignity to focus. “We’ve stepped out on the world stage…with the fate of human dignity in our hands.” It appears as I live here in my 48th year that I will never have the authority of Lincoln, who did in fact hold that precious parcel in his grasp. On a small scale, however, I may from time to time hold the dignity of one person in my hands. In those moments I hope I have honed my character well enough that my thoughts, words, and actions bring hope and healing. Lincoln also emphasizes that importance of the here and now in our lives, going so far as to claim, “…it’s the only thing that accounts.” Somewhere Yoda, with his reprimand of Luke Skywalker’s inability to stay focused on “where he was and what he was doing,” is nodding his green head in agreement on the importance of the oh so precious present.
“Rocky Balboa”: It ain’t about how hard ya hit…
This may be the greatest three minute summation of the human will to stand before the existential challenges of life and, despite the uncertainty of outcome, to continue to fight the good fight. Its demolition of the desire to make excuses and the habit of casting blame to avoid responsibility, combined with honest and yearning fatherly compassion makes for a powerful assault on apathy and immature prattle. Rocky’s response to his son is a fundamental approach to life any can embrace, regardless of your athletic prowess.
“John Wick”: We are cursed, you and I
This is the only entry on this list from an antagonist, but Viggo Tarasov’s providential explanation for the symbolic suffering shared by himself and John Wick is magnificent. Viggo openly posits that “many of us suffer for our misdeeds” before opening the door to the possibility of a moral universe beyond the control of human action. Viggo claims that John, who in his life as a hitman has killed an untold number of people, lost his wife to terminal illness as comeuppance for his violent life. Viggo, however, owns his own vicious criminal life as he concludes god has unleashed the tenacious John Wick upon him as a form of justice. How literally one takes Viggo is a matter of interpretation, but we can’t pretend he didn’t utter the words. Moreover, the speech comes after we learn Viggo uses a church as a front for some of his criminal activities. The existence of the terribly flawed institution has zero influence on the ontological view Viggo shares. As a philosophy teacher, I can only describe a pop-culture source that allows conversation on the meaning and possibility of a providential universe (or threads of karma is we take an eastern approach) with one word – Priceless!
“Gladiator”: Father of murdered son…
Step aside Wyatt, “Gladiator” wins the day! The painful loss, raw determination, and seething rage with which Russell Crowe delivers this one still makes me shudder. In my mind the movie could end right there, with Commodus simply handing a sword to Maximus and whispering a last request, “Make it quick.”
“The Hurricane”: Writing is magic
Denzel Washington’s Rubin Carter succinctly and brilliantly sums out the power of writing. The images of admired mentors, the spirit of fictional characters, and the never ending quest for the elusive flow that turns staggering sentences into symphony is the vision quest of the writer, even if, unlike Rubin, the writer is only imprisoned by their minds and self-doubt. Write, fellow reader, write! You’ll be amazed how when the pen start moving the words find you.
“The Two Towers”: Stories that really mattered
I’m just going to let the great Joseph Campbell introduce this one for me.
“Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, mythology is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth…”
Stories, you see, are the life blood of hope. We have all heard that reading to children is the number one predictor of success in schools. What a limiting view of stories, as if their primary purpose is to produce students. They can produce mature adults who weather storms and find themselves smiling in the rain. Samwise shares a profound message, “It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered…Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why.” The stories we loved as children find a home in our souls, the truth of the myth becoming our supporting staff on the ever unfolding path. Sometimes – despite the attempts of many to dismiss some tales as false, childish, or too old to have meaning in today’s world – the lessons of those tales return to us as adults. In my life, neither the cynic nor his pollyanna shadow has helped me through a crisis. But those stories and archetypes from my youth have been powerful guides. I have no qualms dismissing pompous dolts who claim myths are false because they lack the eyes to see and the heart to feel. Teach the children well because someday when they are far beyond your grasp that story you told might just might be the beacon in the dark that keeps them going.
“Good Will Hunting”: The Park Bench Monologue
The gentle verbal beat down Robin Williams’ Sean Maguire delivers to Matt Damon’s Will Hunting is as elegant as it is searing. Shredding Will’s arrogant intellectual superiority with the power of experience, Sean allows a glimpse of wisdom in action. Will’s stunned silence speaks volumes in the scene and Sean’s last line – “Your move, chief” – may be the greatest mic drop in cinema history.
“Grumpier Old Men”: I Just Like that Story
I think I broke my third rule on this one but it’s just so damn endearing. And funny. And just plain entertaining. Did I mention awesome? Jack Lemmon’s dutiful John Gustafson Jr. listens to his dad’s story, enjoying the time while looking for (perhaps straining to see) a little of dad’s wisdom. In the end, John Sr. proclaims “There ain’t no moral! I just like that story.” Well, maybe there was no moral, but there is a always a point to sitting down for one more story from dad. This one’s for all the sons who listen, all the dads who share, and anyone who wishes they could hear just one more story from their old man. Peace be with you.
“Hidden Figures”: No choice but to be first
Loved this moment in the film! Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson brings a different kind of thunder than our first entry. Her surgical strike was aimed (as it likely would have to be) at the judge’s ego. Prepared for her appearance in court and armed with research for her opponent she brings forth an intelligent and determined argument that could not be ignored. She chose her weapons well and won the day – even if the judge held onto his prejudices by assigning her to night school. Good for you Judge Whatsyername, that’s Mary Jackson and she deserves to be remembered!
Well, that’s the list. Hope you found the entries interesting and worthy of your time. Go enjoy a good movie or surrender to a story…who knows what you’ll encounter!