The conceit sounds like a liberal-guilt gimmick—a documentary about homeless people reciting speeches by Chief Sealth, Bobby Kennedy, Sojourner Truth, et al. But Stranger Genius Award–winning director Linas Phillips steers clear of didacticism and portrays his subjects as they are: partly victims of circumstance (child abuse, mental illness), partly victims of themselves (they're all addicted to drink or crack or both).
But deep down, Great Speeches is less a movie about homelessness than a movie about language—its subjects' hard-luck stories aren't ends in themselves, but a means to understanding the speeches. A homeless Native American, who spun into alcoholism after the death of his infant, recites Chief Sealth's 1854 speech and could be talking about the drunk Native Americans haunting the docks and Pioneer Square: "When the last Red Man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the White Men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe."
A guy who has attempted suicide (and failed) seven times recites Hamlet's "to be or not to be" speech from a hospital bed: "The dread of something after death/The undiscover'd country from whose bourn/No traveller returns, puzzles the will/And makes us rather bear those ills we have/Than fly to others that we know not of."
A female crack addict who sleeps in a wheelchair in a parking garage, where she's been severely assaulted several times, recites Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman?": "That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place!"
The human degradation in Great Speeches can be difficult to watch, but it's a bracing reminder that these speeches articulate, in an immediate and visceral way, the experiences of living people in desperate circumstances. It strips away the crust of history and sterility from the words, making them unsettling—and dangerous—all over again.