January 10, 2007
Freedom Writers is based on the true story of teacher Erin Gruwell (played by Hillary Swank). And though it's more about racial conflict than education, the film still provides some choice fodder for the movie-loving Gadfly's rumination. The film follows a familiar narrative: a tough-minded, idealistic teacher/coach/mentor overcomes great obstacles to lift a class of "untouchables" out of violent, dead-end lives in the inner city (think Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver, Coach Carter in Coach Carter, and Joe Clark in Lean on Me). The education angle dramatizes the challenges Gruwell faces in a bureaucratic, union-dominated urban public school. She makes $27,000 a year, teaches 150 students divided among only four classes, and every day confronts the dreadful fallout of forced integration in racially divided, gang-laden Long Beach, California. When she eyes new copies of Romeo and Juliet reserved for honors classes and asks to teach it to her students, her department coordinator laughs at her naïveté but gives her tattered copies of an abridged version. Gruwell, of course, finally wins the hearts of her sophomore English students, only to see their hopes for learning the following year shattered when union seniority rules forbid Gruwell from teaching juniors (she is deemed too "green" to teach upper-grade classes). Her cynical colleagues offer nothing but derision. What makes Gruwell's story movie-worthy, of course, is that her powers of perseverance far exceed those of the average teacher. She takes on extra jobs, sacrifices her marriage, stands up to the administration, and, most important, refuses to give up. She also has an exceptional capacity for empathy, which proves crucial to earning her students' trust. As such, the movie offers few practical lessons for fixing inner-city schools. Every teacher is not like Gruwell, who, in real life, started the Freedom Writers Foundation to promote her brand of instruction. (Though programs like Teach for America certainly help to bring more Gruwells into the classroom.) But tackling the inertia, cynicism, and institutional constraints of inner city bureaucracies is a long term (and decidedly un-Hollywood) project. All that said, most ed wonks and policymakers could benefit from the exposure to urban schools that this credible, not-too-cheesy film provides. Three out of four apples.