“More important than the curriculum is the question of the methods of teaching and the spirit in which the teaching is given” - Bertrand Russell
Novels and movies based on real stories seem to hold a fascination for people and they are quite likely to capture the imagination and generate interest, especially if they are stories that concern special people displaying courage and determination. We watched such a film at the weekend and it was just so: Engaging and involving, well-made and acted, and of course interesting because it was base a true story. The film was Richard LaGravenese’s 2007 “Freedom Writers” , starring Hilary Swank, Imelda Staunton, Patrick Dempsey, Scott Glenn and April L. Hernandez. It is based on the book “The Freedom Writers Diary” by teacher Erin Gruwell who wrote the story based on Woodrow Wilson Classical High School in Long Beach, California. The title is a play on the term “Freedom Riders”, referring to the multiracial civil rights activists who tested the U.S. Supreme Court decision ordering the desegregation of interstate buses in 1961.
“Freedom Writers” received mostly positive reviews from critics. It is a frank, albeit formulaic entry in the inspirational, inner-city teacher genre. Although the actors are too old to play high school students, and the pacing slow at times, overall the film works and argues for listening to teenagers. Hillary Swank gives an energetic, well-thought out performance and her interaction with the cast of young, unknowns that play the students is good. She seems believable as the dedicated, idealistic teacher who is not afraid to fight for what she believes in. Patrick Dempsey playing her husband tried to work with his short, almost cameo role, but he comes out as a little two-dimensional – after all this is not his story. Imelda Staunton playing the older and rather conservative teacher at odds with Erin Gruwell, plays her role well, although she comes out as a tad too intense at times. A good performance was put in by Scott Glenn, playing Erin’s father, but most impressive perhaps were the young students, led by April L. Hernandez who all put in excellent performances.
In a nutshell, the plot set in 1994 in Long Beach, California, concerns a young and idealistic teacher, Erin Gruwell, who is just starting out on her first teaching job. She will teach freshman and sophomore English classes at Woodrow Wilson High School, which, two years earlier, implemented a voluntary integration program. Many of the existing teachers are of the opinion that integration has ruined the school, whose previously stellar academic standing has been diminished, its good middle class white students largely replaced by students belonging to minority groups who will be lucky to graduate or even to be literate. Erin is unprepared for the difficulties she faces in her classroom, whose students live by generations of strict moral codes of protecting their own at all cost. Many are in gangs and almost all know somebody that has been killed by gang violence. The Latinos hate the Cambodians who hate the blacks and so on. However, they all seem united in hating Ms Gruwell. The movie centres on the building of bridges and establishing relationships that transcend social class and race.
We enjoyed the film even though it was at times raw and challenging, sometimes violent and confronting. Even though formulaic, the formula works because it represents reality and it describes a story that changed the lives of some people that would otherwise have been confined to illiteracy, violence or even an untimely death. Some of the stories of the individual students that are depicted are poignant and very sad, their young lives already scarred by hostility, brutality and savage cruelty. Erin Gruwell’s success comes from the fact that she managed to awaken within these students the ability to see the world differently through reading and writing. She captured the imagination of these students by getting them to realise their potential and by making them aware of situations that stir their consciousness and sympathies: The holocaust and Anne Frank; the race riots in the USA, the reality of gang violence and its consequences, which they all know first hand.
We recommend this film for viewing, although it can be quite challenging and sometimes even depressing. However, it paints a compelling picture of contemporary issues and shows that there are solutions possible, even to those problems that are often classified as “insoluble”.