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Sunday, January 07, 2007

Freedom Writers

I’ll be honest. My cold, cynical heart told me to watch out for Freedom Writers, now playing at the Essex Cinemas. I mean, really, how many more god-like teacher movies do we need? We’ve already had Finding Forrester, To Sir, with Love, The Blackboard Jungle, Remember the Titans, Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, The Principal, Lean on Me, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Coach Carter, The History Boys and who knows how many others? The list goes on and on. We get it. Teachers are really, really important, especially teachers who are brave enough, strong enough, and talented enough to make a difference in those classrooms we’d rather not think exist, like the ones in Freedom Writers.

Nobody wants to believe our educational system is failing, but Freedom Writers shows us a glimpse into that world, Woodrow Wilson High in Long Beach, California, a voluntarily integrated school, in the time shortly after the explosive Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. Wilson is full of wretched punks with no respect for others and especially none for themselves. These students ply themselves with alcohol and drugs and consider living until the weekend a lifetime goal. Most are at school because they have nowhere else to go. Some are court-ordered, some even wear tracking devices on their ankles, while others are simply at the school because it is the place where their gang members “hang” during the day, making plans for later and talking trash about their rivals who are also with their racially segregated gang on the same property. The African American students, Latino, Asians, and Whites may be “integrated” on paper, but in reality there is deep hatred and separation of the races within the confines of the school. This, of course, is where our too-perky-for-tv newbie teacher with a heart of gold Emily Gruwell (two time Academy Award winner Hilary Swank; The Black Dahlia) comes in, ready to save the world while wearing her dead momma’s pearls.

Okay, it sounds corny and overly dramatic, but
Freedom Writers is based on a true story and the real life Emily Gruwell continues to teach successfully so it is difficult to mock the movie as just one more rehash of other cinematic clichés since the incidents portrayed here are based on fact, even if they do seem to follow the same sad realities of so many other tales about people living in the midst of drugs, gang wars, domestic violence, and fear. These teens may be of different ethnic backgrounds and races, but they all share a sense of chaos and hopelessness about their futures. It is from this point of recognition that “Ms. G,” as the students come to call her, begins to help them by giving each a safe place to “voice” their most private thoughts by supplying each student with a personal journal for them to write in.

The film itself is chalk full of extremely moving moments and it zips by at a fast pace, telling many stories at once in snippets and overlaying scenes in which the students’ lives intercept in different ways. For some, these moments may be huge in consequence while for others they may be minor, but the economy of each scene is such that every word and action onscreen contributes to the overall transformation of the characters as they edge towards adulthood.

A real innovative part of this version of the “Superteacher” tale is that it puts the teacher herself in a position that is not much different than where her students find themselves. The economic background may be different, the manners may be more refined, and the responses less physically abusive, but, like her kids, Ms. G. struggles to find her voice outside of the classroom. Her department head, Margaret Campbell (Imelda Staunton; Vera Drake) resents her very presence and
despises her even trying to help these kids she considers a “waste”; and District Superintendent Dr. Carl Cohn (Robert Wisdom of tv’s “The Wire”) is unwilling to entertain even a slight change of protocol from the written curriculum no matter how much Emily pleads her case for simple learning materials like books, which Margaret denies them. Meanwhile, in her personal life, Emily deals with a similar situation. Her husband Scott (Patrick Dempsey; tv’s “Grey’s Anatomy”) resents her spending so much time and energy on her students and not making him a priority in her life, and her overbearing father, the weathered Scott Glenn (Journey to the End of the Night), is constantly hovering nearby to remind her that she could be so much more than “just a teacher making $27,000 a year.”

Whether the inclusion of this part of Emily’s story was included to show the irony in her own struggles or to highlight how it is Emily gained her remarkable talents is not explained, but either answer would suffice. Certainly her father’s pushing her to do better is not much different than what she does with her own students, and as for not making her husband the center of her world? What better lesson to teach these young people than selflessness and committing to what they believe in? In Emily’s case, she knows Scott can take care of himself but her lessons with the teenagers are not yet finished.

One truly fascinating view the movie offers that puts the actions and culture of gangs in perspective for these kids (and gave me a whole new concept of
it) as never before begins with Emily’s use of “The Diary of Anne Frank” as resource material. After an unpleasant encounter with one student’s cruel harassment of another in class Emily shares her own thoughts on what she had just witnessed and how it recalled a time when similar things were said and done to the Jews. As she talks about the time before the Holocaust she finds the students mesmerized, but only the single white student in class has any idea what the Holocaust was. At this point, Emily buys the students “The Diary of Anne Frank” to read the and suddenly their own diaries (their “freedom journals”) gain new respect and importance to them as the class explores the tragedy of Frank’s life due to the biggest “gang” hatred of all.

Freedom Writers is a smart movie. It is well-made, beautifully filmed, with balances of humor infused at just the right moments to relieve the otherwise overwhelming chronicle it has to share. There are some great performances from the “kids,” though it is a real stretch to imagine any of these students as the 14 and 15 year olds they are supposed to be playing. Most are in their early 20s (at least). Many are making their acting debuts in Freedom Writers and do tremendously well. Jason Finn (Marcus), in particular, holds his own with R&B star Mario (Step Up), and April Lee Hernandez (of tv’s “ER”). Ultimately, though, the film rests on Swank’s shoulders, and she gives a flawless representation of the teacher you’ll wish you had as your own when you were in school.

Freedom Writers is a great reminder to those of us long graduated from the school system that when you look back on your school life, it is not the classes you took or the school building and its’ equipment that you’ll recall. What you do remember, even more than the all the geometry, history, social studies, and whatever else you sat through, are the teachers. If you have even one teacher with the joie de vie of a Ms. G. who can fill your heart with hope for the future, who can share with you enough knowledge to banish your own bigotries, and who can help you learn to like yourself even just a little bit, then you are truly blessed, and that is what, or rather who, you will recall until the day you die.


Robert Ward said...

Thanks for the great review!

I was randomly going through the blogs and I actually read this review. I must say, I was extremely skeptical but now I might go see it to inspire myself to go to work and teach the hell out of 7th graders.

Or I might not

either way, thanks

Clamzilla said...

LOL. You are a brave soul, being a teacher, especially of that age group. I taught 7th and 8th grade 30 years ago and I remember it well.

The doctor says a few more electro-shock treatments and the nightmares may finally fade.

Good luck and God Bless You!