2007-01-26 / Columnists

It's My Turn

'Freedom Writers' - Their Story, Their Words
By Vivian Rattay Carter

Vivian Rattay Carter is a local educator, educational activist, lawyer and journalist. She often writes on educational topics such as this school-related movie. She wrote this review because she believes that it needs a "teacher's perspective."

Actress Hilary Swank has won two Oscars in her screen career- for her portrayal of transgender adolescent Brandon Teena in 1999's "Boys Don't Cry," and again, in 2004, acting alongside Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman as a determined female boxer in "Million Dollar Baby."

In her latest effort, she plays the lead role and executive produces "Freedom Writers," a film "inspired by" the true story of Erin Gruwell, an energetic, idealistic young woman who taught ninth-grade English to the "unteachable classes" at racially diverse Wilson High School in Long Beach, California in the late 1990's. During Gruwell's stint at the school, she enjoyed great success, positive media attention, and support from the district superintendent, because she successfully "turned her classroom into a family."

Richard LaGravenese directed and wrote the screenplay based on published diary entries of Gruwell's students. The diary's title says the students "Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them." Not unexpectedly, given such claims, a great deal of controversy has focused on Gruwell, her teaching methods, her students' writings, and the setting of the story (now a magnet school known as "Wilson Classical High").

The less-supportive in the community have grumbled that she achieved success by publicizing herself and her "innovative teaching methods" and that the film grossly misrepresents the actual school community in which Gruwell worked, which cannot fairly be characterized as "inner city."

Swank's portrayal of Gruwell is heartfelt and moving, and the film is populated with many other fine actors who bring realism and truth to their roles.

Veteran actor Scott Glenn is particularly good as Gruwell's father, who struggles to be supportive of his daughter's ambitions while simultaneously forcing her to face the harsh realities of her job. Imelda Staunton capably inhabits the role of the villainous Margaret Campbell, Wilson's English Department Chair and Gruwell's nemesis in the film.

Patrick Dempsey (who many know as Dr. Derek Shepherd of television's "Grey's Anatomy"), in the role of Gruwell's husband, skillfully creates a sympathetic presence in the film, as he tries, and fails, to stake his claim to a few of his wife's waking hours outside of school.

The group of "twenty-something" young actors who perform as Gruwell's students do such a fine job that they recreate on the screen the feeling of being in an authentic urban high school classroom. The audience quickly senses that this is no "Welcome Back, Kotter."

The theme and conflict in the film are set up early, as actual television footage of the 1992 Los Angeles riots splashes on the screen after the opening credits.

We are then introduced to a tough and pretty Latina student central to the plot, Eva, and the gang conflict that pervades her family and neighborhood. Cut to Gruwell's job interview, as she effusively bubbles on about her willingness to learn how to teach, and her strong belief in her students' potential, even in the tough classes she is about to take on. Campbell warns her to cut back on her plans to teach Homer's classic work "The Odyssey." She also cynically cautions Gruwell against wearing her pearl necklace in the classroom.

One critical fact is essential to understanding the true story that inspired the film. Gruwell achieved a pseudo-family in her classroom by creating a safe atmosphere for intense personal disclosures by students, both in private journal entries and in public classroom discussion. She jump-started these disclosures by connecting contemporary gang activity to the Holocaust, and engaging students in some highly motivating group activities. Some examples of family happenings students confided in their journals include: "I watched my mother being half beaten to death" and "he sometimes tries to hurt my mom and me." In a frustrated moment in the film, Gruwell groans to her father that she doesn't know what to do with the journal disclosures since "I'm not a social worker, I'm barely a teacher."

In her quest to do her best for her students, Gruwell expressly defies the authority of her department chair, principal, and, by the end of the film, the local superintendent as well, a neat trick even for a talented second-year teacher. The film's trailer contains a great clip in which she's told by the superintendent "There's a system in place. You have to follow it," and her response is "No. I won't." In a fairy tale moment that only Hollywood could present so convincingly, the superintendent goes against the principal and department chair, approving Gruwell's request for a Saturday field trip. Then, later in the film, Gruwell must go above the superintendent's head to the school board for one last request. I will leave the viewer guessing how that one comes out.

The film bounces between gritty portrayals of the "inner city" where the students in Swank's class reside (we are told they are being bused into Wilson and must travel 90 minutes each day) and the more upbeat suburban surroundings of the school. Students take a field trip to a museum in Newport Beach and eat at a posh hotel. The gangs and the "hood" do not intrude on these moments when Gruwell's class is at its "family" best.

As I watched the film, I had questions about the amount of truth contained in the "facts" portrayed about Gruwell's personal life. Was she actually able, as a starting teacher, to work two additional part-time jobs? How did she find the time for the substantial advisory work needed to guide her 150 charges through to publication of their diaries?

I also questioned whether Gruwell's methods are what one would truly consider "innovative." In the film, we see a traditional classroom (the obligatory graffiti on the desktops is there) with seats in rows, a dusty chalkboard, and familiar-looking writer's notebooks. None of the trappings of progressivism are present- no flashy use of electronic technology or student-centered group work. Throughout the film, the only change we see in the physical plant is the addition of computers after Gruwell's grant-writing succeeds. It seems that Gruwell's success was based on her strong personality and willingness to take risks to further her objectives. Swank brings Gruwell to life, and the film is an uplifting snapshot of her impact on the lives of her students.

However, her success at Wilson was short-lived, and far less impressive than someone like Jaime Escalante, the real-life hero of the 1988 film "Stand and Deliver". Escalante worked within the system at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles for over fifteen years, building long-term success with students in his advanced mathematics classes. That was a real "inner city" school and he not only succeeded, but replicated his success on a large scale over the decades. For more realistic inspiration, be sure to follow your viewing of "Freedom Writers" by watching "Stand and Deliver" as well.

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