Freedom Writers tells the true story of teacher Erin Gruwell and her students -- a class of left-behind ghetto kids nobody cared about or believed in -- who, in working together, overcame the negative expectations of a school system that had given up on them. The real students -- who called themselves the Freedom Writers after they started journaling events in their lives -- had their real-life stories from their journals published in a book, and now writer/director Richard LaGravenese and Hilary Swank have brought their tale to the big screen. Cinematical say down recently for a chat with Erin Gruwell, actor Jason Finn, who plays one of the students, and real-life Freedom Writer Maria Reyes, to talk about the film. Cinematical: Jason, can you talk about how you came to be involved with the film?
Jason Finn: When I first heard about it, I only knew it was a movie with Hilary Swank. Then I read the script, and it reminded me of how I was in high school. I kind of wanted to live my last year of high school over again. But with a teacher like Miss G.
Cinematical: Did you go to high school in southern California?
JF: Yeah, I went to Washington High School.
Cinematical: And was the environment there similar to what we see in this film?
JF: Yeah, yeah. It was exactly like that. It was the same thing, but we just didn't have any teachers who cared. There wasn't a Ms. G there, you know, who believed in us. And I felt like, I could maybe gain some inspiration out of it, and I did.
Cinematical: How did you happen to end up as an actor?
JF: I kind of just fell into it, after I got shot.
Cinematical: Can you tell me about that?
JF: I actually had dropped out of high school, and it was maybe about 12 o'clock at night. You know, I was outside – shouldn't have been outside that late anyway – and I had on the wrong color shorts. And two dudes walked up to me and shot me, I only got shot once though. I got lucky. And then I did an interview about being shot maybe a few weeks later. Because I'd decided to go back to school after that, to go to continuation school. And they told me that I'd get extra credit if I went to a video class, and I did the interview as an audition for the video class. And a dude seen it and was like, man, you should do a movie. He did an independent film, and I did that, and that's how I heard about Freedom Writers.
So we did a little independent film, and we filmed it right by my old high school. And I decided to go to my high school a little early one day, just to walk around, you know, and see my old teachers. And I saw Mr. Pullam (one of the teachers at the school) and he was like, "What's up with you, man, what you doin' with your life?" And I was like, "You know, I'm just doing this independent film." And he told me they were doing these auditions for a Hilary Swank movie at 3 o'clock, so come on through. We didn't do auditions that day, I just wrote my name down. I went back the next day for auditions and did like, four or five of them. And then a few days later I got a call saying (laughs) don't cut my hair no more. And that's what it was. And I was working at KFC, whatever I could find – I'd never held a job before that, but I was like, let me get a job, just to put in some good karma, you know? Just to get some work. And it worked out.
Cinematical: Now that you've done Freedom Writers, what's next? Do you want to do more?
JF: More films? Yeah, yeah. I like these type of films, you know? Films that inspire people – and that bring out the best in me. Choosing characters that bring out the best in me. I can't really picture myself doing a movie just to make money, you know? It has to be something that can change my life, or that can change other people's lives.
Cinematical: Have you thought about making the transition eventually into filmmaking, into telling your own stories?
JF: Yeah. The independent film I did (Mercy Street), a lot of the things that were going on in my life, he took that and put in in the movie. And I'm like, you know, I probably could write a movie, from my experiences in my life. I'm actually trying to write one right now, but it's hard, you now, trying to stretch myself. 'Cause I never went to school for it, you know what I'm saying?
Cinematical: Maria, you're one of the real Freedom Writers. Can you tell me a little about your experiences in Ms. G's class?
Maria Reyes: When I entered Ms. Gruwell's classroom, it was a turning point in my life. Up to that point, I had made really bad choices based on the world that I knew, and I didn't really know how to get out of that. I didn't even know that that was a possibility for myself. And I think being in her classroom, and learning how to critically think, to question what I knew about the world, made me realize that maybe there was something different for me that I hadn't seen before. And it was probably the most terrifying thing I've ever had to do, to question everything that I'd learned before and really to look within myself – to know that I was powerful, that I had it in me to change my own life. Ms. G just gave me the resources to do so.
Cinematical: Which character was you in the film?
MR: Most of the characters in the film are amalgams of various different characters. But the closest, I'd say, would have to be Eva.
Cinematical: Were you, like Eva, one of the kids who hated Ms. Gruwell the minute you saw her, with her nice dresses and her pearls?
MR: Oh, I think that was all of us, at first. Coming from the world we came from, the educational system, we were always the "dumb kids" because we came from bad neighborhoods and our schools were "bad schools." And so when we got bused into Wilson, which was in a really prominent, nice neighborhood, we had seen people come into the schools that we were from, young and idealistic, and somehow thought they were going to come in and change a bunch of ghetto kids and make them believe in education. So she wasn't the first teacher we saw that from. But it was always disappointing when they realized that we were not gonna change at the first try. We were not going to all of a sudden have this huge epiphany one day and say, "Oh, okay, what can we do? We want to change our lives."
What was different with Ms. G was that regardless of what we thought about ourselves, what we believed to be true, she believed something completely different. That we could put behind ourselves any choices that we'd made in our lives before, and that it was the choices we made from that point on that mattered. And she just stuck it out, she didn't give up on us, ever.
Cinematical: Erin, in the film, Hilary Swank portrays you as this very passionate and idealistic person. What made you think, going into this job, that you could have any impact on these kids?
Erin Gruwell: I think that's why everyone wants to be a teacher, I would hope at least. Education is such a noble profession, it's a wonderful way to serve. And these kids have such heart and such spirit, and I thought, what better way to try to equalize the playing field than through education?
Cinematical: But you chose deliberately to go into this school with a bad reputation.
EG: I did, yes. In the wake of the Rodney King riots, I saw so much racial animosity, especially in southern California. It was difficult, and I was tired of hearing stereotypes, and I was tired of hearing comments that couldn't be justified. I grew up in a very progressive family and with a great educational system, and I asked myself, why doesn't everybody have these opportunities for a good education? So why not give back to these kids who didn't grow up with the same privileges I had?
Cinematical: Do you think that people who live in more affluent areas take for granted that all schools have access to the kinds of learning materials and opportunities?
EG: The thing is that Brown Vs. Board of Education supposedly did away with this notion of "separate but equal" and put things on a level playing field, but that's not what's happened. It's a travesty. Wilson was this melting pot of all these different races, but there's still this attitude around of, let's give this group of kids all these wonderful perks, and then we'll just forget about these other kids.
What I'm hoping this film will really shed light on is that education is what is perpetuating the division in our country, the division between rich and poor-- which is often a racial issue as well. It really illuminates the issues in our country. Schools are not equal. There are still the haves and the have-nots. And there is so much racial disparity in this country, it's just shocking. So I hope it has an impact.