When I first heard the plot of Freedom Writers -- inspirational movie about a white teacher bringing hope to poor, black students -- my initial reaction was: Yawn. Haven't we already seen this story, in Dangerous Minds, with Michelle Pfeiffer in the role of the white knight saving the day? So it was with not a little trepidation that I settled down with my popcorn and diet soda for the screening of Freedom Writers. And then ... what do you know? I was actually surprised -- in a good way -- to have my expectations proved wrong.
Hilary Swank (who also produced) plays real-life idealist Erin Gruwell, who, raised by her activist father -- a man who was Atticus Finch to her Scout throughout her childhood -- has grown into a young woman on fire to change the world. Her father, meanwhile, has grown into a middle-aged golfer more concerned with his stock portfolio than the lives of the poor and beleaguered, and is none too pleased that his brainy, talented daughter has decided to forsake a lucrative legal career in favor of a job as a teacher at Wilson High in Long Beach.
The film takes place in the wake of the Rodney King riots, and Wilson High is a hot-bead of simmering hostilities. The white teachers resent the minority students, who they see as taking over a school that rightfully belongs to the well-to-do white kids who can afford to live in the neighborhood. Wilson High was once, according to the old guard of teachers still holding down the fort there, a "good" (read: predominantly white) school which, in the aftermath of an integration program, has been forced to educate a pack of Latinos and Blacks and Asians (oh my!) bused in from poor neighborhoods.
The minority students resent the white teachers who don't understand their lives or care to know anything about them. Worse, the students resent each other, segregating themselves into racially-divided groups that war on each others' territory to the extent that a school that was once both peaceful and well-regarded has to have armed security guards to break up fights in classrooms before they turn deadly.
Into this melee walks fresh-faced, perky Gruwell, 23 years old and just out of college, who has the absurd notion that she might be able to find a way to motivate and teach these students. Gruwell is assigned to teach freshman and sophomore English in Room 203 and, to be fair, initially she does get the wind knocked out of her perky sails. She walks into Room 203 to find it empty -- her students finally are herded into class by the security guard, and they promptly rearrange their desks into racially-divided territories. The hostility in the room from her students-- both towards each other and the young, white woman beaming at them from the front of the room, is palpable.
Two pivotal events happen to set things in motion. One of Erin's students, Eva, witnesses a racially-motivated shooting committed by her boyfriend, and faces pressure from her gang and her own incarcerated father (one of the founders of the gang to which she belongs) to lie and lay the blame on a Black classmate. Then Gruwell confiscates a racist cartoon caricature of one of her Black students (complete with grossly exaggerated lips and nose) drawn by one of his Latino classmates, and erupts into a rage that her students have never seen in her before. She launches into an impassioned diatribe comparing the cartoon of her student to the cartoons the Nazis used to publish of Jews -- until she stops short, realizing her rant is being greeted with blank stares. "How many of you know what the Holocaust is?" she asks. Not a hand is raised.
Gruwell realizes that her kids are living in a war zone -- all of them have parents or family members doing time in prison, all of them have been shot at, and most of them have had a close friend or relative die in gang-related violence -- and that they might find parallels to inspire them within the story of another teenager living through a war -- Anne Frank. But when she tries to requisition copies of the book from the dour department head (Imelda Staunton), she's told in no uncertain terms that her students are not deemed worthy of having access to the resources the good students get. Out of a supply room stocked with unused books, the only thing she is given for her students are dog-eared, bedraggled copies of books written on a grade-school level.
Not so easily daunted, Erin takes matters into her own hands. She believes that her students, if given respect and access to the right materials, can be reached and shown that their lives don't have to be dead ends, and so she takes on a second job -- and then a third -- in order to buy them new books (the first new books most of them have ever had) and take them on field trips. Erin gives her students The Diary of Anne Frank and takes them to the Holocaust Museum to meet survivors, and for the first time, they see a world outside the violent one in which they live. Gruwell brings a variety of resources to her class, from the lyrics of Tupac Shakur to the Odyssey, and challenges them to find the relevance to their own lives. She encourages them to share the stories of their own lives by writing in journals, and for the first time the students begin to see that they have more in common than the differences that divide them.
What makes this story stand out from others of its ilk is that the focus is less on the "great white hope" of an idealistic white teacher saving the day, than on the kids who learn to take charge or their own lives. The students' journals, which told their tales, were published in a book called Freedom Writers (a name the kids took to honor the "freedom riders" who challenged segregation on buses during the Civil Rights movement), and writer/director Richard LaGravanese based the script and characters entirely on those stories and on interviews with the real class of Room 203, most of whom not only graduated from Wilson, but went on to college.
There will be those who will dismiss Freedom Writers as sappy and cliched, but Swank's passion and personality suck you into the story right from the start, and knowing that the script is based on real stories makes it meaningful and inspirational. Gruwell and the students of Room 203 have a story that should be seen by every educator who believes that students' destinies are determined solely by the circumstances into which they are born -- and every inner city kid who's been told he'll never amount to anything. Gruwell has done more meaningful work than any of the critics who will brush off her story as sentimental and predictable, and LaGravenese and Swank, in bringing her story to life, do the story of the real Freedom Writers justice.