Freedom Writers – Not Just Another Teacher-Makes-A-Difference Movie!

Freedom WritersHow many movies are there about square peg teachers who make a difference with round hole students? Whether it's Dead Poets Society, Dangerous Minds, or To Sir, With Love, the cinematic story of the oddball teacher who reaches the misfit students is – even when true – a pretty formulaic exercise. Freedom Writers is different – not so much in terms of the formula [life is life, after all], but in the methodology…

Erin Gruwell [Hilary Swank] was an idealistic young, rookie teacher when she chose to be assigned to an inner-city school that had gone from an academic example to a school that suffered an almost fifty percent dropout rate. Her students took bets on how long she'd last; they congregated in racially separate groups; they openly mocked her.

 

When she intercepted a caricature of one of her black students, emphasizing his large lips, she exploded – comparing the drawing to propaganda drawings of Jews that were a harbinger of The Holocaust. Then she was shocked to discover her students had no idea what The Holocaust was!

In a burst of inspiration, she came up with a game to coax her students into revealing more of themselves to her – and giving her a way to reach them. The Line Game was pretty simple – as Gruwell asked questions, students would move to the line if they could answer in the affirmative. She began with innocuous questions like "who owns the new Snoop Dogg album?" Once the class was comfortable, she began to ask more and more difficult questions, moving into the realm of "who has lost a friend to gang violence?"

Once she saw the depths of desperation that existed among her students, she came up with an idea – to give them their own voices. Each was given a notebook and instructed to write in it – whatever they wanted – however they wanted to do it – as long as it was the truth about them. The students came to call themselves the Freedom Writers to honor the Freedom Riders who led the civil rights battle in the south in the sixties.

Freedom Writers - Ms Gruwell

To give her students figures to whom they could relate Gruwell followed up the notebooks with The Diary of Anne Frank, and others that dealt with people their own ages. Eventually, she had her entire class learning – their grades and reading scores skyrocketed.

Freedom Writers condenses Gruwell's first two years as a teacher into just over two hours, so it seems like she goes from inexperienced rookie to inspirational genius in no time, but despite the filmic timeframe, she did accomplish the things noted in the movie.

Like the film, I'm giving too much to Ms Gruwell. The more important part of the story is the lives of her students: girls who were expected to be pregnant and dropout by the age of fourteen; boys who would be overcome by gang culture and violence; everyone of them aware that they could be killed the next time they stepped outside…

While Swank gives her usual excellent performance [her perpetual smile masks worlds of insecurity and worry for her students], it is the young actors who portray the students who make the film work.

Singer/actor Mario portrays Andre, a young man whose older brother is about to be sentenced to a very long jail term; April Lee Hernandez is Eva, who has to decide between what's right and "protecting your own" – as well as being expected to get pregnant and dropout; Jaclyn Ngan's Cindy has spent time in a Cambodian refugee camp; Hunter Parrish's Ben, as the sole white kid in the class, is the ultimate pariah – and afraid of everyone else.

Freedom Writers - The Class

While we see Gruwell's problems at home – her husband [Patrick Dempsey] is proud of what she's accomplishing, but can't stay with her because, "I have no more potential!" – they exist, in terms of the film, to show that, while everyone has problems, not everyone has to worry about life and death on a daily basis.

Richard LaGravanese has done an amazing job of adapting the film from The Freedom Writers' Diary without making Gruwell just another saint among the sinners – or her students just a bunch of stereotypical punks in whatever

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