Wednesday, November 13, 2013

52. Freedom Writers (2007)

Code-name: Gruwell

Writer/Director: Richard LaGravenese
Type: Inspirational Teacher, Drama, High School

Ms. Erin Gruwell- Hilary Swank
Scott- Patrick Dempsey
Erin's father- Scott Glenn
Dept. Head Margaret Campbell- Imelda Stanton
Superintendent Dr. Cohn-
Eva- April L. Hernandez
Marcus- Jason Finn
Ben- Hunter Parrish
Andre- Mario
Sindy- Jacyln Ngan
Jamal- Deance Wyatt
Victoria- Giovannie Samuels
Miep Gies- Pat Carroll


"In a World.." says the epic movie trailer voiceover guy

My interest in this movie began with the very first trailer. I remember that it came out Spring of 2007 and right away, I pegged it for best picture and further Oscar contention...

Why that didn't happen, I still don't understand.
..this was before I learned that the majority of Oscar contenders don't premiere until the end of the year...

Of all my "inspirational teacher" movies, this is my favorite and the one I wanted to represent the genre on my countdown.

The Premise

The movie begins with newsreels from the 1992 Rodney King riots in Long Beach, California. After they came and went, racial tensions escalated in the region to the point where if it had a pressure dial, it would be pushing critical mass.

Through the eyes of a few high school kids, we see how the Latinos, Asians, Blacks and Whites see each other and constantly get into violent altercations. Heck, even life in your own circle isn't free of violence.

Enter first-year teacher, Erin Gruwell. She gets a job at Woodrow Wilson High School. It once was known as one of the most prestigious schools in the region. Now it's a reform school serving as hub for voluntary integration. Most of the kids enrolled are as an alternative to juvenile hall or jail.
Both the Head of the Department, Margaret Campbell and the Distinguished Honors/Juniors/Seniors Teacher caution her against being optimistic and urge her to put in her time and move on.

The first several days are rough for Ms. Gruwell. When her students aren't getting into scrapes with one another, they're apathetic and idle in their studies.

What starts to change all that is a caricature of a classmate that's passed around the room. Jamal, who'd been one of the most vocal students, suffers in silence when the picture makes its way to his desk. It depicts him with big lips.
Ms. Gruwell turns it into a lesson, citing the Holocaust and how a "gang" in Europe wiped out people they didn't like and took over countries. She then realizes an even bigger problem with the system when she finds out nobody in the class knew what the Holocaust was.

As the story progresses, she helps them to see the similarities in each other and they come together as a tight-knit family.
But not without opposition from her fellow teachers and her personal life coming under fire.

The Players

Before I saw the trailer, I hadn't been a fan of HIlary Swank... on the mere fact that she won Oscars two years in a row, and "Millionaire Dollar Baby" sounds like a stupid title for a boxing movie. Never saw a single movie of hers.
Then all that changed when I saw "Freedom Writers." I cannot imagine anyone else playing this role and giving all of themselves to it.

A movie this powerful in its message and execution, everyone practically embodies their roles. According to the DVD extras, some of them had even experienced similar circumstances to what their characters went through.

On the other side of the coin, I'd only just gotten over enduring Imelda Stanton as Dolores Umbridge in the latest "Harry Potter" movie... she's equally infuriating as Ms. Gruwell's biggest opposition in this film. Sure, if you look at things from her perspective, you get why she is the way she is... but the fact that she doesn't give an inch the entire movie. There's no great epiphany where she accepts she was wrong.
I just want to scream right now thinking about it. Class-A Bitch!

Luckily for Ms. Gruwell, she got the support of a superintendent to help her cause.

And while on the negative side of things, movies like these are the reason I'm not a huge fan of Patrick Dempsey. He's incredibly good-looking man, no doubt about that, but I rarely like anyone he plays. I'd never seen "Grey's Anatomy," nor do I plan on it. He was an even bigger jerk in "Valentine's Day." Keeping Jennifer Garner as his girlfriend on the side while he's still happily married?! Jerk!
All I have in the positive column are "Can't Buy Me Love" and "Enchanted," where he grows from a bit of a jerk to a really good guy... and possibly "Sweet Home Alabama," but I only saw it once years ago.

As for the kids themselves, I listed the more oft-featured characters in the cast.

Eva (pronounced as "Ava") is Latina. There was a deadly shooting outside her door when she was a kid and her father, who was innocent, was implicated in the murder and sentenced to prison.
She's also a witness to a drive-by shooting at a convenience store. Her friend, Paco, was the shooter, but instead, a black teen was arrested.

Marcus is black. There was an incident where he was sitting on a bench with his friend who accidentally shot himself with a gun he found. When the cops came, Marcus was deemed responsible. His mom had kicked him out of the house, also in part because he looks a lot like his father.

Ben is the only white guy in the entire class and obviously, he's very nervous about these circumstances. He's there primarily because he's not among the brightest kids.

Sindy is Cambodian. Her friend was killed in the convenience store shooting. She and Eva are seen getting into scrapes in a couple scenes.

Erin's father also becomes involved in her efforts with these kids. Early in the movie, he's pessimistic about what she'll able to accomplish. This has her confused because "he was Atticus Finch when I was a kid" and his involvement in Civil Rights inspired her to get involved in this line of work in the first place.
But unlike the other administers, he gets to know these kids and becomes just as great a help to them.

Going Beyond the Material

Let the Spoilers Commence!
First of all, I don't know why I'm so in love with this particular movie genre. I grew up in a great neighborhood, went to a great school, and got good grades. From a physical standpoint, I'm white, female, and painfully average. But I didn't have a lot of friends and didn't really fit in anywhere on the student food chain... let's just say I don't have a lot of fond memories.
Second of all, I've personally never had an "inspirational teacher," certainly not a single one that changed my entire life the way it happens with kids in the movies. I liked most of my teachers, but there was never a dramatic turn-around. Not that I really need quote-un-quote "saving" or "changing"... I just wish someone that taught me helped give me a sense of direction, something specific.
Right now, the only stand-out that comes to mind was my concert choir teacher, Ms. Cloak, because she said a few times how she liked how much I gave to doing the work in the class. I never got a solo or a part in any of the musicals, but she knew I gave my 110% as an individual. Admittedly, there were a few opportunities where I could have stepped into a leadership role to get people to stop talking and focus on learning the material...
There'll come a time where I'll dedicate an entire entry to my favorite "inspirational teachers" but for now, I'll just say that Mr. Keating, Mr. Holland, Mr. Hunterd and Ms. Gruwell (heck, even Mr. Feeney deserves a mention) were some of the teachers I wish I had in high school, but on screen, they'd taught me a lot of things.
Maybe I'm just a sucker (yes, I'm a sucker for a lot of things... don't judge :-P) for the impact they have on people and how they're remembered for the rest of their lives for it.
Still very much a hot button today, this movie's prime focus is on racism and prejudices and how education and acceptance can help overcome it.
Speaking from personal experience, I didn't grow up around a lot of minorities so when it came to the 2-3 African-American individuals I had per classroom, I was ill-at-ease because we looked so different. I didn't take it beyond physical appearance in making assumptions about them just because they were black.
My attitude about race started to change when I was a teenager, right around the time I glimpsed "Purple Rain" for the first time and Eddie Murphy was in a lot of my favorite movies... since then, I've gotten better about keeping an open mind, whether the topic is racisim, addiction or homosexuality. So many people go through life judging people based on what they deem to be social norms... I'll leave the judgements to everyone else.
But if you go out of your way to be notorious and jerk-ish, that's where I draw the line (Charlie Sheen, Miley Cyrus, and Chris Brown come to my mind).
While editorializing this, I can't help but wonder the other day how it would have went if this took place more recently... and there were a few Muslims in the classroom... and they did the Holocaust discussion.
Muslims are under the impression the Holocaust never happened.
It's hard to predict how things would have unfolded, had it happened that way, but it'd be really hard to condense that into a two-hour movie.
One cliché (that happens to have a lot of truth to it) in these movies is when the teachers get wholly involved with their students, their personal lives take a downturn. It happened with Mr. Holland, who wasn't helping his wife with their deaf son, Cole.
It also happened with Ms. Gruwell. Her husband left her close to the end of the movie... it could be for a number of reasons. She took two extra jobs to pay for supplies because the school refused to give her students access to new books and such. She took them on a lot of class trips and got home late. And he was also dissatisfied with the fact she was the bread-winner of the house. She tries to encourage him to go back to architecture and fulfill his potential, but he dismisses her, insisting he's surpassed his potential.
Like with Margaret Campbell, I can see things from his perspective and understand it... but on the surface, he came off to me as a man who hated being emasculated by his more successful wife. He even said "I can't be your wife" at one point... jerk.
One interesting scene that should be noted involves a late enrollee, Victoria. She's in the Distinguished Honors program and the teacher asked her to give the black perspective of "The Color Purple". Her mental dialogue hit the nail on the head.
"Do I have a sign on my forehead that says I'm a Rosetta Stone for African-Americans?"
Then the teacher got all bent out of shape, believing that Ms. Gruwell "stole" Victoria from his class... another jerk.
Turn-arounds and Resolutions
During the spring semester, the students were assigned Anne Frank's diary. While mulling over what to say at the trial, Eva becomes engrossed in the story and her relationship with Ms. Gruwell improves.
Then she gets to the end and flips the HELL out, upset that she died at the end and says it doesn't help her situation. Marcus is in the classroom, listening to this tirade and gives his own take on it. He also says he'd done research on Miep Gies because he thought she was a real hero for hiding the Franks and the VanPelts. This blossoms into a movement where the students write her letters and raise money to bring her to the school.
That was probably the most powerful moment in the entire movie. Miep wasn't playing herself obviously, but Pat Carroll did her amazing justice.
After learning about the Holocaust and such, I'd wonder every now and then if Miep was still alive and sure enough, she had been for quite some time. She passed away in early 2010 at the age of 100... just WOW!
When the trial finally arrives, Eva has a change of heart and decides to tell the truth. That her friend, Paco, was the shooter. Unfortunately, her community threatened and turned their back on her as a result. Lucky for her, she has Ms. Gruwell to talk to about it. This also allows her and Sindy to finally put their differences aside and become friends.
Andre also faces difficulty in his family. After reading "`12 Angry Men," he believed his brother would be able to escape a trip to prison. It didn't work out that way.
One point I must disagree with is where his mental dialogue said "there was no O.J. dream team"... we all know for a fact that O.J. got away with murder, yet the blacks still herald him as a hero.
At the same time, though, I believe George Zimmerman should have been convicted of murder, Al Sharpton shouldn't make EVERY discretion involving blacks about racism and I forgave Michael Vick's dog fighting after he signed with the Eagles. Sure, it goes against my principles as an animal lover, despite the fact he's atoned for what he did, but as a denizen of a Philly surburb, I'm desperate for an Eagles SuperBowl win in my lifetime... no matter who it is as long as they get that done.
I haven't completely swept hypocrisy out of my life, but I'm working on it.
Last but not least, the students adopted the new "Freedom Writers" in homage to the Freedom Riders, a group of black and whites that traveled on a bus through the country to pledge for tolerance during the Civil Rights movement.
And they put their journals together into a book... which this movie was based off of.
The Source Material
Shortly before I went away to my senior year of college, I picked up a copy of the book (at the same time as "Twilight"). It really is eye-opening, all the stuff in its pages. Some points, you can see certain characters coming to mind. Other times, it's about stuff getting heavier and heavier. Everything from domestic violence, drugs, hazing, incest and, if I remember right, pregnancy came up as well.
It was broken into chapters, each representing a semester. Ms. Gruwell wrote the opening of each chapter and the rest came from the students, all writing their entries anonymously. I'd absolutely recommend picking up a copy, if only to borrow from the library. It goes beyond the scope of the film and sometimes, that's a good thing.


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