Cast: Hilary Swank, Scott Glenn, Imelda Staunton, Patrick Dempsey, Mario
Director and Screenwriter: Richard LaGravenese
Theatrical release: 2007; available on DVD
If you went through the K-12 educational system in the United States during the 20th century, you probably still believe it's one of the best — if not the best — in the world. If you haven't looked at that system recently, you're in for a very unpleasant awakening. But look you should. And that's exactly what Freedom Writers does.
The film is a powerful realization of the book The Freedom Writers Diary, which brought together the actual diaries of students in Erin Gruwell's Long Beach (CA) High School English and writing classes during the mid- to late-1990s. As a newly minted teacher, Gruwell's idealism runs smack up against the reality of cultural divisions. She wants to bridge the divides, but she must also deal with an educational system that has long since dismissed these students as "unteachable and at-risk."
Shortly before watching this film for the first time (on DVD), I spent a couple of days at a meeting of U.S. distance learning and media educators. At this face-to-face gathering, keynoters addressed differences in "generational learning styles" and the impact of "new" media on teaching and learning. Freedom Writers shows these generational (and other) demarcations in stark relief.
Boomers, once rebellious teenagers themselves whose memories seem to have disappeared along with their energy for confrontation, are now the educational administration focused on rank, seniority, process, and procedure. The Gen Y teacher and students are trying to figure out how to break down cultural barriers, talk with each other, and maybe learn something, after being labeled as less than capable. Shades of Millennials Rising and other work on how the generations can learn to co-exist.
Freedom Writers follows the efforts of Gruwell, who, after intercepting a racial caricature being passed around the classroom, angrily describes such representations as similar to those that led to the Holocaust. Then she discovers that only one student knows what the Holocaust is — but everyone except that student knows a friend or family member who has been shot. This 'teachable moment' expands through reading The Diary of Anne Frank, a field trip to the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance, and eventually, even a visit to the Freedom Writers' classroom by Miep Gies, the then-elderly Dutch woman who, during World War II, sheltered Anne Frank and her family. The students also learn about the civil rights movement of the 1960s and, when encouraged by Gruwell to write about their own lives, name themselves the Freedom Writers in honor of those civil-rights-activist Freedom Riders.
While somewhat reminiscent of 1995's film Dangerous Minds with Michelle Pfeiffer, Freedom Writers holds its own by showing us the lives of real people we can care about. We see that success depends upon good communication. Our workplaces are no longer predominantly farms or factories, and, even if we might have (mistakenly) thought an education wasn't a necessity in earlier days or for certain kinds of people, it's obvious now that we can't afford to throw anyone away.
With luck, those in Gen Y and beyond will blow up the current educational system and invent whatever's needed for the 21st century's economy of intangibles, so that, in another dozen years, we don't need the next one of these "exceptional" films, good as they are, to remind us of what our educational and cultural priorities must be.