Freedom Writers

Starring Hilary Swank, Imelda Staunton, Scott Glenn and Patrick Dempsey. Directed by Richard La Gravenese.
Running Time: 123 mins.
Rated: Rated M (moderate themes and violence, infrequent moderate coarse language).

This is a must for educators.

Over the decades, a standard Hollywood interest has been the ups and downs of American education systems. Fifty years ago or more, the challenge of unruly gangs in school and in the classroom were introduced in Blackboard Jungle (which, incidentally, used Bill Haley and the Comets' epoch changing song, Rock Around the Clock). Forty years ago, Sidney Poitier on this side of the Atlantic, won over his students in To Sir With Love. The same year Sandy Dennis had to cope with students in Up the Down Staircase.

The film that made a great impact in the 1980s was Dead Poets Society. At the same time, Morgan Freeman was a tough school principal in Lean on Me and Edward James Olmos taught calculus to Hispanic students in Stand and Deliver. In the 1990s there was Michelle Pfeiffer trying to work with Dangerous Minds. In recent years there have been Kevin Kline in The Emperor's Club and Julia Roberts in Mona Lisa Smile. These two were set in the past and looked at elite schools.

It is still worth seeing at these films to appreciate how education has been considered on the big screen.

This is background to Freedom Writers, a very welcome addition to the genre. It is based on actual characters and events. (The group appears in a photo in the final credits.)

Erin Gruwell came from affluent Newport Beach, California, and, all smiles, was ready to take on the world and transform the students. While, ultimately, she did, it did not look like that at the start. She asked to teach at the recently integrated Woodrow Wilson High in Long Beach. The students came from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds (with some token white students), all hostile, all experienced in gang and street warfare, all with their angers, bitterness and practical apartheid.

A breakthrough came for Erin Gruwell when a caricature sketch of an African American was passed around the class and, emotionally, she took the opportunity to raise the issue of anti-Semitic prejudice in Hitler's Germany. The class had not heard of the Holocaust.

She then found books that they might read, a story of a gang member and, then, a book that they identified with, The Diary of Anne Frank. It was a revelation to them. They visited the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and had dinner with and listened to survivors. They even raised money to bring Miep Gies, the woman who had sheltered the Frank family, to visit and speak with them.

The other thing that Erin Gruwell did was to buy them exercise books and get them to write their diaries (memories, poems, anything) - and they gave her permission to read them. Education led to an awareness of potential, to affirmation and a group cohesion.

Clearly, this is an 'inspirational' film. There are the expected clashes with the traditional teachers, some of whom dislike and despise the students. There are the moments of triumph. But, her work meant sacrifices for Erin Gruwell and the loss of support from her husband who felt that he could not measure up to her energy and achievement.

Now a winner of two Oscars, Hilary Swank has become a strong presence on screen. She really enters into the role of Erin Gruell making her early mistakes credible yet showing that the transition in herself and in the students was possible.

Imelda Staunton (quite unlike Vera Drake) is the teacher who feels threatened, cannot understand these methods and opposes her. Patrick Dempsey is sympathetic as the husband and Scott Glenn is her conservative father who joins in Erin's activities with the students.

The title is a play on words on the Freedom Riders of the 1960s who stood up for civil rights.

Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

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