“Those are nice pearls,” an administrator says to Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) a new teacher at Long Beach, Wilson High School, “I wouldn’t wear them to class.” Based on the true of story of novice teacher, Erin Gruwell, and her struggles to educate a group of racially self-segregating freshmen in a recently integrated, gang -infested school, Freedom Writers’ inspiring and instructive story about the prospects for education in such adverse conditions is marred by its tendency toward hero-worshipping sentimental schlock.
The film begins with media footage of the 1992 L.A. riots and then shifts to a little girl playing with Barbies. The little girl later witnesses a brutal drive by killing, for which her father is unjustly accused, convicted, and incarcerated. An alleged eyewitness, member of a rival gang and race, fingers her father to protect a member of his own race. What the young girl, Eva (April Lee Hernandez), learns from this is tribal loyalty, the protection of one’s own. Whether it is in school, or on the streets or in prison — and Eva insists that these are all versions of one culture — turf wars, wars of retaliation and respect, dominate. The question the movie poses is whether the school can become an alternative culture that supplies students with a better perspective on the bellicose streets and the seemingly inevitable time in prison.
Street life here is depicted with a gritty realism, but the film strains credibility once it moves to the classroom. The film piles on the canned dialogue and a series of emotionally overwrought scenes; a big blowup in the class is followed by a confrontation with an administrator and then another argument with a fellow teacher. As is typical of such films, the main character, here Gruwell, is presented as nearly flawless while all those in the surrounding adult world are jealous and spiteful. Now, it is not hard to believe that her liberal father (Scott Glenn), perhaps the most nuanced supporting character, would suddenly resist his promising daughter’s very concrete way of trying to realize what she thought her father had taught her; or that her husband (Patrick Dempsey) would gradually become disaffected as his wife becomes consumed by her students; or that administrators and fellow teachers would be suspicious and envious of the reported successes of a rookie teacher. But the problem for the story is that the characters have no complexity to them; they are merely foils for the heroism of the main character.
One of the more compelling, if fairly obvious, themes in the film is the way the bureaucracy of the public schools protects its own interests rather than serving the needs of the students. Books the students should be assigned are stored safely away because the students cannot understand them and deface them. Then there is the inevitable argument that Gruwell’s methods should not be permitted because they create inequality in the school. Unless we can do this for everyone, so the leveling argument runs, we should not do it for anyone. Since the school already operates a successful honors program, this argument is specious; it indicates a resistance to educating certain types of students.
Gruwell remains undaunted as she faces the central question for a teacher in such a circumstance. What does one do with students who have no hope, no confidence in their own ability, and no belief in anything other than gang culture? Gruwell tries to find some way to meet them where they are, but not to leave them there. Education, as its Latin etymology indicates, is about leading forth, not simply reinforcing what one already believes. So, Gruwell gives them both Tupac and The Diary of Anne Frank. The real Erin Gruwell has put it this way: “I made a conscious choice not to water down the curriculum and babysit them. I wanted them to find relevance in everything that was on my syllabus, whether it was a sonnet or a book like The Odyssey.”
When one jealous and experienced white male teacher accuses Gruwell of not knowing whereof she speaks and of the adverse affects of “voluntary integration” on the school, he states bluntly “integration is a lie.” What Gruwell needs is a way to make the students see things together, to help them to overcome their view of the world as narrowly divided into easily classifiable groups, such as little Tijuana or Wonderbread land.
The students, played by a cast of little-known actors who give the most credible performances in the film, also learn the power of stories, of having a vocabulary to understand the lives of others and in light of which to begin to articulate their own lives. From the lone and mildly terrified white kid, played with unassuming humor by Hunter Parrish, to the courageous Eva, who may be tougher than any of the male students in the class, the students come alive the way all students come alive, through an encounter with great literature under the inspiring direction of a masterful teacher. Unable to put The Diary down, Eva pauses long enough to inquire, “When is Anne going to smoke Hitler?” When she reaches the end and discovers Anne’s fate, she angrily confronts her teacher, “Why did you give us this to read? She’s not supposed to die. If she is killed, what does that say about me?” Another student interjects that Anne’s life matters. At least people are reading about her life, unlike the many friends they have lost in gang wars whose lives are forgotten as soon as they are buried.
The overused Nazi analogy is quite effective in one respect. Not in the sense in which the teacher initially uses it, namely, to try to undermine the students’ sense that they belong to the baddest gangs ever to have walked the face of the earth. According to Gruwell, the baddest gang of all is daddy Hitler and his Nazi thugs. Through reading Anne Frank’s diary, visiting the Holocaust museum, dining with Holocaust survivors (who appear as themselves in the film), and in arranging a visit to their school from Miep Gies (Pat Carroll), one of those who helped hide Anne Frank, the students learn that blind loyalty to one’s own can be the source of the gravest injustice. Instead, integrity and honor involve what Gies calls the ordinary person’s fidelity to the truth, a truth that may require defying one’s group.
– Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.