Friday, August 24, 2007

Movie Review

Over the summer I took a class on technology and writing at Auburn University. One of the assignments was to create a wiki with several of the other students in the class. My group decided on a movie review wiki. Here is one of my reviews

Review of the movie Freedom Writers (IMDB).

Hillary Swank plays Erin Gruwell, a teacher who chose to work at Woodrow Wilson High School, a minority school. Set in 1994, just two years after the LA riots, Gruwell takes a class of mainly minority students and inspires them to excel beyond anyone’s expectations. Along the way Gruwell has to fight those higher up than she in the school and school district. She pours so much of herself and her time into her teaching that she loses her husband (Patrick Dempsey). She works two extra jobs to have the money to provide her students with the books and extras she believes they need.

I watched this movie fully prepared to hate it. As a genre I dislike films about teachers. Being one myself I see all the inconsistencies. As in all teacher movies, the teacher apparently has one class. I know that isn’t the case, most people in the audience know it isn’t the case, but for narrative purposes the film must focus on the relationship between the teacher and one class. Unfortunately this has the effect of setting up unconscious expectations in the audience. If she just has that one class, what exactly is her problem? These movies need to let the audiences see the overload teachers often work under.

Also, as in many (if not most) films about teachers, there is the subtext of white teacher goes to minority school and inspires the kids to work miracles. Apparently, after she had the students do one particular exercise where they had to go to a line in the middle of the room and she passed out the journals there were no more discipline problems in her classes. That is unrealistic. I can see the problems would be reduced, but not entirely eliminated.

Also there is the subtext of teacher as martyr. Gruwell works extra jobs, sacrifices her marriage, and becomes extremely unpopular with the other teachers. Again, this is a common theme in movies about teachers. While I believe that what Gruwell did was heroic, I do not believe that is what it takes to be a good teacher. Why are teachers expected to spend their own money and sacrifice their personal lives if they want to make a difference? Why not just have the school system provide the necessary materials so that level of sacrifice isn’t warranted.

I would also like to say a few words about the other teachers in the movie. Department Head Margaret Campbell (Imelda Staunton) was given the role of villain. As was English teacher Brian Gelford (John Benjamin Hickey). I have a harder time demonizing these teachers. True they were not open, true they were obstructions, but they had both been there a long time. They had seen the school they started in change virtually overnight when the voluntary integration started. I am willing to bet they had precious little to say about that or training in how to deal with the new students they received. Although they were wrong in many particulars, I can’t see them as the bad guys, but only as other people who had been ripped up by the system and were just trying to survive.

Overall, even with the flaws, it was a heart-tugger. And knowing it is based on a true story makes it even more interesting. Gruwell left the school when her classes did. She moved on to teach college. I don’t say this as an insult or slam, but to point out there is a reason that teachers cannot pour so much of themselves into their work. It leads to burn out. Maybe some type of happy medium between martyr and uncaring teacher (the only two types portrayed in the movie) might be the best road to travel.

Erin Gruwell comments on the movie. From YouTube.

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