NEW YORK—In Freedom Writers, a drama based on the experiences of Erin Gruwell, a pre-law student’s desire to make a difference leads her to a California high school classroom full of hardened, often gang-affiliated kids.
Gruwell, played by Hilary Swank, shows up for her first day of work wearing a strand of pearls.
Hilary Swank, April Lee Hernandez, Mario, Scott Glenn, Imelda Staunton, Patrick Dempsey
(Paramount Pictures; US theatrical: 5 Jan 2007 (General release); 2007)
Her supervisor suspiciously eyes this well-dressed, seemingly naive woman and advises her she might want to leave the necklace at home. They could prove too much of a temptation for students with even less respect for the law than for their teachers. But Gruwell ignores the warning, showing up the next day wearing the pearls as proudly as she does her ideals.
Gruwell is still wearing the pearls, a gift from her late father, portrayed in Freedom Writers by veteran actor Scott Glenn, when she arrives for an interview at mid-Manhattan’s Regency Hotel in New York, clearly pleased and excited by the way her story has been transformed for the big screen.
“Truly, honestly, it’s not been transformed that much,” says Gruwell, whose energy and enthusiasm has been captured with accuracy by Swank in the film. “The people who believed in this movie believed in it the same way I believed in my kids. They knew if they didn’t tell the story straight or weren’t honest, if they tried to sweeten it or embellish it, it wouldn’t fly. My hardest audience was them. Only after they saw the movie and said that’s the way it was did I feel really relieved.”
Later that day at the hotel, Swank says, “All I really ever wanted was to do Erin and her experiences with these kids. I’ve finally figured out that I really don’t choose the best movies I end up making, they choose me. The characters I played in Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby are a lot different outwardly than Erin, rougher, more streetwise. But inside, they have a lot in common. They just refuse to give up what they believe in, on who they are even when other people tell them it’s impossible.”
As told in Freedom Writers, Gruwell’s story began in the fall of 1992, the year of the Rodney King riots. Against the wishes of her father, a civil rights activist in his youth, and her new husband (played by Patrick Dempsey), she took a job at Woodrow Wilson High in Long Beach, teaching English.
But she soon learned that her students, primarily African American and Latino, many with parents who were incarcerated or dependent on drugs or alcohol, had little interest in stories written by, as one student called them, “dead white guys in tights.”
When the students were dragged in by truancy officers, they harassed her and fought with each other, while the administrators refused to let her distribute books on the grounds the students would only destroy them.
Gruwell responded by buying notebooks with her own money—she took a part-time job selling bras to supplement her and her husband’s income—and asking the students to keep diaries of their daily lives, the things that were relevant to them.
“These were kids who did whatever it took to survive,” says Swank, who admits she “fought with everything I had” to get the role, coveted by Reese Witherspoon and other high-profile actors.
“They hooked up with gangs for self-preservation. Some of them were responsible for the care of their younger brothers and sisters. They lived in a gun culture where the rules are rigidly enforced by violence. When you read their stories, they’re just devastating. And yet, they are also strangely hopeful. They’re kids. They want to grow up. They just didn’t expect to.”
Gruwell would earn the respect of her students, in part by her steadfast refusal to give up on them, and in part through the story of another young person who lived in daily fear and danger, Anne Frank.
After she bought and distributed copies of Frank’s famous “Diary” and made the point that the Nazis were the most murderous gang in history, she took the students on a field trip to the Holocaust Museum—some of them had never ventured beyond their own territory—and to lunch with real Holocaust survivors, who play themselves in the movie.
Then she asked permission from the students to collect their diaries in a book, Freedom Writers: Our Story, Our Words, which would be published by Broadway Books.
The book inspired a story for the TV news show Primetime Live that attracted the attention of writer-director Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, The Horse Whisperer). He enlisted producer Stacey Sher and her partner, Michael Shamberg.
“I’m like everyone else that got involved,” says Sher, interviewed earlier this year in Chicago. “I became obsessed with getting it on the screen, because I believe, really, this is a story that can make a difference. The public education system in cities like Detroit is under siege. Schools need to be able to address the real issues in students’ lives that will create an environment where they can really learn. And that will allow committed teachers like Erin to be innovative and creative instead of stifling and suppressing them.”
Gruwell says her suggestion to LaGravenese that Swank would “really get what I was trying to do and what the story was really about” was the only part of the process for which she might take credit.
“Whatever she did to persuade him, I’m in her debt,” says Swank. “I loved the story and the character so much, and I really felt I was the one who could do it. I understood her. I wanted to be her.”
Clint Eastwood says it was that inner fight that led him to cast Swank as the boxer he takes under his wing in Million Dollar Baby, for which Swank won her second Academy Award; she won her first playing a girl who remade herself as a teenage boy in the fact-based Boys Don’t Cry.
“I’ve had the honor of working with some terrific actors,” says Eastwood, “and she’s up there at the top of my list. She’s hungry, and I like that.”
Swank tears up when told what Eastwood said.
“I can’t even tell you”—she stops briefly to collect herself—“what that means to me. He took such a large, amazing chance on me, and I’ll love him forever for it. He’s a hero to me. So is Erin, though I promise you she would deny it. She just wanted to be good teacher.”
Gruwell, who now spends her time leading workshops and running a Freedom Writers Foundation, does, predictably, slough off the hero description.
“It’s those kids, and all the other ones who fight to get a education who are the heroes. I’m like, the hero enabler.”