Watching the whole world move in slow-mo.
For quiet times, disappear listen to the ocean.
Smoking Ports, think my thoughts.
Then it’s back to coasting.
—Tupac, “Until The End Of Time”
You don’t know the pain we feel, teaching us this grammar shit.
—Eva (April Lee Hernandez)
A prim young woman with a pearl necklace sits near the edge of her chair, so excited by her new employment that she scarcely hears her supervisor’s admonitions. She needs to focus on her students’ vocabulary lessons, sniffs Miss Campbell (Imelda Staunton), adding that The Odyssey would be “too difficult” for them. Many of them ride the bus for 90 minutes to get to school, so they’re too tired and distracted to get homework done. And maybe she shouldn’t wear the pearls to class.
Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) smiles. She recalls her father, a civil rights activist during the 1960s, meaning that she believes, like he used to, that “at-risk” students only need a chance. “I think the real fighting should happen in the classroom,” she beams. And don’t even doubt her sincerity: “I’m a really good student,” Erin insists, touching the pearls her mother gave her. Margaret leans her head back, eyebrows arched in disbelief. The girl won’t last a day.
In fact, Erin’s first efforts in Freedom Writers are predictably pathetic: her students make fun of her, the lesson plan is unworkable, and her pearls do look out of place, just like her bright red suit. But really, she’s been set up for this awkwardness—by a plot that needs her to fail before she can triumph (one of those based-on-a-true-story, inspirational teacher stories) and by a voiceover that precedes her appearance. As the camera pans beat-down houses in Long Beach, Eva (April Lee Hernandez) introduces her story. It’s 1994. She doesn’t talk about her father, but about her “people.” School seems mostly irrelevant to daily survival. The “Rodney King riots” rocked her community two years ago, followed by 120 murders in the past year. Cops want retaliation. “They called my people a gang because we fight for our right,” she says ruefully. “We are a family.”
Erin will eventually learn this lesson from her students. And she will love them for teaching her, for making her a “really good student.” But before then, Richard LaGravenese’s film will put her and the kids through the usual paces: fighting at Wilson High School, passing through ominous metal detectors, witnessing shootings, and facing off, through tears, in the classroom. Coming after so many similar films—Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me, and, especially, Dangerous Minds come to mind—Freedom Writers has its work cut out. And yet the movie, for all its clichés about inspiration, is surprisingly inspiring.
This effect has to do with the film’s attitude toward Erin’s students, an attitude apparently culled from her own (the film is based on the real Erin Gruwell‘s experience). When her students inform her that she’s been assigned to who see themselves as their other teachers see them, the “ghetto ass class,” the one they’ve been told is unworthy of attention or time, Erin decides to change her tactics, rather than make them conform to “tried and true” methods. Rather than presuming that race and class and even gender don’t matter (in that ideal world students are supposed to learn about), Erin takes them where they are, where all these markers of identity matter desperately. And so, she “owns” her whiteness, which indicates her cluelessness, and asks her students to teach her. She asks her students to talk to her and each other, and acts on what they say.
Of course, she faces obstacles everywhere she turns. Her father Steve (Scott Glenn), despite his former faith in the Black Panthers’ education and economic programs, now worries that his daughter is teaching students who “don’t want to learn,” a concern shared by her husband Scott (Patrick Dempsey). Erin is also regularly discouraged by her cynical colleagues, especially Miss Campbell, who goes so far as to suggest she shouldn’t provide the students with books because they will only lose or damage them. So, Erin asks, gazing on shelves full of unused volumes, “The books should just sit there and not be used at all?” Indeed, says Campbell, this is the wisdom of “site-based instruction.”
Erin’s frustration is thus made yours. Bolstered rather than put off by such difficulties, she persists, pressing her students to explain their self-segregation into race-identified crews. Distrustful from day one, at last Eva articulates her own frustration: “White people running this world,” she says. “I saw white cops shoot my friend in the back for reaching into his pocket. They can because they’re white. I hate white people on sight.” It dawns on Erin that she provides the students’ most obvious point of unity, as the enemy in the classroom. And so she looks for other connections. In a hopelessly corny but remarkably moving scene, she has them stand together in the middle of the classroom when they’ve shared an experience, like losing a friend to violence. And as they stand together because of such trauma, they begin to recognize their similarities.
Erin has another brainstorm: she has her students write about their lives in a “war zone” in journals. Again, the revelation is rendered in a sequence at once hackneyed and affecting: the camera circles Erin as she reads their stories, the students’ voices overlapping and overtaking hers. Describing his experience with the authorities when a friend was killed, on student laments, “All they see is a dead body, a gun, and a nigger.” Another entry expresses discontent with expectations: “I hate the cold feeling of a gun against my skin.” And yet another has “seen more dead bodies than a mortician.”
Stunned by what she reads, Erin is equally determined to help her students see each other more clearly. To pay for their horizon-expanding books, Erin starts working as a hotel concierge (Scott is flabbergasted: “You’re gonna get an extra job to pay for your job?”). She has them read Anne Frank: The Diary of A Young Girl and visit L.A.‘s Holocaust museum (she tells them the Nazis are “the most famous gang in history”). Moved by Frank’s story, the kids raise money to bring Miep Gies (Pat Carroll), the woman who hid her from the Nazis, to campus. Eyes tear up, music swells.
Yes, the plot is predictable, the actors too old to play high school students, and the pacing too slow. But Freedom Writers also argues for listening to teenagers. That alone makes it strange and even a little wonderful.