When I tried to get my roommate to watch Freedom Writers she took one look at the cover and said, “I hate these ‘white savior’ movies.”
White savior movies?
It was my first time hearing of this so-called genre, but I guess it’s not exactly new or far-fetched. MADtv recently parodied the movie under the name “Nice White Lady”, which showed a white teacher in a class full of minority student stereotypes. She says to one of her students, “With all due respect sir, I’m a white lady. I can do anything.”
Although there might be several films with “white savior” potential, rarely are people so vehement in pointing it out. So what’s with all the attacks on Freedom Writers? Okay, so it’s a tad unoriginal. And yes, like the MADtv parody, there is a painful scene of Hilary Swank awkwardly doing the electric slide as she gets down with her minority students, but Freedom Writers is more self-aware than people think. It knows it’s lacking in originality, it knows its ideas on social matters are broad and naive, but at least it’s honest.
The film is about the true story of Erin Gruwell (Swank) who comes to Woodrow Wilson High School to teach an English class of predominately inner city kids. The kids have tales of gang violence and racism in their community and few think they’ll make it to graduation. Erin struggles to reach her students in ways the other faculty haven’t. She even takes up two jobs to pay for books the school refuses to provide for students.
One day, when Erin realizes the entire class has never heard of the Holocaust, she has them read The Diary of Anne Frank, which motivates them to write in diaries of their own. In reality, the diaries were published in the book The Freedom Writers Diary, which topped the New York Times Bestseller’s list. Gradually, the students learn how education is the key to their future and how gangs are not cool.
Is it possible Freedom Writers director Richard LaGravenese was aware it would be deemed a “white savior movie”? It’s not only possible, it’s probable. For example, in one scene Gruwell passes out Tupac Shakur lyrics hoping it will motivate the students to learn poetry. Not only does she mispronounce “Shakur”, but her students point that out her actions are misinformed and condescending, the two things you would not typically find in a “white savior movie”. This kind of self-awareness is refreshing.
Freedom Writers doesn’t try to overstep its territory; it simply wants to tell you a story about this particular class. For example, the deleted scenes on the DVD show a tedious scene where Erin and the students are eating at a swanky restaurant. When a black student accidentally bumps chairs with an uppity white woman, the woman instinctively snatches her purse. The kid leans to a friend and whispers, “For once I’d like to look at a pretty white girl without her grabbing her purse.” Wow, such profound words have never been uttered by anyone, ever. Luckily, the deletion of such scenes keep the movie from crossing into “Hallmark Movie of the Week” territory.
But I guess Freedom Writers knows if it gets too preachy, it’ll lose its audience. Although there are several issues the movie brings up (mostly about the incompetent public school system) it doesn’t try to dissect the problems for the audience or manipulate the issues to force a fluffy message. This is mostly a film about the power of teachers and how the right motivation can inspire just about any student.
The DVD is full of your typical extras, such as commentary, mini behind the scenes documentaries, and a look into the making of the movie’s original song “A Dream” by rapper/producer Common and will. i. am. Alas, the mini-documentaries are very similar to one another, and you’ll be pressing the fast forward button.
Freedom Writers’ simplicity works. It’s a sweet little movie, with sweet characters that do touching things. If that last sentence doesn’t make you want to hurl, then perhaps Freedom Writers deserves a chance, “white savior movie” or not.