(This film review of “Freedom Writers” originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on March 23, 2007.)
Written and directed by Richard LaGravenese, based on the book The Freedom Writers Diary by the FreedomWriters with Erin Gruwell
Starring Hilary Swank, Patrick Dempsey, Imelda Staunton, Scott Glenn,
Non-Jewish fascination with the Holocaust is certainly nothing new, but a recent phenomenon is now evident: non-Jewish using the Holocaust as a tool for teaching tolerance in high schools. In last year’s “Paper Clips” documentary, we saw how a remote Tennessee town taught tolerance of racial diversity to its overwhelmingly white Protestant students. Now, with “Freedom Writers”, the teaching is no longer about racial awareness, but about something much deeper: personal identify.
“Freedom Writer” is a “docu-drama” of sorts: it is based on the real life experiences of Erin Gruwell, a young, naïve and idealistic high school English teacher in inner city Los Angeles. With only one exception, her students are non-white: an explosive mix of Hispanic, African-American and Cambodian, most of them desperately poor, from broken homes and facing gang violence, murders and police brutality every day of their lives.
The real life Erin (played in this film by Hilary Swank of “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Million Dollar Baby”) and her students wrote a book of their experiences (“Freedom Writers Diary”), which incorporated the students’ own diaries, and in turn became the basis for this film – adapted and directed by Richard LaGravenese.
The film is an earnest, heart-warming effort that illustrates how “unreachable” and “untouchable” students can be motivated and given meaning in their lives. This is nothing new, of course: think “Dangerous Minds”, the English classic “To Sir With Love” or the 1960’s landmark “Up the Down Staircase”.
The hook here is knowing that this is a real story, but also – incredibly – how the Holocaust was used as a means of inspiring meaning in shattered lives. When innocent Erin arrives at Wilson High School, she is faced with an embittered head teacher (Imelda Staunton) and a school which has seen much better days: voluntary racial integration has rapidly changed the demographics from middle-class white to overwhelmingly working class minority. Like most new teachers, she is given the worst classes: 150 unmotivated, unhappy, churlish and violent year nine students; expected to babysit them; and discouraged from giving them any real books because “they will only lose them”.
Slowly but surely she gains their trust, with the breakthrough – incredibly – being when she assigns “The Diary of Anne Frank”. This in turn grows to their actively studying the Holocaust, visiting the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s “Museum of Tolerance” and inviting to the school Miep Geis, the Dutch woman who hid Anne Frank. Geis actually appears in the film, as does the four Holocaust survivors of the Museum who met with the Gruwell’s original students.
The young minority actors playing Gruwell’s students are articulate and powerful (the US seems to have an unlimited pool of them for films like this), and Swank does a convincing job as the soft-but-tough teacher who finds meaning. There is strong support from Scott Glenn, playing her father, and Scott Dempsey, who plays her increasingly unhappy and ignored husband: to the film’s credit, it pulls no punches in showing the personal sacrifices which Gruwell made for her students.
Although we hear that Gruwell actually has “150” students, we only meet one class of about 25 (where are the other 125?), who seem – at least in this film – to have their teacher almost full-time with no other distractions. In simplifying the story to one class only, LaGravenese has created an unrealistic and somewhat unbelievable set-up. There’s also not much subtext going on here – what you see is what you get. But fortunately it’s a well-made and inspiring tale with lots of emotional highlights.