Freedom Writers (2007)

Freedom Writers is this week's "stand up and cheer" movie about a teacher taking on a challenging classroom and suceeding. It stars Hillary Swank, Scott Glenn and Patrick Dempsey (better known as McSteamy from "Grey's Anatomy"). It takes place after the 1992 LA riots.

Swank plays Erin Gruwell, a student teacher who truly wants to make a difference. She is married to Dempsey, who plays Scott Casey. She gets thrown into a freshman English class where half the kids are on probation, and the other half are in gangs, many bringing weapons to school. The class is polarized around racial lines, and they live in a literal war zone where daily violence is the norm, and not the exception. The more senior teachers teach at the junior and senior level because most of the problem students have either gotten killed, or at least dropped out, so the remaining students at least have an interest in learning. After a riot breaks out in the first week of school, this new teacher starts to realize that she has her work cut out for her.

Gruwell has more ambition than experience, and she takes on the challenge. When she can't get the school to supply her with books, she gets a second job to be able to buy them herself. When she figures out that the kids have such a narrow view of the world because they've never been anywhere else than Long Beach, CA, she gets a third job to do a field trip. When her department director and principal start to squawk, she gets support from the board of education. In short, she becomes a rebel who takes up the cause of tolerance.

This devotion to her students of "Room 203" starts to exact a high price on the rest of her life. Her husband rarely sees his wife, and their relationship becomes strained. Her father, a retired successful businessman initially views this a big mistake for his daughter, and can't believe how hard she works for 27K a year.

Gruwell, comes up with the idea of the kids writing their own story in a daily journal. This was inspired after the students read The Diary of Anne Frank, and can identify with the Nazis oppression and violence of WW II as the "ultimate gang," and compare it to their oppression. Through reading her student's journals, Gruwell gains even greater insight into the impoverished, and violent circumstances that the students are facing. Many of them view it as an achievement if they are not dead or pregnant by age 16. These stories get collected into a book, The Freedom Writers Diary.

Freedom Writers reminded me quite a bit of The Ron Clark Story. Both films deal with young educators taking on an inner city students, and succeeding against all odds. Of the two, I think that Freedom Writers is the stronger film. By using voice overs of the students and their personal stories, set against their homes and violence, it makes a powerful impact. It was also impressive that all of Gruwell's students went on to college when none of them were expected to even graduate high school.

Overall Grade: A-


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