Erin Gruell (Hilary Swank) is a brand new freshman-sophomore English teacher at a Long Beach, CA high school in 1994 – not long after the 1992 riots in Los Angeles. Racial tension between various gangs becomes obvious in her classroom from day one. Erin is overwhelmed by the lack of enthusiasm and antagonism in her students, as well as department head’s negative attitude toward the students.
Erin’s father (Scott Glenn) thinks she is wasting her time as a teacher. Her husband (Patrick Dempsey) is at first supportive, but when she takes an extra job, and then another, to buy books for her students, he becomes increasingly despondent.
One of Erin’s students, Eva (April L. Hernandez), witnesses a gang shooting and wrongly and deliberately blames an African-American kid for it, when one of her own gang-members did it. Because her father was wrongfully accused of a murder and has been in jail for many years, she believes it is better to stand up for her own kind than to tell the truth.
I truly believed Freedom Writers (an excellent take-off from the Freedom Riders of the Civil Rights era) was going to be another Kleenex driven teacher-movie. But what a wonderful surprise.
When a Latino student draws a picture of one of the African-American, emphasizing one of his facial features, Erin takes off like a woman inspired. She tells the kids they have nothing on the biggest thugs in history, the Nazi’s. She tells them about the cartoons the Nazi newspapers published making fun of Jewish features that gave permission to readers to laugh at Jews and make fun of them for their looks. She told her students about the devastating results of blaming the Jewish people for all the problems of the German people in the 1930’s - the Holocaust. Then she takes them on a field trip to the Museum of Tolerance in LA (www.museumoftolerance.com) and then invites Holocaust survivors to have dinner with the students after and tell their stories. She buys copies of Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl and the students become very involved. They raise the money to bring over Miep Gies (bn. 1909), the woman, who as a young secretary hid the Frank family from the Nazi’s. This, to me, was the most moving part of the film. (She actually appears in the film!) Erin transforms the students, and they change her, as well. They are co-learners.
Erin gives notebooks to all the students and they write their own stories which were later published (try to get a copy of the book in a book store; I have tried four so far, and they are all out; Amazon.com, here I come) and form the basis of the film.
Of course, to create the conflict in the film two of Erin's co-teachers are made to look like cardboard bad-guys. And maybe this is an accurate depiction but this was the only part that seemed more like a standard movie device than giving us insight into actual people.
The film is a beautiful testament to the teaching vocation; indeed, we need to appreciate and support teachers, especially new ones, so that they will persevere and make a difference. Another dimension of the film deals with the relationship Erin builds up with one class of students over two years and how she was allowed to continue as their teacher through their junior and senior years - leading to a change in educational policy.
What does Eva do? You'll have to see the film and find out!
I loved Freedom Writers. BK rating (bring Kleenex).