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Freedom Writers Essay Conflict Management

The students are understandably skeptical, excruciatingly contemptuous. From where they sit, slumped and hunched, some with their backs literally turned away from the front of the room, Erin looks like the stranger she is. She’s an interloper, a do-gooder, a visitor from another planet called Newport Beach, and the class sees through her as if she were glass because the writer and director Richard LaGravenese makes sure that we do too.

Funny how point of view works. If so many films about so-called troubled teenagers come off as little more than exploitation, it’s often because the filmmakers are not really interested in them, just their dysfunction. “Freedom Writers,” by contrast, isn’t only about an amazingly dedicated young teacher who took on two extra jobs to buy supplies for her students (to supplement, as Mr. LaGravenese carefully points out, a $27,000 salary); it’s also, emphatically, about some extraordinary young people. In this respect Mr. LaGravenese, whose diverse writing credits include “The Ref” and “The Bridges of Madison County,” appears to have taken his egalitarian cue from the real Erin Gruwell, who shares author credit with her students in their 1999 book, “The Freedom Writers Diary,” a collection of their journal entries.

Mr. LaGravenese keeps faith with the multiple perspectives in the book, which includes Ms. Gruwell’s voice and those of her students, whose first-person narratives pay witness to the effects of brutalizing violence, dangerous tribal allegiances and institutional neglect. The film pops in on Erin and her increasingly troubled relationship with her husband, Scott (Patrick Dempsey), and there’s a really lovely scene between the two that finds them talking ruefully over a bottle of wine about the divide between fantasy and reality in marriage, a divide one partner tries to bridge and the other walks away from. But while we keep time with Erin, we also listen to the teenagers, several of whom tell their stories in voice-over.

Among the most important of those stories is that of Eva (the newcomer April Lee Hernandez), whose voice is among the first we hear in the film. Through quick flashbacks and snapshot scenes of the present, Eva’s young life unfolds with crushing predictability. From her front steps, this 9-year-old watches as her cousin is gunned down in a drive-by shooting. Later her father is arrested; she’s initiated into a gang. One day, while walking with a friend under the glorious California sun, a couple of guys pull up in a car and start firing in their direction. Eva dodges bullets and embraces violence because she knows nothing else; she hates everyone, including her white teacher, because no one has ever given her a reason not to.

In time Eva stops hating Erin, though the bullets keep coming. It’s a hard journey for both women, one that includes other students, most of whom are played by actors who look too old for their roles and are nonetheless very affecting. None of these actors are outstanding, but two are memorable: the singer Mario, who plays an angry drug dealer, Andre, and another newcomer, Jason Finn, whose big, soft, moon face swells with fury and vulnerability as a homeless teenager named Marcus.

Mr. LaGravenese isn’t a natural-born filmmaker, but he’s a smart screenwriter whose commitment to characters like Marcus makes up for the rough patches in his directing. Like Ms. Swank, who shares the screen comfortably with her younger co-stars, he gives credit where credit is due.

“Freedom Writers” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). There is some gun violence and adult language.

Freedom Writers

  • DirectorRichard LaGravenese

  • WriterRichard LaGravenese

  • StarsHilary Swank, Imelda Staunton, Patrick Dempsey

  • RatingPG-13

  • Running Time2h 3m

  • GenresBiography, Crime, Drama

  • Movie data powered by IMDb.com
    Last updated: Nov 2, 2017
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Correction: January 10, 2007

The headline for a film review in Weekend on Friday about “Freedom Writers” misidentified the California city in which the movie is set. It is Long Beach, not Los Angeles.

The listing of credits omitted a producer. Danny DeVito was a producer, along with Stacey Sher and Michael Shamberg.

Published by Broadway in 1999, The Freedom Writers Diary chronicles the true story of English teacher Erin Gruwell and her first teaching assignment in Long Beach, California, working with students other teachers deemed "unteachable." Gruwell quickly learned that her students had more to worry about than homework; her students went home to gunfire, gangs, drugs, and a host of other difficult situations. The students were convinced that they had nothing to learn from a white woman who had never experienced firsthand the violence, discrimination, and hatred that was part of their everyday lives.

One day, Gruwell intercepted a note being passed between students; the paper revealed a racist caricature full of hate. Gruwell told her class that it was this sort of hate and misunderstanding that led to the Holocaust. Gruwell was shocked to learn that her students had never heard of the Holocaust.

Gruwell introduced her class to Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and to Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Sarajevo. She also provided every student with a journal in order for them to have a place to discuss their feelings, their fears, and their experiences. For the first time, the students took an interest in academics.

To bring this history to life, the students organized a "Read-a-Thon for Tolerance" to raise money to bring Miep Gies, the woman whose family hid Anne Frank, to their school. They were also visited by Zlata Filipovic. The group went on to receive tremendous recognition from the media and from the government, hoping that others would find inspiration in their story of success. Perhaps the pinnacle of their success was winning the Spirit of Anne Frank Award in 1998. The group traveled to New York to receive their award. In 1999, the group traveled to Europe together where they visited the Anne Frank House and various concentration camps.

It is nothing less than a miracle that all 150 of the Freedom Writers graduated from high school and went on to college. It is likely that none of their achievements would have been possible without Gruwell's fierce determination and perseverance.

In 2007, Paramount Pictures released The Freedom Writers starring Academy Award winner Hilary Swank as Erin Gruwell.

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