A skeptic’s view of Freedom Writers

by guest contributor Sylvia, originally published at The Anti-Essentialist Conundrum

freedom writersAt first, I absolutely refused to see Freedom Writers. It looked like yet another feel good white-teacher-saves-colored-students with-much-rejoicing in-the-land-of-Nod movie. I mean, the narrative is another twist of the American Dream: ignore the circumstances around you and focus on yourself, and you’ll poise yourself for success and improvement. Rampant individualism abounds. You see people you once characterized as your people doing The Wrong Thing, and you set off to do The Right Thing without those people. And movies like Freedom Writers tell you in veiled ways that that’s okay, and the world cuts off when you leave it outside the fences of your school. The real world of deserting husbands, gang violence, and homelessness wipes clean away. As usual, my analysis is spoiler ridden because I just don’t give a damn. :-p

Teacher Erin Gruwell (Hillary Swank) is a first time teacher assigned to freshman English with a group of students from four distinct backgrounds: black, Cambodian, Latino, and white. (Well…there’s only one white kid, and he feels courageous for being around people of color once Gruwell unites them all in their humanity, but not before when anti-white sentiment emerges in the classroom.) Everyone in the class has some affiliation to gangs and gang violence. Each group sequestered itself from the other groups, and they ridiculed each other and fought in the courtyards. The (white) department head of the school informs us and Gruwell early that after voluntary integration at Wilson High, 75% of the students who made Wilson an A-list school have departed, and all that’s left are classrooms full of kids with whom she doesn’t trust the school’s ample resources. She also stubbornly adheres to the idea that they have no desire to learn. The (white) honors teacher reveals his own bigotry when Gruwell asks him to help her acquire resources for her students. She goes over their heads to the (black) director, who gives her the go-ahead on many of her projects after witnessing her ambition. You go girl!

So what does Gruwell do? First, she conveniently finds a way to grab the students’ attention that killing people because of the color of their skin is, like, so wrong. A Latino student draws a caricature of one of the black students: profile, bulging eyes, huge lips…a common racist caricature. The black student, initially the class clown, sits utterly humiliated and crying. Gruwell takes the picture, and she asks the class if they knew that Jewish people faced extreme, dehumanizing caricatures before being systematically exterminated? She asked each group that if the others did not exist, would they feel better off? And of course, the class readily said, “Yeah yeah yeah!”

Her “in” was the German-run Holocaust. But before she heavily relied on teaching the Holocaust, she bought the class a young adult book about gang life. The class buttered up a little before she got into hardcore teaching of Holocaust history. Then the class burst in sympathy, indignation, and worked on turning their lives around before creating Little Holocausts of their own. Gruwell reminded them that participating in gang violence wouldn’t garner them any worldwide recognition like Anne Frank; they’d only become statistics. So why not become positive statistics?

But, you remember, the department head didn’t grant Gruwell any books, so she worked two jobs to pay for her own resources. Full of new teacher idealism, Gruwell takes her students to a museum of tolerance, fancy restaurants, and she arranges for Holocaust survivors to share their stories of survival. The movie specifically addresses the Jewish angle of the Holocaust. The class instantly gained perspective. Never mind that the Holocaust was institutionalized violence, and the many instances of institutionalized violence and oppression that each of those groups represented in those classes face in America. You get the air that Gruwell may have feared an oppression pissing match amongst her already divided students. Dialogues about internalized racist perceptions and reactive violence would be too “white woman preachin’ to the little people of color about themselves.” Or maybe their own problems and familiarity with gang violence, domestic violence, poverty, and broken homes weren’t relevant beyond her awareness of them through their diaries because she needed them, as her first class, to learn English from her.

Another narrative arises when a black sophomore switches from the honors class to Gruwell’s classroom. The jerky honors teacher, you see, asked her to share The Black Perspective on The Color Purple, and she hated the tokenization. The department head of the school argued with her, but she wasn’t willing to sacrifice her identity and her self-respect for sitting in an honors classroom. She transfers; life is sweet. It’s about the only real treatment of someone finding “proper” pride in her ethnic identity in the whole damned movie. And you realize that perhaps the others weren’t smart enough to articulate this pride through anything but violence. Civilize those kids, Gruwell!

So anyway: after being well fed, coddled, and spoiled with new resources to show that they matter, the class develops an infantile dependence on Gruwell as their deliverer (with the exception of this black female student who realizes that the class and Gruwell both need to move on). They grow together as a multicultural family, and outside problems all disappear.

Remember that loner Latino student who always appeared as if he would pull out a gun? Well, the truth is he’s homeless, and being in that classroom and sharing fancy dinners and doing the electric slide with his classmates made him feel like he had a home.

You think the black student is going to relapse into selling drugs because his brother gets 15 years to life in prison and the justice system ain’t fair? Psyche! He’s gonna be just fine. Just a slight bout of self-doubt that Gruwell cures with an expletive-sprinkled earthy invective for him to look out for himself and be honest about it. You’re crimpin’ her style, man. He cries a little and gets over it. As Emeril would say, “Bam!”

You think in the corresponding narrative the Latina gangbanger will stick with her own and condemn an innocent black kid of the murder of one of her Cambodian classmate’s friends? Not after the class works hard to raise money to bring Miep Geiss, the Polish-born secretary who hid the Franks during the Nazi occupation of The Netherlands. She tells them that they have to do things because they are right. And she points the finger at one of her own gang members, and the innocent black kid goes free. The only reason she’s not dead she is her father’s daughter, a father who we learned is sitting in jail for nothing but mysteriously pulls a lot of gang clout. She relocates to live with her aunt, but miraculously stays enrolled at Wilson High and asks Gruwell if she can stay at the school late to finish her homework. The end of the movie culminates in Gruwell saving the day. She and the class cling to each other through all four years of high school despite the objections of the school’s leadership, and Gruwell follows some of them to college, even.

And oh, the leadership objects. The department head’s rivalry with Gruwell gets ugly. Battle of the white female teachers! Young fresh-faced “with it” teacher versus older, experienced, battle-hardened institutional mistress! She spews venom at Gruwell’s capabilities. She spouts rhetoric about the impracticality of Gruwell’s tactics. Against the backdrop of her spitting image (and this woman’s eyes nearly popped out of her head while she fumed and raged), the cool white male principal and the uncompromising white honors teacher sit composed and say what’s not going to happen with Gruwell. They occasionally check the fiesty department head for her…emotion. Both of them dominate the meeting with the black director about whether Gruwell can follow them through junior and senior year. She only taught freshman and sophomore year. Honestly, this scene could have functioned without him sitting there; the department head was telling him what to do, anyway. Such blatant rudeness, and when they go over his head to a higher-up white female superintendent, she’s slightly more composed. That arrogant black man who let Gruwell get away with so much in the first place…we’ll show him. Except the superintendent sides with Gruwell and the arrogant black man. Their judgment is sound. Department head buggers off forever after.

In the meantime, Gruwell loses her ambition-stinted, condescending white husband because she neglects him to working three jobs to pay for teaching resources. Her successes at work and her dedication make him depressed about his failed dreams to become an architect. He becomes bitter. She tells him she’ll support him if he goes back, but…well…umm…he just shouldn’t have to do it. You know? He’s…a white male. Damnit. Hell, she doesn’t even put out when he wants it anymore. She’s working. She’s paying more attention to her work than him! The nerve! He insults her work, suggesting that her students are still stupid; she only thinks they’re smart. This movie locks male passive-aggression directed at a successful working wife with insane accuracy. (Note that I’m not measuring success as financial, but as results-based — the movie gives an ambiguous air that the kids do get smarter. We don’t see the climactic standardized tests because the movie doesn’t bother with that filler. The students raised money to see Miep Geiss, people. They have screaming discussions about misogyny in mainstream rap music. They have to be smarter now.)

Gruwell gains the respect from her father who worked in the civil rights movement before but didn’t have an ounce of hope in those damned kids. She made them want to learn. He helps her with her trips and pick up what few pieces her husband leaves when he walks out of the door. She’s a teacher, damnit! Fuck the haters!

And that’s all this is about…right? Haters? Fuck the haters. Students say fuck the haters and the world disappears as they discover mainstream success. Gruwell says fuck the haters and uses the system to achieve her own ends as a teacher. Together, they say fuck the haters and share their stories. They share that they learned that all everyone needs to say is “fuck the haters,” and life will be good.

Except…isn’t that a little simplistic? Just assimilate, ignore what doesn’t bother you, and fuck it if it manages to creep in and disrupt your life? Meh, works for everyone else, and these students merge into the group of everyone else seamlessly with the help of a white woman who knows how to pimp the system. Yay, free thinking white woman for helping the kids of color conform. Yay white society for winning future examples of diversity for your company portfolios who laugh at your nigger jokes, say fuck the haters, and hate poor people maybe more than you do.

I think.

Well, isn’t this how it starts for some people?
Maybe I’m skeptical.