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Freedom Writers (7/10)

by Tony Medley

Last year I wrote a favorable review of “Gridiron Gang,” which was about Sean Porter, a real life person. After my review appeared, I received an email from a friend whose opinion I respect. He said he knew and worked with Sean Porter and in his opinion, Porter wasn’t anywhere close to the secular saint the movie painted him. Since my review was already out there, I didn’t change it, but it raised an issue.

Before I viewed “Freedom Writers,” I received an email from someone whose opinion I respect telling me that Erin Gruwell (Hillary Swank) wasn’t anything at all like the saintly woman painted in the picture. He said he had personal experiences with her on a regular basis during the time covered in the movie, along with some experience with her students. His opinion of her was much less than favorable. Among the many faults he perceived, he said that she told him flatly that she hated men.

And it’s not just my friend who has a contrary view of the film. Apparently facts have been seriously reworked for dramatic effect, and many in Long Beach are not happy with what they perceive to be a slight on their city and high school.

Here is the issue raised again. When a movie distorts history and I am absolutely certain of it, like Clint Eastwood’s revisionist WWII drama, “Letters from Iwo Jima,” I emphasize the distortion. In both of these instances, however, I don’t have any personal knowledge of the people portrayed. Even if I did, the question is, does a movie have the right to stand on its own, even if it is a perversion of fact? As to “Letters From Iwo Jima,” my opinion was that it was such a distortion of fact that it did not have the right to stand on its own.

As to “Freedom Writers,” I am of a different view. This is a “Blackboard Jungle” (1955) type of story where Gruwell is a novice teacher in a troubled school (Long Beach’s Wilson High School), overrun by gangbangers who have no respect for authority. She comes up with a unique way to get to these students, successfully, in spite of opposition from the department head for whom she works, Margaret Campbell (Imelda Staunton), and at least one fellow teacher.

Even if it is a distortion of fact and even if Gruwell isn’t the wonderful person the movie portrays, if one views the film as fiction the acting is so good by the entire cast that it is an enjoyable experience. The script is so poignant that eyes were tearing up throughout the film, well-directed by Richard LaGrevense, who also wrote the script.

But that’s not to say that the movie doesn’t have its flaws. It adopts Gruwell’s apparent disdain for men. The two main male characters in the film are clearly heavies. Gruwell’s husband, Steve (Scott Glenn), is shown as highly unsympathetic. However, if one looks at his situation with an unbiased eye, she basically abandons him and her marriage and he, quite naturally, doesn’t like it. She is rarely home; she pays little or no attention to him; she basically divorces herself from him and their marriage, sacrificing them for her job and the children she is teaching. Anybody would rebel at that. In a normal world, the spouse who neglects the other spouse to devote time to a job is the one who is the person who abandons the marriage. An honest movie would have shown how Gruwell’s addiction to her job destroyed her marriage. An honest movie would have shown how Gruwell’s devotion to her job helped her students but would pin the destruction of her marriage squarely on her shoulders. An honest movie would have raised the issue of which is more important, marriage or job? But not this movie. This movie manipulates the situation in such a clever manner that it paints Steve as an unreasonable bad guy who, in leaving her, is shown as abandoning her.

The other main male character is honors instructor Brian Gelford (John Benjamin Hickey), who is honest with her, but is shown as being selfish and uncooperative when an honors student wants to transfer from his class to Gruwell’s. In one of the climactic scenes in the movie, Gruwell lobbies to continue to teach her students in their junior and senior years (she is a teacher for freshmen and sophomores only). Gelford is shown as being unsympathetic and uncooperative in opposing this move. The movie’s treatment of men in the way it presents these two main male characters clearly follows the misandristic attitude attributed to Gruwell by my friend.

As to the issue between Gruwell and Gelford, whether she should be allowed to continue teaching them as juniors and seniors, my feeling was that Gruwell had done her job in showing her gangbanger students that there was something more to life than anger and violence and that they should be cut loose to learn how to live and survive without her. My feeling was that the correct move would be to make them move into another teacher’s classroom because Gruwell was not going to be there to hold their collective hands for the rest of their lives. But, alas, this is not to be in this Hollywood view of the world.

But, in the end, this movie can stand on its own. It is well-acted, -written, and -directed,  if you just look at it as an amusement. I divorced what I had been told about the facts and simply enjoyed an emotional, moving story, ignoring its bias (in today’s Hollywood, if you don’t often ignore a movie’s bias, you won’t often be able to enjoy a Hollywood movie). You don’t have to believe “The Wizard of Oz” to accept it as an enjoyable entertainment.