For all its faults, Won't Back Down offers a welcome alternative to the standard broken-school film plot.
At least once a decade, Hollywood produces a film like Stand and Deliver (1988), Dangerous Minds (1995), or Freedom Writers (2007), spotlighting a teacher whose grit helps students unlock their potential and transcend poverty. The only problem with those kinds of films is that they can reinforce the dangerous myth that poverty is an insurmountable obstacle to learning that can only be overcome by rare hero-teachers. Won't Back Down, Hollywood's latest broken-school flick, subverts that comfortable narrative, which is why it's such an important movie, and why it's drawing so much heat from teachers' unions. (Disclosure: I work for TNTP, a non-profit organization that promotes equal access to effective teachers among poor and minority students. All opinions expressed in this article are my own.*)
Set in working-class Pittsburgh, Won't Back Down stars Maggie Gyllenhaall as Jamie Fitzpatrick, an overworked and undereducated single mom whose daughter is "getting crushed" by a notoriously ineffective teacher at Adams Elementary, the failing public school up the street. After exhausting all options for getting her daughter into a better classroom, Jamie stumbles across the state's new "Fail-Safe" law, based loosely on the real-life "Parent-trigger" policies that have been passing state legislatures nationwide. If Jamie can convince a simple majority of parents and teachers to join a coalition to turn Adams around, they can take over the building and reboot the school on their own terms. She pleads with Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), a burnt-out teacher with a struggling child of her own, to give it a shot, asking with a childlike sense of possibility: "Do you wanna start a school with me?" And so begins their grassroots campaign to transform the failing institution into a dream school.
What comes next feels like a mash-up of a Lifetime Original Movie and a wonky ed reform whitepaper. It only succeeds thanks to penetrating performances by Gyllenhaal and Davis, with occasionally memorable support from Marianne Jean-Baptiste as a soon-to-be retired school board member and Holly Hunter as a scarf-clad, beret wearing union honcho. What makes this otherwise forgettable film so groundbreaking is the deliberate way it reimagines the archetypal broken-school story. Instead of a messianic teacher naively crusading against the manifold threats of poverty and racism, we have a messianic parent naively organizing her neighborhood against a handful of concrete policy barriers that place the interests of adults above what's best for children.
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Won't Back Down is so up-front--and so specific--with its politics that it's been building buzz among education experts for almost a year. It was screened before both national political conventions, and it's slated to be shown as part a U.S. Chamber of Commerce-sponsored "Cross-Country Tour to Discuss Education Reform."* Now it's hitting theaters in the wake of a highly publicized teachers' strike in, and in the middle-innings of a national ed reform push that aims to bring more respect and rigor to the teaching profession.
So you can see why, shortly after the film's screening at the Republican National Convention, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten dashed off an open letter denouncing the film as right-wing, teacher bashing propaganda: "Unfortunately, using the most blatant stereotypes and caricatures I have ever seen--even worse than those in Waiting for Superman--the film affixes blame on the wrong culprit: America's teachers unions." Highlighting all the scenes where teachers are represented poorly, Weingarten's letter ignores all nuance in the story, while heaping scorn on the film's production company, Walden Media, owned by Philip Anschutz, a conservative billionaire who funds organizations that support charter schools and other education enterprises.
Cheers to Weingarten for following the money trail. Yet like many politicians, Weingarten uses rhetoric that trends toward gross oversimplification and fear mongering. "Parent trigger" laws come in a variety of forms--usually far less dramatic than what we see in Won't Back Down--and it's doubtful that many communities would be able to meet such a high bar of parental involvement unless the school in question was by all standards abysmal. Most education reform laws under consideration these days are common-sense changes to teacher recruitment, evaluation, and compensation that have won bi-partisan support and gobs of cash from philanthropic organizations like the Gates Foundation. For Weingarten to criticize the funders of education reform groups is simple misdirection from the fact that teachers' unions themselves are powerful special interests with national nerve centers and targeted lobbying campaigns.
The real beef Weingarten has with Won't Back Down is that its story doesn't jibe with her diagnosis of our ailing schools--and how to fix them. If the AFT is so sensitive to stereotypes, why has it been quiet about other school movies that advance the worst stereotypes about high-poverty neighborhoods and the students who live in them? Perhaps it's because stories of teachers working hard in dangerous ghettos reinforce union talking points about underpaid teachers in terrible working conditions. In those stories, a chosen few teachers might help students overcome their life circumstances, but when the credits roll, we know that poverty is the villain will only return stronger in the sequel. In Won't Back Down, what we don't see is as important as what's on the screen. No gang shootings. No kids going home to empty fridges and drug-addicted family members. No excuses. Some may say that makes this movie a candy-coated Oscar vehicle, but at least this film forces us to look at a new set of problems.