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Tue January 2, 2007
A superior entry in a long history . . .
By John DeSando, WCBE's "It's Movie Time"
"Everyone who remembers his own educational experience remembers teachers, not methods and techniques. The teacher is the kingpin of the educational situation." Sidney Hook, Education for Modern Man
It would be easy to criticize Freedom Writers as just another clich?-infested classroom redemption story, more Blackboard Jungle than History Boys. But because it is based on a true story of at-risk students attending Woodrow Wilson High in Long Beach, a voluntarily integrated school, I have to avoid accusing it of being derivative and offer that it relates the essential truth about education: Most students have a voice if a teacher can find it; most students can thrive when a teacher creates a sense of family amid chaos, as Emily Gruwell (Hilary Swank) did in the early '90's of Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. The diaries her students wrote inspired students around the country to do the same.
Seeing the photo of the real Gruwell with her students as the end credits roll, I can understand cynics saying this is typical Hollywood?no teacher can look like Hillary Swank! But rising above the petty carping that includes skepticism about transformation of unruly kids into real students within a year, I have to admit it happened because of the transforming power of love and words. As in Charlotte's Web, both ingredients are potent reformers of the disaffected.
Gruwell sacrifices, as cases of true love sometimes require, her personal freedom and loses her marriage for the higher good of the young people she teaches. Admittedly, her slacker husband, Scott (Patrick Dempsey), doesn't deserve such a gifted wife, and her crusty dad, Steve (a monumentally weathered Scott Glenn), has some stereotypical responses to his daughter's choices. Most of all I object to those actors as students: They are way too old to be playing 14 and 15 year olds. Surely there are gifted teens who could do the job!
Overall, however, the film rings true about the magic a dedicated teacher can do with rebellious but malleable teens.
For those of us who still toil in the fields of education, Freedom Writers reminds us why we love a profession that gives us a chance to save souls in the only way we can certify outside the uncertain faith of religion. This film is a superior entry in a long history of teaching brought to its ideal form in film.
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE 90.5's "It's Movie Time," which can be heard streaming at www.wcbe.org Fridays at 3:01 pm and 8:01 pm and on demand anytime. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.RR.com