DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEW of Freedom Writers, Miss Potter, The Lives of Others, The Providence Effect, Lean on Me, Stand and Deliver, The Cartel


Title:  Freedom Writers

Release Date:  2007

Nationality and Language: USA/Germany, English

Running time: 123 Min

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Distributor and Production Company: Paramount / MTV

Director; Writer: Richard La Gravenese.  Based on the book “The Freedom Writers Diary:  How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them (Broadway Books, 1999), foreword by Zlata Filipovic, Amazon link is this. ISBN 038539422X. In five sections, one per year or semester, each starting with Ms. Gruwell's own diary entry. The copyright belongs to the Tolerance Education Foundation

Producer:  Danny DeVito, others

Cast:   Hilary Swank, Patrick Dempsey, Scott Glenn, Imelda Staunton, April Lee Hernandez, Mario

Technical: Flat 1.85 to 1

Relevance to DOASKDOTELL site:  teaching, writing, self-expression, diaries, journals, gangs, tribalism

Review:  First, a trivia. I don’t know why this is a 2007 release. Why isn’t it a 2006 Christmas release so it can be in the running for the 2006 Oscars?


The film, almost at the outset, gives us live footage of the 1991 Los Angeles Watts riots that followed Rodney King’s beating. Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) is a young, idealistic white teacher looking forward to teaching freshman (9th Grade) English At Wilson High School in East L.A.  In the opening, she meets with the principal and discouraged from setting her sights too high (and told not to risk wearing her necklace to class). She learns quickly that the teaching world is heavily politicized by unions and de facto segregation, with tenured teachers who have “paid their dues” earning the plum Advanced Placement classes (not so transparent inference: white and Asian, instead of black and Hispanic, kids).


The first day of class is indeed a catastrophe. Order completely breaks down. There is only one white student (Hunter Parrish). The kids tell her she doesn’t belong there or deserve their respect because she has never had to experience the lower class life that they know. She manages to turn their “arguments” on their heads, fighting their tribalism and false sense of gang-related honor.  She denies the religious rationalizations, say that gang martyrs are dead, rotting in the ground, not to be remembered by anyone and probably not existing in the hereafter. She starts to introduce the Holocaust, and draw parallels, explaining how a disgruntled people in Europe were sucked into an apocalypse by a demagogue who could take advantage of their hatred with visual symbols (like long noses for Jews). Gradually, she makes progress. She learns classroom management skills OJT.


Like many teachers, she spends her own money buying better books, and takes the risk of introducing non-curriculum approved materials. One of the books will be Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank, Eleanor Roosevelt, and B. M. Mooyart, amazon link here.; there is also a collector’s edition by Otto Frank). She gets into situations of psychological intimacy with students that would sound dangerous, giving them rides home when they are bussed 90 minutes or displaced (as is one student after testifying about a killing). When that student tells the truth in court, her life is threatened and she is chased by her family. The idea of gang honor or family honor, against individual morality as we understand it, is tested.


She asks them to start journals, which she promises not to read unless they want her to (she only checks it). She will even keep them locked up in a classroom cabinet. When I was substitute teaching, almost all high school English classes had students journal, and hand journaling was especially common in some special education classes. Now the timeframe is about 1994, and the film is detailed as to this, showing IBM PS/2 computers and screens that look like Windows 3.1 with Rumba. The Internet was only then starting to become known. (In fact, later, the teacher will get a donation of computers so that students can enter their journals into Microsoft Word – shown – and save them for publication.) I wondered if these journals could become blogs today, and then if we would face the issue of publication, or whether to whitelist them only to known readers (which the new Blogger from Google offers writers the chance to do). In fact, an English teacher in Fairfax county tried a G-rated blogging project last year (2005-2006), to the consternation and worry of school administrators.


Somehow, the writing seems to give the students a new sense of self-image, and I certainly understand how it would. She arranges field trips, one of them to the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The students become attached to her, as she gets them back for tenth grade. She has to fight with the administration to get them for the last two years, as tenured teachers have the political right to the higher grades. Eventually, after the computer donation, she arranges to have the diaries published, and the book would appear a few years later.


Her passive husband, an architect played by Scott Glenn, decides to leave her because of her neglect. In one line, he says “I can’t be your wife.” Indeed, she is the psychologically masculine partner, and he finds himself not valued by the object of his love.


One point, then, is that she achieves her goal of changing her world (to implement social justice and fight the artificial corruption of “the system”) with action, and with manipulating the emotions of real people. The writing and self-expression come after the action. She sees her pro-active intervention with the kids as an expression of her ego (perhaps to the consternation of her "psychologically feminine" husband), whereas I would see it as a suspension of my own expression and thought mapping to explicit needs of others created by the historical misbehavior of others. For the kids, however, the writing and publishing are transformative. I would wonder how the families of the kids would feel being written about and then later published about -- that is an issue that had come up in an old film, "I Remember Mama."


Erin and her husband have not yet had any kids. That is interesting, because I would have thought that becoming a parent oneself first would be a helpful step in being able to handle troubled kids.


My inability to maintain classroom discipline with younger and low income students was a major factor in stopping substitute teaching (the euphemism on a “do not send” letter is “poor classroom management”). One particular assignment in a pseudo-science class with all minority students ended in disaster, with security coming and student trying to yank my cell phone right off my belt (that is a physical assault). Their attitude toward me, was that, as an older white man (and probably gay in their eyes), I had no right to be an authority figure because I had not paid the dues of their world. That was too much to overcome.  


Miss Potter (2006, MGM/Weinstein Company/Phoenix, dir. Chris Noonan, UK, 92 min, PG) is a biography of children's author Beatrix Potter (Renee Zellweger), who created "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" in England around 1902. Yes, she wants to "get published."  A publisher agrees to the project because, as a family owned business, it wants to give its youngest son Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor) something to do, but it doesn't expect to make money. By today's standards, this is a very unusual arrangement, as it is not exactly vanity publishing either.  But the book takes off, one store selling about 1900 copies in one year. It is so successful with this and with successive children's books that she becomes wealthy and values her independence and female friends. Men, after all, are good only for "procreation and financial support." Eventually, she falls in love with Norman, but her family disagrees with her marriage as he is not well born enough. After all, she has rejected all of the proper suitors. She agrees to go away for the summer to the Lake District, when he dies of pneumonia. She gets richer, amassing a land empire in the Lake District which she sets aside for conservation. She eventually marries one of the men in the Lake District.


I wonder if J. K. Rowling named her boy hero Potter after Beatrix's name. The film shows the animation of the characters on the drawings. At one point, there is a pig farm, a retrospect to Noonan's 1995 film "Babe."


The Lives of Others ("Das Leben der Anderen", 2006, Sony Pictures Classics/Buena Vista International (Touchstone), dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 137 min, R, p-2,t-1,a-1). Translated into German, the title is singular, "the life of others". That perhaps makes some sense in the political mentality of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Of course, that leads to all kinds of perambulations to keep "the people" in power, especially through Stasi, the East German secret police around 1984. Hauptmann Gerde Wielser, one of the cops, has taken a quasi-romantic interest in Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), lover of writer Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), and bugs Georg's apartment.  However, Georg is determined to get a report on suicides in East Germany out of the country. The cat and mouse game starts. The first 2/3 of the movie documents life East of the wall pretty well during this period; while orange-gray and drab, there were still some pleasures, even TV, even bars. But they were really afraid of people who speak out of turn. "It would take the work of a writer" Wiesler says at one point. Just as with McCarthyism, privileged intellectual professionals like writers, actresses and artists were considered especially dangerous to "the proles" and therefore to the power structure of the state. But the technology was all about typewriters, and typefaces on them, and even how writers make handwritten drafts first -- and most of all, about hiding typewriters under doorsills in the kitchen away from the police. When I lived in New York in the 1970s, I actually protected the typewriter and turned it in to be cleaned when I went out of town. Then it broke.


A fluke in the plot lets Georg off the hook, and toward the end, the movie fastforwards several times to life after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Georg has written a novel with a curious title, "Die Sonaten des guten Menchen" -- "The Sonatas of Good Men."  Wiesler, who had been relegated to opening mail with a steam iron after his failure, visits a bookstore just east of the Wall (I think I was in that store during my visit in 1999) to buy the book. During my visit through Berlin in 1999, I met a graduate student who had been born in Leipzig, East Germany, but had "escaped" to grow up in the United Kingdom.


A Commie-pinko era story about spying on a writer provides a curious paradox. In the era of Google, many people (myself included) find satisfaction in exposing our lives to the whole world as a kind of rebellion against artificial social standards. Think about the controversy today over those social networking sites and the fact that employers have suddenly discovered that they need to monitor them.


The Providence Effect (2009, Slowhand Releasing, Dinosaurs are Forever, dir. Rollin Binzer) about Providence St. Mel K12 private school in inner-city Chicago. Blogger.


Lean on Me (1989, Warner Bros., dir. John G. Avidsen). Morgan Freeman plays upstart principal Joe Clark in a Paterson NJ high school. Blogger.


Stand and Deliver (1988, Warner Bros., dir. Ramon Martinez)  Edward James Olmos plays Jaime Escalante, who brings calculus to an East LA high school. Blogger.


The Cartel (2009, Truly Indie, dir. Bob Bowden) about the union corrupted New Jersey public school system.  Blogger.


Related reviews: Ever Again    Finding Forrester    Kids in America   I Remember Mama   The Class  Hard Times at Douglas High; The Boys at Baghdad High


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