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Movies/TV Last Updated: May 30th, 2008 - 11:49:13

“Freedom” of Voice
By By By Esther Editor and Film Critic
Jan 5, 2007, 14:46

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I know what you’re thinking.

Mario in "Freedom Writers"
You saw those trailers for “Freedom Writers” and sucked your teeth, dismissing the film as another White-savior-in-the-hood rehash that you could do without.

But I am happy—and surprised—to report that this is a very good movie, an extremely poignant tale about something very real in our lives—educating teenagers who are growing up in an urban gang culture that mangles or snuffs out their lives.

Based on a true story, the film recounts the experiences of a rookie English teacher, Erin Gruwell (Hillary Swank), at a high school in Long Beach, Ca. during the 1990’s. Forced to integrate to achieve racial integration, the school is fractured into racial camps—Blacks, Latinos, Asians and a few remaining Whites who have not abandoned the public school system. The school also employs a number of Whites who resent what they consider the downfall of a once high-performing school because of the influx of poor people of color.

Most importantly, “Freedom Writers” also chronicles the lives of the students who come from these various school camps, referred to by one student as “little Cambodia, the ghetto, Wonder Bread-land and South of the Border.” Because their stories are presented in a quality way, without broad clichés, in their own voices and punctuated with the hip hop music of the era, this film honors the humanity and history of the students in a way that many so-called “urban” dramas do not.

We learn the most about Eva (April Lee Hernandez), a Latina whose family and neighborhood is entrenched in the gang culture. Since her father was falsely accused and convicted of a murder, she has grown increasingly hostile to government, school, or anything related to “the system” or White people. Then there’s Andre (Mario), who has watched his mother withdraw from the world as he occasionally slings rock on the corner. Another student, homeless since his mother kicked him out for gangbanging, lives in a wooden shack hidden near an alley.

The various storylines merge in the classroom, where Gruwell encourages the students to write daily in journals and the students, in turn, produce remarkable, heartbreaking and sometimes joyous stories of their own trials and triumphs. The classroom scenes, quick-paced and not corny at all, are also where Gruwell and her students must confront a school system that seems content to warehouse troubled students until they drop out. The film asks important questions about not only the social conditions of so many young people, but also about institutional racism and the ways that government often does not serve those that it is mandated to serve.

The script and direction by Richard LaGravenese does not cast Swank’s character as superior-minded, magnanimous or naïve. There is a balance, in her fine portrayal, between energetic determination and dismay over the school administration (and her husband) who do not support her effort to be innovative or to give a 100 percent effort. The result of her hard work, and hard work by the students, is like a revelation. It is like watching teen-age flowers bloom in the dark.

Esther Iverem is founder of and author of a forthcoming book on Black film, We Gotta Have It: Twenty Years of Seeing Black at the Movies, 1986-2006 (Thunder’s Mouth Press, April 2007).

© Copyright 2006

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