Blackboard Whitewash by Tom Jennings
[film review of Freedom Writers, directed by Richard LaGravenese, published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 9, May 2007]
A snappy MTV spin on the long and dishonourable Hollywood tradition parachuting privileged super-pedagogues into inner-city educational warehouses, Freedom Writers’ ‘true story’ exemplifies the dishonesty both of the genre and the underlying philosophy. Hilary Swank plays Erin Gruwell, a young teacher who “really wanted a school that had diversity, that had been affected by the riots and could be this wonderful eclectic mix of races and economics and cultures”. Choosing Wilson High School, Long Beach (California, post-Rodney King) – which “included every ethnicity under the sun, with kids who could be headed off to Harvard or to jail” – her patronising cluelessness strikes lucky when The Diary of Anne Frank resonates at just the right stage of Gruwell’s intuitive group therapy. Classroom 203’s ‘unteachables’ realise the common suffering in their segregated communities and, via Shakespeare and Homer, become uplifted into diligent scholars believing they can be “anything they want to be”.
Breathtakingly ignorant or dismissive of abundant relevant material, like Black literature, hip-hop culture, or local history (Black Panther community self-defence in early gang development; the Crips/Bloods truce after the LA uprising and its joint working group producing a sophisticated, eminently practical regeneration plan, for example), Gruwell merely equates gangs with Nazis – exonerating the authorities for the warzone mentality despite colluding in the ghetto floods of guns and drugs, withdrawing welfare and ruining public education. Choosing literary expressions from the distant European persecutions of Jews or in Bosnia likewise prevents the US state’s domestic genocides and global adventures (so salient to Black, Hispanic and Asian Americans) – let alone the present daily grind of oppression and exploitation – being either sources of empathy or targets of critique.
Such conventional liberal agendas thus absolve prevailing power structures from blame while honouring their most ‘enlightened’ fractions as uniquely capable of dispensing top-down salvation. Comparably massive denials of historical, political and social reality then purge complexity from the youngsters’ lives, with dramatised diary snippets mapping their alienation as the price paid for individual aspiration. Nothing wrong with broader horizons, of course, and writer-director LaGravenese does implicitly posit their escape as exception rather than rule (marginally redeeming the clichés) – only Gruwell’s two extra part-time jobs pay for the teaching resources withheld by school managers; and (we learn), she promptly abandoned the front line for university educational evangelism. Yet in intimately detailing her trials and tribulations, but merely schematically sketching the desperate depths of her charges, Freedom Writers renders the latter essentially passive, malleable objects of its heroic missionary. Progressive humanistic transformative trappings notwithstanding, the mission is still unmistakably ‘business as usual’.