Director: Richard LaGravanese
Over 120 murders were committed in the Los Angeles area following the violent upheaval of the L.A. riots. While most of us remember watching the footage on the news, it was always kept at a distance from viewers in the rest of America—we saw but didn’t fully understand what the occupants of the Long Beach area and most notably the young teens were going through. That all changed when optimistic twenty-three year old new teacher Erin Gruell (played by two-time Academy Award winner Hilary Swank) left her privileged Newport Beach neighborhood and dreams of becoming a lawyer to teach freshman and sophomore English at the newly integrated Wilson High School. In this inspiring true story, brought to the big screen by Paramount Pictures and MTV Films along with a stellar list of producers including Swank and the team of Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher, Gruell must first understand the violence, apathy and aggression of her diverse class of students that, much like the city during the time period had segregated on their own into ethnic groups and “us verses them” mentality. Sections of the class containing Latino, Asian, African-Americans and others freely stay within their own groups, banding together to stick up for their own, while being distrustful and hateful of not only the other groups in their midst but especially of their white, eager, new female teacher. While at first Gruell is easily intimidated and overwhelmed by their behavior, she soon uses the tension to her advantage by educating students in the lessons of tolerance, honesty and morality by teaching the kids about the Holocaust and mass-murder of Jews in Germany, ultimately taking them to the Museum of Tolerance and assigning the kids the Diary of Anne Frank. Soon, the students become excited by their lessons that seem to echo their own daily war and the struggle they face in houses of abuse, gang violence and gunfire as Erin encourages room 203 to begin journaling their daily experiences in a project that becomes so successful that later the journals were compiled into a book in 1999 upon which the film was based. While it’s easy to be cynical about the release of yet another “inspiring teacher” film, Freedom Writers is a pleasant surprise—highly emotional (tears will flow more than once), with fiery performances by not only Swank but also especially by the students and other actors, not to mention an intelligent approach in both the writing and direction by LaGravanese. Well worth the rental and for a great educational true story double feature, pick up Randa Haines’s made for TNT film, The Ron Clark Story starring Matthew Perry.