A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Freedom Writers is a 2007 movie in which Hilary Swank plays an idealistic young white teacher who inspires a group of "at-risk" students of color to believe in themselves. The movie is set in a Long Beach, California high school in the mid-1990s against the backdrop of deep racial tensions in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating by police officers. Characters are killed in drive-by shootings. One of the characters is shown getting beaten up in a gang initiation. Gang violence, loss of a friend or family member, and the Holocaust are addressed. Kids argue with each other, including a scene in which characters use racial slurs to describe Asians. teacher. Students discuss the Holocaust, Anne Frank, and meet a survivor who describes her ordeal. Students write about their losses in their journals, which the teacher reads out loud or in voiceover; these scenes depict memories of shootings (including a young boy accidentally shooting himself and dying on a park bench), and domestic abuse. Profanity includes use of the "N" word in a journal entry, and a dramatic use of "f--k you." While the movie is based on a true story, families should take the opportunity to discuss it in the context of the "white savior narrative," and how and why movies like these can be problematic as America comes to grips with the far-reaching effects of systemic racism.
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What's the story?
In FREEDOM WRITERS, enthusiastic and innocent teacher Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) arrives at a high school in Long Beach just after the L.A. uprising in 1992, aiming to follow in her civil rights activist father's footsteps. Erin's first few days at school are daunting: She witnesses a fight, sees a boy pull out a gun, and endures taunts from her students, who see themselves as their other teachers see them: the "ghetto-ass class" unworthy of attention or time. Erin is also discouraged by her cynical colleagues but she persists, seeking ways to connect with her students. Finally, one of them -- distrustful Eva (April Lee Hernandez) -- explains her rage: "White people running this world," she says. "I saw white cops shoot my friend in the back for reaching into his pocket. They can because they're white. I hate white people on sight." Erin realizes that since her students self-segregate by race, they never learn one another's stories. So, she has them stand together in the classroom when they've shared an experience, like losing a friend to violence. They begin to recognize their similarities. As the students write about their lives in a "war zone," Erin also has them visit L.A.'s Holocaust museum and read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. Moved by Frank's story, the kids raise money to bring Miep Gies (Pat Carroll), the woman who hid Frank from the Nazis, to campus.
Is it any good?
This deeply earnest drama follows a familiar storyline. An idealistic young teacher inspires her "at-risk" urban students to respect each other and themselves. She's white, they're mostly of color; she's clueless about their harsh lives, they initially resent her cluelessness but learn to appreciate her efforts to understand them. It's this last part that makes director Richard LaGravenese's film work, despite its many clichés. Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) makes a difference by asking her students to talk to her and each other -- and acting on what they say.
The plot is predicable, the actors too old to play high school students, and the pacing too slow. And really, the camera circles around deep-thinking faces a few too many times. But Freedom Writers also argues for listening to teenagers. That in itself makes it a rare and close-to-wonderful thing.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the way that Erin engages her students -- by listening to them. How is this an effective way to teach? How do the students learn from one other when they share their stories?
How is this movie an example of the "white savior narrative?" What are some other examples of movies in which people of color struggle to find their way in the world until a white protagonist comes along and finds their true calling in life by saving the people of color from their circumstances?
This is a movie based on a true story. What aspects of the story do you think actually happened, and what aspects do you think were heightened or exaggerated for the sake of creating more drama and conflict in the movie?
- In theaters: January 4, 2007
- On DVD or streaming: April 17, 2007
- Cast: Hilary Swank, Imelda Staunton, Patrick Dempsey
- Director: Richard LaGravenese
- Studio: Paramount Pictures
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 123 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: violent content, some thematic material and language.
- Last updated: June 23, 2020
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