The students are understandably skeptical, excruciatingly contemptuous. From where they sit, slumped and hunched, some with their backs literally turned away from the front of the room, Erin looks like the stranger she is. She’s an interloper, a do-gooder, a visitor from another planet called Newport Beach, and the class sees through her as if she were glass because the writer and director Richard LaGravenese makes sure that we do too.
Funny how point of view works. If so many films about so-called troubled teenagers come off as little more than exploitation, it’s often because the filmmakers are not really interested in them, just their dysfunction. “Freedom Writers,” by contrast, isn’t only about an amazingly dedicated young teacher who took on two extra jobs to buy supplies for her students (to supplement, as Mr. LaGravenese carefully points out, a $27,000 salary); it’s also, emphatically, about some extraordinary young people. In this respect Mr. LaGravenese, whose diverse writing credits include “The Ref” and “The Bridges of Madison County,” appears to have taken his egalitarian cue from the real Erin Gruwell, who shares author credit with her students in their 1999 book, “The Freedom Writers Diary,” a collection of their journal entries.
Mr. LaGravenese keeps faith with the multiple perspectives in the book, which includes Ms. Gruwell’s voice and those of her students, whose first-person narratives pay witness to the effects of brutalizing violence, dangerous tribal allegiances and institutional neglect. The film pops in on Erin and her increasingly troubled relationship with her husband, Scott (Patrick Dempsey), and there’s a really lovely scene between the two that finds them talking ruefully over a bottle of wine about the divide between fantasy and reality in marriage, a divide one partner tries to bridge and the other walks away from. But while we keep time with Erin, we also listen to the teenagers, several of whom tell their stories in voice-over.
Among the most important of those stories is that of Eva (the newcomer April Lee Hernandez), whose voice is among the first we hear in the film. Through quick flashbacks and snapshot scenes of the present, Eva’s young life unfolds with crushing predictability. From her front steps, this 9-year-old watches as her cousin is gunned down in a drive-by shooting. Later her father is arrested; she’s initiated into a gang. One day, while walking with a friend under the glorious California sun, a couple of guys pull up in a car and start firing in their direction. Eva dodges bullets and embraces violence because she knows nothing else; she hates everyone, including her white teacher, because no one has ever given her a reason not to.
In time Eva stops hating Erin, though the bullets keep coming. It’s a hard journey for both women, one that includes other students, most of whom are played by actors who look too old for their roles and are nonetheless very affecting. None of these actors are outstanding, but two are memorable: the singer Mario, who plays an angry drug dealer, Andre, and another newcomer, Jason Finn, whose big, soft, moon face swells with fury and vulnerability as a homeless teenager named Marcus.
Mr. LaGravenese isn’t a natural-born filmmaker, but he’s a smart screenwriter whose commitment to characters like Marcus makes up for the rough patches in his directing. Like Ms. Swank, who shares the screen comfortably with her younger co-stars, he gives credit where credit is due.
“Freedom Writers” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). There is some gun violence and adult language.
StarsHilary Swank, Imelda Staunton, Patrick Dempsey
Running Time2h 3m
GenresBiography, Crime, Drama
- Movie data powered by IMDb.com
Last updated: Nov 2, 2017
The headline for a film review in Weekend on Friday about “Freedom Writers” misidentified the California city in which the movie is set. It is Long Beach, not Los Angeles.
The listing of credits omitted a producer. Danny DeVito was a producer, along with Stacey Sher and Michael Shamberg.
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 37-page guide for “Freedom Writers” by Erin Gruwell and Freedom Writers includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 4 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Racial Identity and Tolerance and The Importance of Family.
The Freedom Writers Diary is a nonfiction book that collects the stories of English teacher Erin Gruwell and her students at Wilson High School in Long Beach, California, as they move from their freshman to senior years from 1994-1998. The book is divided into eight major sections, one for the fall and spring of each year, as well as a forward and epilogue. Each major section begins with an introductory entry from Ms. Gruwell, followed by anonymous, numbered diary entries from her students.
At the beginning of the book, Ms. Gruwell is just about to start her first official year as an English teacher. As a student teacher the previous year, Ms. Gruwell found a racial caricature one of her students had drawn of Sharaud, her most difficult student. When she compared this drawing to the propaganda the Nazis used during the Holocaust, she realized her students didn’t know what the Holocaust was and decided to focus the remainder of the year on tolerance. Her efforts attracted positive attention from the media, but she also received death threats and endured disparaging racial comments from neighbors. Her school department head, leery of her unconventional teaching methods and worried about negative publicity, assigned Ms. Gruwell to teach “at risk” freshman for the rest of that year, rather than continuing teaching the class Sharaud was in.
The students in Ms. Gruwell’s freshman class are almost all African American, Latino, or Asian, and at first, they are suspicious of their white, suit-wearing teacher. They bet she will quit within the first week or month, but she quickly wins them over with unique teaching methods and reading material the students find relatable. The fall of their freshman year, they read Durango Street, a book about an African American teenager living in the projects after being released from a juvenile work camp for stealing cars, and then they make a movie about it. In the spring, when they read Romeo and Juliet and, Ms. Gruwell compares the Capulets to a local Latino gang and the Montagues to a rival Asian gang and gains the respect of more students. Still, the students deal with many difficulties that distract them from school, including race-based gang violence, domestic violence, illness, drug and alcohol addiction, and homelessness.
During the students’ sophomore year, Ms. Gruwell organizes a “toast for change” and a “Read-a-thon for Tolerance.” Among the books that the students read are Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, and Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo. After reading these books, the students have the idea to invite Zlata, a teenager their age who wrote her diary from 1992 to 1993, during the Bosnian War, to visit their classroom. They write her letters, and she agrees to come for a visit. This same year, the students are also visited by a Holocaust survivor and Miep Gies, the woman responsible for hiding Anne Frank’s family and later, retrieving the dead girl’s diary.
For the students’ junior year, Ms. Gruwell asks them to turn their diary entries into a book. The students decide to call themselves Freedom Writers after learning about the Civil Rights-era Freedom Riders, who took bus trips through the south in the 1960s to protest segregation. Once the book is completed, they raise money for a trip to Washington, D.C. to present the book to U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley.
Their senior year, as the students begin to think about their future, they are the subject of a Los Angeles Times feature that draws increased media and public attention to their project. Over winter break, Ms. Gruwell learns that they have won The Spirit of Anne Frank Award and must accept it in person in New York. The company GUESS? sponsors travel for 45 students to New York to accept the award, and, shortly thereafter, the students learn that Doubleday wants to formally publish their book of diary entries. As the year concludes, the students learn of where they have been accepted to college, and they plan a Freedom Writer reunion trip to Europe the next summer.