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[FILM] Did "Freedom Writers" Get It Wrong (Probably Not)

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  • madchinaman
    Did Writers get it wrong? The portrayal of a Long Beach high school in Freedom Writers raises hackles in the city. The teacher who inspired the film speaks
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 10 1:27 PM
      Did 'Writers' get it wrong?
      The portrayal of a Long Beach high school in 'Freedom Writers' raises
      hackles in the city. The teacher who inspired the film speaks up for
      it.
      By Gina Piccalo, Times Staff Writer
      http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/movies/la-et-
      freedom9jan09,1,2869009.story


      Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach is one of the school
      district's jewels. Situated near million-dollar homes, it's
      considered a "learning academy" where uniformed students study
      classics and others vie to make its waiting list.

      But in the new Hilary Swank film "Freedom Writers," that same school
      is portrayed as a beaten-down inner-city nightmare, run by bitter
      burned-out teachers and populated with well-armed students.

      "Anybody who knows Long Beach knows the high school is nothing like
      that," said Long Beach Unified School District Supt. Chris
      Steinhauser.

      Despite that, Steinhauser considered the film uplifting. But other
      Long Beach residents — like the subjects of other true-life stories —
      are appalled at the Hollywood version. They aren't happy with its
      portrayal of the true story of Long Beach teacher Erin Gruwell and
      her at-risk students, saying it offers an oversimplified, insulting
      narrative about the community: poor racial minorities triumph over
      lazy, jealous teachers and The Man.

      The Freedom Writers — Gruwell's 150 students who named themselves for
      the civil rights group — included Caucasian and middle-class
      students, the critics point out. One was the popular football
      quarterback. Wilson High's students also came from affluent Eastside
      neighborhoods with waterfront mansions, and plenty of teachers at the
      high school helped Gruwell and her cause.

      Gruwell and writer-director Richard LaGravenese stand by the film,
      which opened Friday to a modest $9.7 million. They spent six years
      crafting the screenplay, with Gruwell and her students guiding
      LaGravenese's drafts. Much of it was taken directly from "The Freedom
      Writers Diaries," a collection of excerpts from the students'
      journals that offers an often wrenching account of their home lives.

      Gruwell and LaGravenese stress that the movie takes place from 1993
      to 1998, when Long Beach and Wilson High were much tougher than they
      are today. Gruwell says her classes were as they appear in the film:
      predominantly made up of African Americans, Latinos and Asians. The
      white, middle-class students, Gruwell says, only joined after word
      spread of her teaching methods. As for the gritty look of the film,
      Gruwell says that the classroom in the movie is an exact replica and
      that filming couldn't take place at Wilson because the school
      district demanded too high a location fee from Paramount Pictures.
      Two L.A. schools — Hamilton and University high schools in West Los
      Angeles — were used instead. (Paramount declined to comment.)

      "People who are making comments don't know the true story," Gruwell
      said. "When you take a subject matter of intolerance, we had to look
      at every single angle of a story to bring it to life. When it comes
      to complexities of race, people need to talk about the fact that this
      is an enormous city that has been compartmentalized."

      The controversy comes at a particularly sensitive time for locals.
      Long Beach is one of the most diverse cities in America, with the
      third largest school district in the state and a community of both
      great wealth and extreme poverty. Ten African American teenagers are
      now on trial for the brutal Halloween night attack in affluent Bixby
      Knolls of three white women, an incident police are calling a hate
      crime.

      The city has worked hard to distance itself from the image
      popularized in the songs of rap artist Snoop Dogg, such as the gang-
      banging, drug-infested "LBC." "Freedom Writers," they say, will only
      recast the community as dangerous.

      "We're not in Wyoming," said Wilson High School parent and alum Ben
      Goldberg. "But we're not in Watts, either."

      "Judging from the film, you'd think that no teacher had ever tried
      this," wrote Long Beach Press-Telegram film critic Glenn Whipp on
      Friday. "Worse, you'd guess that apart from the noble Gruwell, no
      other teacher cares…. Gruwell's work is noteworthy, but it is by no
      means unusual, despite the film's cartoon-like portrayals of her
      bitter, envious and, in one case, racist colleagues."

      Whatever qualms Long Beach residents may have about the movie, they
      turned out en masse to see it last weekend, giving the city the
      largest turnout in the country. At a local showing that Gruwell and
      some of her Freedom Writers attended, Gruwell said that audience
      members asked for autographs from her students. The website for her
      nonprofit, FreedomWriters Foundation.org, meanwhile, got 29,000 hits
      after the film's release, a significant increase.

      "Freedom Writers" details the well-publicized success of Gruwell, who
      as a student teacher inspired her racially diverse classes to bond as
      a family, commit themselves to their education and, most famously,
      publish their diary excerpts, which they did, to wide acclaim.

      Though many of Gruwell's students came from supportive homes, others
      survived homelessness, domestic violence, gang killings and sexual
      abuse, and still graduated from high school (only one earned a GED).
      About half graduated from college, and a dozen or more are pursuing
      teaching degrees. "The Freedom Writers Diaries" was published by
      Doubleday in 1999 and is now in its 22nd printing.

      Longtime Gruwell supporter Fran Sawdei lashed back at those who have
      accused Gruwell of spending too much time teaching her kids tolerance
      or guiding them on life skills and neglecting to give them the
      basics. It was a charge that surfaced indirectly during a recent
      interview to promote the film.

      "I know Barbara Walters on 'The View' kept saying, 'Did you teach
      them math? And did you teach them English?' All this harping on the
      academics," said Sawdei, of Huntington Beach, whose son attended
      Wilson with the Freedom Writers and who has worked with Gruwell since
      then.

      "[But] she gave those kids manners, she gave them etiquette, she gave
      them connections," said Sawdei. "She really taught them skills for
      life."

      In a Sunday article in the Long Beach Press-Telegram, Wilson High
      teacher Brad Rudy called Gruwell self-promoting, talking more about
      her own achievements than those of her students. In response, Gruwell
      said she has "never taken one penny" from the Freedom Writers and, in
      fact, has spent much of her income to support them.

      "I think my students' success speaks for itself," she said. "There's
      always going to be naysayers who are opposed to change. I am truly an
      advocate for change."

      Ultimately, no one can deny Gruwell's achievements. And even those
      miffed over the liberties the film takes say the true story is
      uplifting.

      "Nobody wants to see their city or their school district portrayed in
      any kind of negative light, particularly something that's more than a
      decade old," said Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster. "But you've got to
      take this in stride. The people that live here know what the city's
      about."
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