[FILM] Did "Freedom Writers" Get It Wrong (Probably Not)
- 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
By Gina Piccalo, Times Staff Writer
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
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
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
"[But] she gave those kids manners, she gave them etiquette, she gave
them connections," said Sawdei. "She really taught them skills for
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
"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