For the students of Wilson High School, their Long Beach, Calif., campus has become a war zone. Undefined boundaries separate the racially divided gangs and cliques—most prominently, the Asians, African-Americans, Latinos and whites.
Inside the classrooms, the territorial delineation is more distinct, as “at-risk” students from poorer neighborhoods are assigned separate classes from the “normal” suburban teens. Not that anybody’s there to learn. For these juvenile delinquents, gang members, drug pushers and underprivileged students, it’s a matter of being babysat during school hours—warehoused until they’re old enough to drop out on their own. That’s if they live to see the day.
In 1994, straight-out-of-college teacher Erin Gruwell (this story is based on her real-life feats) walks into this defective system with high hopes. The English teacher is ready to change the world, one classroom at a time. Her students and even other faculty members have other thoughts. Department head Margaret Campbell blasts Erin’s efforts with, “You can’t make someone want an education. The best you can do is make them obey and learn discipline.” One of her students puts things much more bluntly: “I’ll give this b–ch a week.”
Freedom Writers could’ve just as easily been called Ode to a Teacher, considering the high praise it pours on educators who earnestly care about bettering their students. Despite her youth and inexperience, Erin is certainly praiseworthy for her passion to see kids escape the prison of their surroundings through proper education. As her father is apt to point out, she could’ve easily been a successful businesswoman or, at the very least, taught at a better school. Yet Erin truly wants to change the world—particularly for these teenagers who only know a world of abuse, addiction, violence and hate.
By underscoring what the divided class members have in common rather than their differences, she seeks to break down their walls and exposes their unfounded prejudice. And she’s determined to prove that what they’re studying is applicable to their lives. (To add relativity to their studies, she has her class write daily journal entries.)
Erin takes care to point out to her charges the irrationality and futility of racism. When she discovers a racist drawing is being passed around during class, she uses the moment to compare the students’ feelings toward each other to the rise of Nazi Germany and the eventual Holocaust. After a heated discussion, she’s aghast to discover that only one of her students (the lone suburban white kid) has even heard of the Holocaust. This launches an extensive study that, while proving how harmful racism is, also reminds the students that they’re not alone in their bleak situation.
Specifically, Erin uses The Diary of Anne Frank to show how, like them, a 13-year-old girl faced baseless hatred, bigotry, persecution and a system out to destroy her. (Lines from Frank’s original writings are poignantly interwoven with scenes from the teens’ frightening home lives.) Eventually, the class’ study of Frank and their continual journal writing leads them to extend an invitation to one of the Frank’s protectors, Miep Gies, and to raise enough money to bring her to their school. When the old woman arrives, she tells the group, “I did what I had to do because it is the right thing to do—that is all. … [Anyone], even a teenager, can turn on a small light in a dark room.” After a student calls her his hero, Gies quickly deflects the title: “You are the heroes. You are the heroes every day. … Your faces are engraved in my heart.”
Off campus, Erin’s father initially tells his daughter, “These kids are criminals, not activists. Don’t waste your time on people who don’t give a d–n about education.” He adds, “You’re not responsible for their lives outside of the classroom.” But by the end he’s telling her, “You are an amazing teacher. You have been blessed with a burden, and I envy that and admire that.”
[Spoiler Warning] And just as her dad comes around, so do her students. And they’re eager to thank her for her prodding. They notice that she’s the only teacher willing to give them new and unabbreviated books (which she pays for by working extra jobs). They notice that she sincerely respects them, especially when she takes them out on a field trip that includes a ritzy dinner. Reading his journal entry one boy exclaims, “Ms. G. is the only person that makes me think of hope.”
Among the many other positives in Freedom Writers is a girl deciding to tell the truth, even at the cost of risking her life and her relationship with her father.
As a young man reads from Anne Frank’s diaries, we hear the line, “If God lets me live …” After visiting a Holocaust museum, a student remembers how a survivor left behind a letter to God. A couple of scenes from students’ houses show crucifixes hanging on the wall. A cross is shown at a funeral. On the flip side of the spiritual coin, one student’s monologue describes joining a gang as a “baptism” that gives you new life. A rap during the end credits includes the line, “I believe in heaven more than hell.”
A student mentions that she was supposed to be the girl who gets pregnant by age 16, but that Erin’s Room 203 class has helped her avoid such a path. But another teen kisses her boyfriend and also asks Erin when two people mentioned in Anne Frank’s book will “hook up.” While two girls get dressed, the camera catches a glimpse of a tattoo on the small of one girl’s back.
Erin and her husband, Scott, kiss on a couple of different occasions. From Scott’s point of view, the camera briefly focuses on Erin’s backside. And Scott (vainly) attempts to initiate sex with his wife by talking about a school-teacher fantasy.
It’s obvious the filmmakers tried to show some restraint in depicting the all-too-real gangbanging surroundings of this story. Much of the abuse, domestic violence, and race- and gang-related shootings are spoken of rather than shown. However, we still see a young man mistakenly shot in a convenience store, and the camera spies a bullet hole in his chest as he lies in a pool of blood.
Two kids handle a newly acquired gun, which suddenly goes off and kills one of the boys. (He’s shown slumped over on a blood-stained bench.) A female student’s mother is described as being “half-beaten to death” one night, and we see a man strike her a few times (drawing blood) and beat the student with a belt. (The man also abandons this girl and her young brother on the side of the road, forcing them to sleep on the sidewalk.)
A teen girl is chased down by three gang members, held and threatened at gunpoint. She’s also beaten up on two other occasions. It’s not surprising, then, that she tells Erin she wishes Anne Frank would “smoke” Hitler and motions with an imaginary gun to her head. Another student says that “at 16, I’ve seen more dead bodies than a mortician.” Snapshots from a civil rights movement documentary show a mob beating up an activist (the after-shots are included as well), along with a bus that’s been torched.
When a melee breaks out in the school courtyard, multiple students (guys and girls) are shown exchanging punches, kicks, shoves and various body blows. A pair of girls wrestle and claw at each other. A classroom scrap involves shoving and missed punches.
God’s name is profaned on close to half-a-dozen occasions, two or three times in combination with “d–n.” The f-word is used once, while the s-word is uttered at least 10 times. An additional 30-plus milder profanities are spoken (“d–n,” “a–,” “h—“), including a crude reference to male anatomy and a single mention of the n-word.
Erin’s father downs some liquor while he meets with his daughter. Erin and Scott drink wine, mostly over dinner. During a trying discussion about their damaged relationship, both drink several glasses of alcohol. Scott comments on his wife drinking too much. She replies that alcohol won’t hurt her as much as their fighting does. A rap lyric mentions how “alcohol followed me.”
Though they’re never shown, it’s implied that drugs are readily available on campus. To prove that those in her class aren’t actually as different as they say they are, Erin begins by asking them how many know where to get drugs. (They all raise their hands.) Later, it becomes clear that one student is working for a neighborhood drug pusher.
[Spoiler Warning] While Erin’s efforts to change her students’ lives are noble and selfless, they also cause a strain on her commitment to her husband. Though initially supportive of his wife finding her apparent calling in life, Scott struggles with feelings of detachment and a lack of passion for her causes. “I’m living a life I didn’t agree to,” he says (adding that he’s still proud of the good she’s done). At Scott’s prompting, the two regretfully agree to divorce—a disappointing move and one that’s unfortunately true-to-life for the real Erin Gruwell.
In the classroom, Erin uses Tupac Shakur as an example of a talented poet. Unfortunately, she never explains that many of his songs glorify the very kind of violent acts she’s fighting against. Snoop Dogg is also referenced in a neutral context.
Freedom Writers travels down a well-worn path already trod by such films as Dangerous Minds, Up the Down Staircase, Stand and Deliver and even Dead Poets Society. New-to-the-system teacher uses unconventional methods to transform a classroom full of “unteachables.” This time it’s set in a racially heated, gangbanging environment where students’ main goal is to stay alive until their 18th birthday.
Fifty profanities and moments of gore certainly detract from this story, but what doesn’t diminish it is the familiar turf. In terms of true stories, Erin Gruwell’s is a remarkable adventure that encompasses sacrifice, determination, fearlessness and hope. It’s more than worthy to be told onscreen. And the result is that exceptional messages get communicated in almost every scene as these kids grab hold of something beautiful and life-changing.
For the record, according to the film, Erin’s inspirational efforts have resulted in most of the original 150 “Freedom Writers” (named after the Freedom Riders of the U.S. civil rights movement) becoming the first members of their families to attend college. Many went on to finish college and graduate school; some now teach at schools similar to Wilson High.
In some ways it’s those kids more than Erin who make Freedom Writers unique. Yes, Erin is definitely deserving of the praise and attention she’s been given. But it’s obvious the filmmakers wanted to place the bigger spotlight on the students’ courage and perseverance to overcome obstacles. “In this country we dismiss kids who aren’t showing up for class or aren’t doing well and say that they can’t learn,” says director Richard LaGravenese. “We never take that step that Erin Gruwell took to find out why and learn about the life they’re living on the streets, the poverty and the violence that they face every day. After reading their words and hearing their stories, you realize how can they possibly be thinking about homework or showing up on time? To me, the whole point was being able to tell a story that showed their lives and how a teacher listened and respected them enough to figure out how to teach them instead of letting them fall through the cracks.”