Monday, June 13, 2011

Freedom Writers: Much more interesting than it sounds

Freedom Writers (drama, biography, crime)
Directed by Richard LaGravenese
Starring Hilary Swank, Patrick Dempsey, Imelda Staunton and Scott Glenn

Paramount Pictures | 2007 | 122 min | Rated PG-13 | Released May 22, 2007

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Video resolution: 1080p
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

English, French, Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1

English, English SDH, French, Spanish

Single 50GB Blu-ray Disc

The Film 4.5/5

It’s unlikely that many people know about Freedom Writers. The title makes it sound boring; how can writing be an exciting spectacle? The other problem is the first 30 minutes of the movie. It’s almost exactly what you would expect and covers familiar ground. There’s a chance it would lose viewers who think that the whole movie is going to be predictable.

It isn’t.

The movie opens with riot scenes in Los Angeles and we hear a brief narration from one of the key characters, Eva (April Lee Hernandez). It shows her father being wrongly-convicted of a crime. This event confirms in her mind that she is right to hate all white people (as the cops were white) and anyone from another culture. She’s a member of a gang and happy with her role in life.

Then we meet Erin Gruwell (Swank), who is a first-time teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School. She teaches English and is naive about what she’ll face in the classroom. She believes that none of the rules apply to her because she cares, and that she can succeed where everyone else has failed. She thinks she can change the world. The movie is based on a true story and the real Erin Gruwell is interviewed for the movie’s special features.

Gruwell’s first day is a rough one. The desks and books she has to work with are old and falling apart and a fight breaks out during her first lesson. The class is divided into groups: there’s one white kid and groups of black, Latino and Cambodian kids. They hate each other and don’t want to sit near anyone not in their ethnic group.

How do you go about breaking down those boundaries? It’s no different outside the classroom. There’s division and hatred everywhere.

Gruwell starts to think of ways to connect with the kids. She starts by trying music, thinking it could unite them. Then she changes the seating arrangements and breaks up the groups. Some of the students stop attending.

There’s an incident in a local store one night in which Eva witnesses a murder. Her culture requires her to lie and blame someone else. The resolution is an important part of the movie, but I won't reveal it here.

So we’re 30 minutes into the story and all we have seen is a fairly predictable setup. But stick with it. This is where things start to improve. The power of the story is in the methods Gruwell uses to unite these kids. A drawing is passed around in class, showing a kid with big lips. Everyone laughs, apart from the target of the joke. Gruwell is outraged and compares the drawing to the drawings of Jews made by the Nazi’s, calling the Nazi's the greatest gang of all time. She mentions the Holocaust and someone asks what it was. She’s shocked and discovers that only one student has heard of it.

Think about that for a moment. How would you try and connect with people who had such limited knowledge? Their immediate world is dangerous and that's all that they care about. Living another day is a little victory for them. She asks anyone who has been shot at to raise their hand and almost everyone does.

Next class, she tapes a line in the middle of the classroom floor. She makes a game of it by asking people to step up to the line if they answer yes to a series of questions. The questions become increasingly serious: Do you know someone in a gang? Who has lost someone to gang violence? More than one? Some have lost four or more. The different ethnic groups step up to the line and stare at those opposite them. These people do have something in common after all.

Her colleagues won’t let her give the kids new books because they will likely destroy them, but Gruwell takes a second job and buys them anyway. She gives each student a journal, on the condition that they write in it every day. She won’t read it unless they give permission, but there’s a secure cupboard to put it in if anyone does want her to read what they have written. Her husband isn’t happy that she’s taken a second job and is sick of hearing about what she does at school.

Parents’ night arrives and nobody shows. She’s about to leave, but checks the cupboard first. It’s full of journals. We are gradually shown the stories behind many of the kids and what they have to live with each day. It’s probably the first time they have ever opened up to anybody. The stories are powerful and feel real. She gains a deeper understanding of her students.

The kids are awed when she presents them with new books. Then she arranges a school trip, but has to take a weekend job to finance it herself. Her husband is even more unhappy. The trip is to a museum commemorating the Holocaust. Her father goes with her and the kids all behave. The museum experience touches them deeply when they see how many died. Many of the victims were just a few years old. It’s important for them to see where their actions might lead and how misguided their reasoning is. She definitely makes a connection. 

I have found that if you give someone with a bad reputation a chance to be a better person, they usually respond positively. That’s exactly what happens in Freedom Writers.

It would be wrong of me to outline the entire story, but I wanted to go into enough depth to describe just how powerful and important this movie is. Gruwell achieved something significant, and you’ll see the impact she had if you watch the movie. Her methods have been widely introduced in schools throughout America.

It’s incredible to see what can be achieved when people work together instead of wasting their time hating others. Racism is one of the biggest problems in today’s world. Although there have been improvements, there’s a long way to go. What is the answer? It’s easy to say that the problem is too vast to ever be eradicated, but people like Gruwell have made a tiny dent by refusing to give up.

How do you unite the entire world when it’s divided by wealth, religion and politics? I’m not sure it will ever happen, but almost anything would be possible if it could be done. Maybe if the human race was threatened by malevolent aliens and was forced to work together? It has to start somewhere. What better place than in schools? It’s not easy because patterns of behavior become ingrained and older generations pass on their beliefs to their children.

Swank was superb in the role of Erin Gruwell. I’m always impressed by her acting, but I think this is my favorite role of hers. Freedom Writers is an uplifting film and inspires hope and change. The actors playing the students had very little experience and were chosen because their lives were similar to those depicted in the movie. I think they did a great job and a few will go on to better things.

I think I’ve watched Freedom Writers four times this year. Don’t be put off by the title or the first 30 minutes. If you like drama, this is one of the best you’re likely to see.

Video Quality 4/5
The Blu-ray was released in 2007, but it looks pretty good. The image is damage-free, bright, and has good detail throughout. It doesn’t match some of the recent releases, but there’s no reason to complain about the picture quality.

Audio Quality 3.5/5
The dated Dolby Digital 5.1 track sounds about as good as a compressed audio track can. Music is heavily featured and comes across well. Dialogue is clear and the surrounds are frequently used during scenes portraying conflict. Don’t avoid this release just because it doesn’t have lossless audio.

Special Features 3/5

All of the special features are in standard definition with the exception of the theatrical trailer.

Commentary with Richard LaGravenese and Hilary Swank.

Deleted Scenes (11:01) – There are a few good scenes which should have made it into the film. One is a class trip to see Schindler’s List and kicks off a sequence which ends in a restaurant. It shows how supportive Gruwell’s father became.

Making a Dream (5:25) – Showing how the main theme song was created and how the movie affected the creators.

Freedom Writers Family (19:21) – Director and cast talking about the script and how their trip to the Museum of Tolerance helped them bond.

Freedom Writers: The Story Behind the Story (10:03) – Director, cast and crew are joined by the real Erin Gruwell and talk about the situation in Long Beach.

Trailer (2:31)

Freedom Writers is a rewarding movie for anyone who likes emotional drama. Swank and the young cast draw you in and it’s hard not to empathize with their situations. This should be mandatory viewing in schools and would be a valuable part of any lesson plan for teachers. It's also an important movie with a strong message. Just viewing it could have an impact on the way you view the world and make a tiny difference in the fight against racism. I hope that you give it a try.

The Blu-ray is out of print, but still easy to track down. Don't wait too long to pick it up if you end up liking the story.

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