I am not a film critic. But, after spending some time in recent years visiting with the students and teachers of my city’s public schools, I feel compelled to give my take on a film I saw this week called “Won’t Back Down.”
The movie opens in a stereotypical inner city school named Adams Elementary, which is “failing.” It is gray and lifeless. A teacher is texting instead of teaching. The class is running wild. A dyslexic student named Malia, who is the daughter of the main character, Jamie (Maggie Gylenhall), struggles to read the words on the chalkboard while the teacher ignores her.
Not only is the teacher lazy, she’s downright evil. She even shuts little Malia in a closet at one point in the movie. This teacher is a monster. She makes Stalin look like the Easter bunny.
With this character, we, the peons who live in the non-Hollywood world of public education, are immediately introduced to a glaring lie; a deeply offensive misrepresentation of the school teachers whom we entrust our children with.
The film and I were not getting off to a good start.
Later, we are introduced to another teacher, Mr. Perry. He, on the other hand, is the greatest thing since peanut butter. He plays the ukulele to his students as part of his lesson plans. His classroom is an educational utopia. Each of his students are engaged. They adore him. He is young and handsome.
He is the perfect teacher, stating that he came straight to Adams from Teach For America, which is, in fact, a real-life organization that provides a six-week summer training program to non-education majors who, in turn, enter public school classrooms as licensed teachers.
On the other hand, most of the other teachers at Adams Elementary are career educators. They are initially portrayed as washed-up and selfish; caring more about a paycheck than the well-being of their students. Here, the film offers yet another false portrayal.
To be sure, all of us probably had two or three mediocre teachers in school. However, it didn’t take long for me to realize the essential sales pitch of “Won’t Back Down,” which is that the majority of teachers are bad and that it is their fault alone when students struggle, regardless of outside factors. It is a sales pitch that is not based in fact, and one that clearly shows the film’s creators’ lack of long-term experience in having anything to do with public education.
Anyway, Jamie finds out about a parent-trigger law in which parents and teachers can petition to “take over” a school. She builds support from other parents and convinces the majority of Adams’ teachers that the new school will be perfect and wonderful.
The unions fight this effort. They even offer Jamie an under-the-table scholarship for dyslexic Malia to attend the private school across town, which is also portrayed as perfect and wonderful. Indeed, Jamie thinks long and hard about this seductive offer, and something else becomes clear to the viewer; that the film’s creators hold the assumption that suburban, private schools are inherently superior to urban public schools.
Jamie turns down the union’s offer. The film climaxes as she and the other “Parentroopers” arrive at the school board hearing that will determine whether or not Adams can be taken over and converted to some other type of school (the film never specifies exactly what type of school that would be).
At the board meeting, the parents are met with stiff opposition from union protestors, one of whom is holding up a sign that reads “Public School Advocate." Thus, the film’s creators choose to label “public school advocates” like myself and the millions of other Americans who are willing to fight for our children as the enemy. If standing up to the stereotypes, lies and false premises of “Won’t Back Down” makes me and people like me the enemy, it is a label that I wear with honor.
The film concludes as the school board votes to approve the take-over of Adams Elementary. The parents are happy. The unions are mad.
The teachers who choose to remain undergo a puzzling transformation by buying-in to Jamie’s ridiculous assertion that they are the problem. They decide to try harder because, of course, they weren’t trying very hard before Jamie came along.
What a joke.
To say that I didn’t like the movie would be an understatement. However, I was glad to see that the film touched on the importance of parental and community involvement in our public schools.
Indeed, hopefully, some will see the film and be inspired to get involved, albeit in a constructive fashion that doesn’t pit parent against teacher, as the film would have them. More community-minded volunteers are truly needed in our schools. Our teachers and students will, in fact, be happier knowing that they have the full support of the communities which they serve.
And, yes, a misinformed few will likely go and see the film, believe its false and misguided suggestions, then demand new laws that will allow the creation of more “perfect and wonderful” schools, where every teacher is just like the young Mr. Perry and there are no problems whatsoever and everything is just so fantastic and so incredible that it’s just too good to be true … literally.
In this age of accountability labels, “Won’t Back Down” gets an F.
Michael A. Van Veckhoven, Meridian