This week I went to a screening of Won’t Back Down starring Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal. The movie is about a mom and a teacher who band together and use the Parent Trigger law (which is never mentioned by name) to take over and turn around a failing elementary school in Pittsburgh. The film is loosely based on real events (though in my research I couldn’t find anything other than the Los Angeles based parent trigger law, which was backed by a big charter school organization), and produced by the same man who produced Waiting for Superman. As someone who has been deeply embroiled in the discussion and reality of parents advocating for better schools, for student and parent rights, and as a PA C0-President who has worked closely with many teachers and administrators, this movie got to me on many levels. So, I have decided to break it down in two parts: As a movie and then as a propaganda film.
The Merits of the Movie:
Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal are wonderful. The acting is spot on and engaging. The script however, is full of holes and clichés and desperate to create dramatic tension because just trying to get names on petitions isn’t all that interesting. It could be interesting, of course, but the writer and director chose not to show any other parents other than Maggie Gyllenhaal’s plucky, positive, uneducated, but so endearing single mom on a mission. They also gave Viola Davis a horrible back story having to do with being a mom who couldn’t deal with a colicky baby, rather than the more difficult story I think of how a once great teacher could lose her passion and desire and become completely mediocre. Holly Hunter had the worst task of the movie playing the Pennsylvania Teachers Union boss – her role was so thinly written that people at my screening giggled when she gave her over the top pro-union scare speeches. I wondered how members of the Screen Actors Guild (or the screenwriters for that matter that just went on strike not that long ago) could play a part that so demonized another union. And that brings me to…
The Movie as Propaganda:
OK. I get it. There are terrible teachers out there and no one does a thing about it. They really don’t. They cross their fingers and hope they’ll retire. But, there are also a ton of great teachers, and a lot of average teachers. In this school, they pretty much all sucked except of course the young, hot, Teach for America Teacher! Though he toted a ukulele, not a Superman cape, he was clearly the hero. For the sake of romantic conflict they also made him pro-labor so he and Maggie Gyllenhaal could argue. But, don’t worry, once he saw the inhumanity of Holly Hunter he quickly realized the teachers union was the ogre and the cause of all public education woes and joined the turnaround crusade.
Here’s what never happened in the movie: A discussion by the teachers about how much their principal obviously sucked and how they could push him out and start to collaborate to have the school they envisioned. OR a discussion with their union leaders that they were unhappy about certain union policies and make themselves heard. Also – parents and teachers NEVER came together during this process except at the end in the council meeting. Seriously? If all you have is a bunch of parent signatures on petitions but no parents showing up for meetings or in classrooms you do not actually have parent involvement.
There was one moment in the film where I thought for sure Viola Davis’s character was going to have a true conflict. Her awful principal, who knew she was organizing this attempt to take over the school, suspended Viola Davis because of attendance tampering that she did at his directive. Here we go, I thought, now she will need the union. This is why teachers formed unions right? To protect them against petty personal administrators (particularly when admins were dominantly men and teachers were women.) But, no. That would have taken away from the union as devil storyline. So, instead of a real meaningful discussion between Viola Davis and Holly Hunter about what is right and wrong about the union – the two never meet. I won’t go into the ridiculous scene where Holly Hunter tries to buy off Maggie Gyllenhaal with free private school tuition for her daughter. Seriously.
I am all for parent power. I am all for getting rid of the crappy, demoralizing teachers who should not be allowed to step foot in a classroom. But, this movie made me sad. I was really hopeful in the beginning of the film because it was about teachers and parents working together – not something you usually see in movies. This wasn’t some public school movie where the wide-eyed liberal white teacher swoops in to the minority student school and teaches them violin and magically makes their lives better. We don’t need any more of those either. But, this was really a giant anti-union propaganda film that missed the mark. And that’s too bad because it had the chance to really say something about how parents and teachers can make change – and how hard it really is to find great leadership, and what can happen if we put kids first. There was NO mention of lack of funding at the school by the way, or lack of professional development for teachers, after school programs, etc. Seems if you just hang lots of butterflies in the hallway and paint the halls you make a great new school. That’s an insult to all the parents and teachers who really do work their butts off to make their schools better everyday.