Writer-director Daniel Barnz’s “Won’t Back Down” is certainly not the first dramatization of the inner workings of a high school to breed controversy, but it arrives at an especially contentious moment. With debate raging for years and a high-profile teacher strike in Chicago recently in the news, “Won’t Back Down” arrives at a time ripe for provocation.
The film’s New York premiere at the Ziegfeld Theater on Sunday, Sept. 23, attracted a protest by a group of nearly 50 parents and teachers. Partly funded by Walden Media, the same company that provided financing for Davis Guggenheim’s 2010 education documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman,'” “Won’t Back Down” has been criticized for what some feel is a sentimental and reductive portrayal of the complicated issues pertinent to underperforming public schools in inner-city areas and the disadvantages faced by students from low-income families.
Over the past several years, documentaries that have tackled education reform and presented a pro-charter stance, including “The Cartel,” “The Lottery” and “‘Superman,'” have been targeted by teachers’ unions and parents for what they saw as the slander of teachers’ unions. “Won’t Back Down” now finds itself embroiled in a similar controversy prior to its official theatrical release Friday, Sept. 28 through Fox.
“Won’t Back Down” stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jamie Fitzpatrick, a single mother living on a salary of $23,000 in Pittsburgh. The discovery that her dyslexic daughter doesn’t receive special attention from her public-school teacher compels Fitzpatrick to take action. She rallies support from other dissatisfied parents and teachers to invoke a “Parent Trigger,” a new law that permits the parents of children at low-performing schools to pressure the school’s administration to make changes if they collect signatures from 51% of the school’s parents. Ultimately, such changes might include privatizing a public school or replacing uninspired teachers without the consent of the union. Although the film doesn’t explicitly mention the Parent Trigger Law by name, it is undoubtedly based on the legislation.
Barnz’s screenplay has been accused of pandering to viewers’ emotions and resorting to Hollywood tropes and quick, improbable solutions rather than capturing the multifaceted nature of the issues. But Barnz and the film’s producers remain committed to the film and its message, encouraging conversation about the key conflicts. Viola Davis, who co-stars in the film as a teacher and Fitzpatrick’s main cohort, told “The TODAY Show,” “I welcome protests. I welcome discourse; I think discourse is a good thing. I think it spearheads change… And you know what, in this movie the teacher at the end of the day is the hero. They save the day. And it’s a system that’s broken, that needs to be fixed.”
The film’s screenplay has generated criticism for being didactic and cliché-riddled, but it’s the movie’s so-called vilification of teacher’s unions that provoked the red-carpet demonstration Sunday. “Won’t Back Down” is not the first film to elicit strong opposition from teachers’ groups. Bob Bowdon’s 2009 documentary about New Jersey public schools, “The Cartel,” also received negative reactions from many pro-union individuals. One of the key issues emphasized in the film was the inability to fire tenured teachers, even if their teaching abilities are mediocre and they are detrimental to students’ education. Similarly, in reference to “Waiting for ‘Superman,'” a writer for the New Jersey Education Association emphasized, “Teacher unions are portrayed as ‘bad’ and teachers as ‘good.’ (Guggenheim fails to understand that the teachers are the union, they are the members. Teachers elect the union leaders. Teachers approve the negotiated contract.).”
Other films to be criticized for oversimplification of the issues include the 2007 drama “Freedom Writers” and the 1995 Michelle Pfeiffer film “Dangerous Minds,” both of which focus on dedicated, curriculum-straying (white) teachers at inner-city schools — as if they were the only teachers to show such dedication or to employ innovative methods. Of course, Hollywood studios backed both these films and “Won’t Back Down,” and while the directors’ and writers’ attempts to induce conversation about the American education system were not inherently malicious, they were undoubtedly to some extent restricted by the demands of producing mainstream, profit-generating feature films — not to mention having a mere two hours to drive their message home.
Davis, Gyllenhaal and co-star Rosie Perez recently sat for a post-screening Q&A and defended the movie’s right to spark debate, if not every element of the storyline. In response to questions about whether the film is anti-union, Barnz told the L.A. Times, “That is not the point of the movie. The movie is about how parents come together with teachers to transform a school for the sake of their kids.”
He, and the women, also suggested that protesters see the film before forming a decisive stance — the best to educate themselves.