Freedom Writers is a 2007 film directed by Richard LaGravenese that is based on a book by teacher Erin Gruwell. It is set in 1994 in Long Beach, California and revolves around the students of Woodrow Wilson High School. The main protagonist is enthusiastic first-year teacher Erin Gruwell who purposely chooses the school for its voluntary integration program, but is unprepared for the nature of her English class. The film’s story follows the teacher’s great efforts at inspiring her at-risk students to pursue education beyond high school and to overcome racial discrimination. This essay will discuss how the film can be interpreted negatively due to the stereotypical representations of different racial groups, though also positively through the main themes of empowerment, respect and unity.
The film incorporates a number of racial stereotypes, most of which would offend the majority of American audience members. This is seen when the film opens with fast-cutting news clips of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The riots began after a trial jury acquitted police officers for the beating of an African-American taxi driver named Rodney King. Whilst the use of the fast-cutting technique implies chaos, the allusion also invokes stereotypes of racial minorities in the United States, as the scenes only show Hispanic, African American and Asian-American rioters. This could be interpreted negatively by first-generation Americans since America’ minorities are illustrated as being disruptive and violent.
Another way the film could be interpreted negatively is from the first scene, which shows a Latina student in Gruwell’s class recounting in her English diary the hardships she endured in her divided and troubled neighbourhood. Her words are accompanied by flashbacks, one of which is of her father being falsely arrested with excessive force by white police officers. The oversimplified portrayal could be interpreted as the film’s way of implying that white policemen often adopt the white supremacy ideology and are guilty of policy brutality—both of which are sensitive issues for White Americans.
Moreover, The black male students speak in African American Vernacular English (AAVE), and this is accompanied by their use of vulgar and demeaning language. For example, using the word “bitch” to refer to Ms. Gruwell, eyeing the teacher’s behind and exclaiming, “Hey, girl, you wanna give me some fries with that shake?” or provoking a fight by saying, “We was here first, man!” This accentuates the common misconceptions that AAVE is grammatically simple or sloppy, vulgar and employed by all African Americans. African American viewers would condemn this negative portrayal.
Concomitant with this is the teacher’s character, which has been censured by several film critics because it strongly replicates the cinematic trope of “the white saviour”. This is indicated at the end of the film when Ms. Gruwell manages to get the students to speak more formally and respectfully and successfully pulls the students out of their gangs. The white saviour complex is emphasized by the fact that throughout the film the students are depicted as being misbehaved and uneducated until the teacher takes the role of the hero that they all needed.
These negative readings of the film have been reflected in reviews, such as film critic Liz Beardsworth who stated, “Despite solid work from the engaging cast, there’s nothing new here to distinguish Freedom Writers as anything beyond a C+.”
In contrast, the film can be interpreted positively because it is a reminder of the possibility of creating harmony and understanding from racial division and animosity. The main theme of unity is expressed in the film’s most recognized scene known as “The Line Game”. In this scene, Ms. Gruwell asks the students to stand on a line of tape whenever she says a statement that they can relate to individually. The line symbolizes the invisible divisions being broken between the students, as the Latinos, African Americans and Asian Americans realize that despite their racial differences, they have all dealt with similar hardships. The students take a moment to pay respect to the friends and family members that they lost to gang violence. The audience can hear their voices blend together to create a single unified sound. Viewers could read this as a positive and unconventional moment in film, as most stories involve the “good” character(s) defeating the antagonist or villain, but in Freedom Writers, all the students are empowered.
Furthermore, the transformation of the students is another symbol of empowerment and self-respect. When Ms. Gruwell provides her students with copies of The Diary of Anne Frank, the students find upon reading the book that they have an instant connection with Anne Frank’s adolescent angst and fear. They are also moved by the stories of the Holocaust, as they, too, must suffer from the hatred they carry for members of other racial groups. Inspired by Anne Frank’s story, the transformations of the students are seen towards the end of the film when a student is shown dropping his gun into the sewers, which through metonymy represents that he is overcoming his old and violent habits in order to change. The transformations of the students could be interpreted as the film expressing that at-risk youths are capable of growing into respectful adolescents and defying the limits imposed by their socioeconomic backgrounds.
Most viewers have recognized the film’s qualities, such as film critic Marcus Yoars who wrote, “In an inspirational ode to teachers, Hilary Swank uses unconventional means to change the lives of a racially divided group of “unteachable” high schoolers.”
In conclusion, regardless of the contrasting interpretations of viewers, Freedom Writers is simply a cinematic illustration of the inspiring story of teacher Erin Gruwell and her Freshmen English class. The significance of the film can be seen by the fact that in 2007 Freedom Writers won the Humanitas Prize, an award given to films that promote human dignity, meaning, and freedom. Although a number of offensive stereotypes are imbedded within the film, it was the director’s attempt at expressing that less-fortunate and misbehaved teenagers are capable of accomplishing as much as privileged students if they are aware of their potential.
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