October 1 2012
Serious Film about a Grim Reality
Vicki E. Alger
Education scholar Andrew Rotherham has a great Time column on “Won’t Back Down,” and why this film matters.
Despite its sugary Hallmark quality, Won’t Back Down is a serious film about a grim reality — parents and teachers stuck in a system that puts kids last. [Maggie] Gyllenhaal plays Jamie Fitzpatrick, a mom struggling to help her daughter while juggling all the other balls a single mom must keep in the air … Her daughter’s dysfunctional school is a roadblock to a better future for her, and Fitzpatrick is determined to fix that. She enlists the help of a frustrated teacher (Viola Davis) to try to force the school board to improve the school under a district rule giving parents the ability to force action….
The film also has some nuance…A Teach For America teacher is portrayed not as a caricature of a noble savior or unwitting dupe but rather as a serious young person struggling to make sense of the conflicting values he encounters in a screwed-up urban school system. Played by Oscar Isaac, this teacher tries to reconcile his belief in unions as a tool of social justice with the jobs-and-adults-first reality he finds in his school district. That conflict plays out so frequently in urban schools…
Won’t Back Down is loosely based on the idea of the “parent trigger” law that allows dissatisfied parents to vote whether to overhaul their child’s school. But Hollywood is ahead of policymakers on this issue. Only seven states have passed “trigger” laws, and parents have yet to actually take control of a school using this kind of policy. In California, where two attempts have been made, both times parents have run into a buzz saw of opposition far harsher than what is portrayed in the film.
Given how contentious education reform is, there are certainly safer roles for Maggie Gyllenhaal, a hip actress on her way up, than playing a mom going head to head with the local teachers union. The film’s New York premier was picketed by protesters on Sunday, and the national teachers unions are furiously seeking to discredit it.
Whether the film’s protesters know it or not, they are spectacular foils for Won’t Back Down…the teachers unions carping that the movie is unfair and activists claiming that giving parents more power is akin to privatization…That’s for the good. Because whatever you think of the film or of the idea of parent triggers as public policy, the plight of families trapped year after year in unacceptable schools is far more gut-wrenching than anything Hollywood could cook up.