The Independence Institute’s Ben DeGrow says the new film Won’t Back Down may not be a cinematic masterpiece but it carries a vital message.
“We will not wait!”
The formidable-looking principal of the fictitious Rosa Parks Charter School thundered in sermon-like tones to a packed audience of prospective students and parents. The statement carries the urgent message of school reform in the new Walden Media film production Won’t Back Down.
Principal Thompson’s speech is set at one of the now-iconic charter school lottery gatherings. The scene was one of several hat-tips to the documentary forerunners that paved Won’t Back Down a path to big screen acceptance.
The new feature film not only imports the heart-twisting The Lottery from Harlem, but also borrows Waiting for Superman’s line about prisons being planned based on dropout rates and reconstructs a major plot point from The Cartel’s account of a New Jersey charter school unfairly rejected over a technical error.
As Andy Rotherham points out in his Time Magazine review, Won’t Back Down may bring education reform into the mainstream in a way the documentaries that preceded it could not achieve. Not too long ago, it would have been hard to imagine a day when tenure laws, charter schools, Teach for America, school district bureaucracy and parent power all entered the lexicon of a Hollywood feature film. But here we are.
At the heart of the story, “inspired by actual events,” hard-working single mom Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and teacher Nona Roberts (Viola Davis) fight the stagnant bureaucratic education system to turn around Pittsburgh’s failing Adams Elementary School. Fitzpatrick is motivated by the painful struggles of her 8-year-old daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind) with dyslexia and an apathetic teacher.
After Fitzpatrick learns from a school district secretary about a weak, obscure “Failsafe” law that empowers parents to take over failing schools, her persistence and charismatic personality eventually persuade Roberts to join in her crusade. They work diligently to get a majority of the school’s parents and teachers to sign petitions that launch the takeover process.
To the screenwriters’ credit, “Failsafe” actually sounds more appealing than the term “Parent Trigger,” famously pioneered by liberal California activists and introduced (unsuccessfully) by a conservative Colorado lawmaker.
For my money, Viola Davis’ dynamic performance made her the star of the film. She pulled off a terrific and compelling performance as a burned-out classroom instructor. Burdened by a mother’s lofty reputation, repressed guilt and marital conflict, she finds a renewed purpose and passion for teaching and motivating kids. Roberts’ surprise scene with son Cody (Dante Brown) late in the movie will jerk a tear or two from soft-hearted viewers.
Still, the New York Observer’s Rex Reed is not alone in panning the film because “it doesn’t always manage to rise above a swirl of predictable Hollywood clichés.” But writing for the Washington Times, Sonny Bunch astutely notes that “issue-advocacy films” are not known for subtlety or nuance. As an example, the Adams teachers were confronted with the stark choice of a “Failsafe” takeover or union job protection. Missing was a third option of reasonable protection afforded teachers through non-union alternatives like PACE, the Professional Association of Colorado Educators.
Certain lines and plot points in Won’t Back Down are a bit clunky, and some of the schmaltz induces eye-rolling. The unlikely conversion of union official Evelyn Riske (Holly Hunter) does strain credibility, almost as much as the school board’s climactic vote that precedes her memorable announcement. Nonetheless, the movie contains more nuance than many counterparts in its genre.
Film is not simply “anti-union”
Won’t Back Down thus doesn’t quite fit the script some have written for it. A great deal has been made of the movie being “anti-union.” Yet the chosen lens is too narrow. The entrenched political leadership, tedious bureaucrats, and self-serving Adams principal all join Teachers Association of Pennsylvania President Arthur Gould (Ned Eisenberg) as the film’s primary antagonists. Monopoly union power goes hand in hand with the grinding dysfunction of complacent, ineffectual bureaucracy. Though they often stand at odds, their leaders need each other to survive. A serious external challenge rallies them together.
Fairly enough, most of the union characters themselves come across as conflicted. With the exception of the cruel cardboard cutout who takes out her animus against the “Failsafe” campaign on Malia, most teachers in the film are portrayed sympathetically.
It is especially noteworthy to watch Riske and Fitzpatrick’s teacher love-interest Michael Perry (Oscar Isaac) both wrestle with deeply-rooted labor ideals. Their internal struggles fit well in the blue-collar Pittsburgh setting, with its steel industry and organized labor history – not to mention the movie’s hard-to-miss Steelers and Penguins imagery. In the end, one almost can imagine both characters declaring they hadn’t left the union so much as the union left them.
Though Won’t Back Down fails to wow the refined and cynical cinematic critics, it stands as an inspiring story carried by some solid acting performances. More importantly, it carries the education reform message forward with pathos and sincerity – even if the Hollywood ending offers more “hope” than reality. The movie may provide an escape to viewers, but its greatest power is bringing attention to the struggles of families facing tougher fights to escape real-life failing schools.
The vital message of “We will not wait” has just hit closer to home.
Special thanks to the Daniels Fund for sponsoring the complimentary Sept. 27 screening.
Ben DeGrow is senior education policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free market think tank. Since joining the organization in 2003, DeGrow has focused on collective bargaining, teacher employment and school finance. He oversees the Education Policy Center’s informational website for teachers and coordinates the institute’s outreach to teachers.