This week actresses Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis learned that making a movie about going up against teachers’ unions to save a failing public school means going up against teachers’ unions in real life, too. Protesters gathered at the New York and L.A. premieres of “Won’t Back Down,” a film about a pair of determined moms— one a bartender and one a teacher— who take on apathetic teachers, bullying bureaucrats, and yes, entrenched teachers unions to turn around their children’s failing public school. “Won’t Back Down” opens everywhere Friday.
The film is based on “parent trigger” laws— one of which passed in California in 2010— that allow parents to band together to choose new governance for a failing public school. The film gives the “Norma Rae” treatment to a couple of strong, sympathetic women on the other side of a union battle, and the usual suspects aren’t happy about it. “Won’t Back Down” inspired a strongly worded letter from American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten in August, accusing the film of “[u]sing the most blatant stereotypes and caricatures I have ever seen – even worse than those in Waiting for ‘Superman’ – the film affixes blame on the wrong culprit: America’s teachers unions.”
A screening at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. also drew protests.
The stars of the film, which also features Oscar-winner Holly Hunter, are undeterred by the controversy. Speaking on the “Today” show Monday, Davis said:
“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.”
Gyllenhaal, walking the red carpet in New York, said the message of the movie is about kids, not teachers unions:
“If the adults in this situation are disagreeing to such a point that we are not making the changes that we need to make in order to serve our kids, then we are all failing.”
Protesters claim the movie oversimplifies a complicated issue and offers one-dimensional representations of teachers and unions, but according to the L.A. Times, the film “features plenty of committed teachers, some pro-union, others critical of its policies, and a bureaucrat (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) willing to help the activists in their cause.”
“I am surprised,” said producer Mark Johnson of the early negative response to the movie. “Maybe I’ve been naive about this, but I think it’s a David and Goliath story: two women, two mothers from completely different backgrounds who get involved in trying to do something about the sorry state of this particular school.”
School reformer and former D.C. Superintendent Michelle Rhee wasn’t so surprised:
“For an average person, it’s not an anti-union movie at all,” she says…“It did not shock me. It shocked a lot of the people from the movie, the actresses and [director] Daniel Barnz,” she says. “I’ve been in this game for a while. I knew it would cause a lot of controversy.”
I suspect the problem for Weingarten and her fellow travelers is not that the film “affixes blame…on teachers unions,” but that it affixes any blame on them at all. It also may rankle a tad that the Walden Media-backed film uses a favorite phrase of Obama’s in the service of school choice when Gyllenhaal’s character tells a crowd of parents, “You have to be the change you want to see!” Of course the education problems in this country are complicated, especially in low-income schools. Of course there are phenomenal teachers in public schools. I went to those schools and was raised by one of those teachers. But the message from teachers unions, on “Waiting for Superman” and now “Won’t Back Down,” is that the problems are so complex and teachers so infallible that no one can possibly do them justice on film.
Nonsense. Parents like the ones in “Won’t Back Down” exist, and they deserve to have their story told. Perhaps glorifying stories of determined, involved parents in low-income schools will inspire more of them, which would help students and teachers alike. I’ve watched Virginia Walden Ford fight for 15 years for school choice in Washington, D.C., after a scholarship to a private school from a benevolent neighbor changed her son’s life. Walden Ford was one of a small, hand-picked wave of black students who integrated the Little Rock, Ark. schools on the heels of the Little Rock Nine in the early ’60s, and she likens the fight for equal opportunity in education today to the fight she began in her childhood.
Years after her son graduated, Walden Ford is still a full-time activist on behalf of the District’s poor and minority students, most recently standing up to a Democratic Congress and president determined to strip away the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship for 1,700 students. Those scholarships, almost all of which go to low-income, minority students, were taken away as a favor to well-heeled teachers unions who don’t appreciate any competition, regardless of how much it helps kids. And, it does help:
“This isn’t just noise or random variation. This is a true difference,” said Patrick Wolf, the University of Arkansas professor who oversaw the three-year study. “In my opinion, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program has met a tough standard for efficacy in serving low-income students.”
Hollywood needs its rich, powerful antagonists to play foil to its plucky, sympathetic heroes. Just ask corporations and oil men. If teachers unions don’t like being cast in the role, they shouldn’t play it so readily in real life.