A diverse group of hopeless inner city kids is given the gift of an affluent liberal white woman teacher. That’s the plot of the 2007 film Freedom Writers, one of the more hilarious white savior films ever made. Set in 1990s Los Angeles, the film depicts the “true story” of an idealistic teacher delivering hope to her rough non-white students.
The film has all the clichés you can imagine: tough kids with hearts of gold, a bubbly heroine who can’t be told no, Holocaust survivors teaching kids to ditch hate, and racist administrators who won’t believe that blacks and Latinos want to learn. The story is cringe beyond belief. It is based on a true story, so you can’t blame the scriptwriters entirely for this lame plot. The real-life teacher the story is based on did indeed inspire her students with Holocaust stories.
Freedom Writers does put an interesting twist on the white savior story, however. The white woman persuades the non-whites to abandon their tribalism in favor of liberal bourgeois values. Instead of kin and honor, the students choose diversity and tolerance. They learn to betray their own kind for the sake of abstract principles. Most of these corny racial films boast the unoriginal take that we’re all the same and should judge people solely on the content of their character. This film goes further and denigrates blood ties and racial solidarity altogether. We must all overcome racial identity to become mere individuals.
It’s a very white liberal take. Only white liberals would prefer virtue-signaling over one’s own people’s interests. But we’ve changed so much as a society in just 14 years that this view is now championed by the mainstream Right in opposing Critical Race Theory. This is not progress.
The film begins by showing the story of Eva Benitez, a young Latina who learns early on to put her people’s interests first. A pre-teen Eva is shown looking at white Barbie dolls and the cheaper Hispanic knock-offs at a local store. This scene illustrates the alienation the Hispanic feels in a supposedly white society and her desire to see her identity recognized by the world around her. Her father is a gang leader who teaches her “to fight for her people.” He is arrested and wrongfully convicted of murdering a family friend who was in fact killed by a rival ethnic gang. Eva says that the white police arrested him because he was a leader to his people and because he challenged white authority.
Eva joins her family’s Hispanic gang as a teen, dismissing that it is a gang in her narration. She sees it as her people’s army and herself as a soldier willing to fight and die for her race. We see in her walk to school that she views other races as enemies. She is chased by Cambodians and is jumped by blacks. She says that this is all part of her fight for her people.
Freedom Writers takes place two years after the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The main character, Erin Gruwell (played by Hilary Swank), claims that the riots inspired her to teach English at Woodrow Wilson High School, a once-great school that has been destroyed by voluntary integration. Gruwell explains her enthusiasm for making a difference for at-risk non-whites to her department chair, Margaret Campbell, a middle-aged white woman who holds no illusions about integration and non-whites’ capacity for education. Gruwell volunteers that her father marched with civil rights demonstrators in the sixties and that she wishes to carry on his legacy. Campbell sits amused at the young teacher’s enthusiasm and tells her that The Odyssey is beyond her students’ capacity. She informs the naïve teacher that 75% of the “good” (i.e. white) students have left, which turned the school into a dump. Campbell also advises the young teacher to ditch her pearls.
Gruwell does not ditch her pearls on her first day of teaching. She welcomes her nearly entirely non-white class with unreciprocated enthusiasm. Her freshman students automatically think their new white teacher is out of her element and believe she won’t last long. The class is made up of black, Hispanic, and Cambodian kids who all hate each other. There is one white student who desperately wants to get out of the class. Gruwell struggles but ends up mispronouncing her kids’ names. Eva blasts the new teacher for pronouncing her name as “e-va” rather than a-va.” Other troubles ensue for Gruwell in her first days of teaching. She watches helplessly as the students brawl and disrespect her authority.
She tries to integrate the segregated parts of her classroom over the protests of her students. The white student pleads not to be sent to the back of the classroom with all the blacks. Gruwell does it anyway. The white teacher’s integration fails to win over her class, however, and her students frequently skip school.
Neither do her efforts change the school’s segregated nature. Eva explains in the narration that each race has their own turf. The Hispanics have their area, the blacks have theirs, the Cambodians have theirs, and even the few whites have their own hang-out spot. She insists that members of other races don’t tread on anyone else’s territories. She says this as one particularly bold black kid strolls through the Hispanic territory without paying respect. That prompts her to call older members of the gang to the school to pay back this disrespect. A race riot then breaks out as the blacks and Hispanics fight each other. The black kid who started it beats up Eva’s boyfriend, Paco, in the riot, marking him as a mortal enemy of the gang.
Later, Eva and her gang encounter the black kid in a Korean-owned convenience store. Also present in the store is Eva’s Cambodian classmate, Sindy, and her boyfriend. The kid has a chimpout over losing an arcade game and has to be told to leave by the Korean owner. As he steps out, he sees Paco point a gun at him from a nearby car. The black student flees right before Paco opens fire. The bullet hits Sindy’s boyfriend instead and kills him. Eva tells the police that the black kid was the shooter, justifying the false accusation by saying that she is doing right by her people and avenging her father’s wrongful conviction.
The shooting hangs over the class for the film’s pivotal moment. A Hispanic student draws a racial caricature of the black class clown, which eventually reaches the student. Gruwell notices it and is appalled. She then delivers a lecture about the Nazis, about whom her entire class was unaware of except for the lone white student. (It’s not clear if the real-life Gruwell is Jewish or not; the movie portrays her as rather WASP-y and makes no mention of her faith.)
This dramatic scene inspires Gruwell to double-down in her effort to reach the kids. She previously tried to win them over with Tupac and his supposed similarity to Homer. It didn’t work. Now she knows what she must do: educate her minority students about the Holocaust. There’s just one problem. Her white superiors don’t want her to make any extra effort. Campbell tells her it’s a waste of time to assign her students The Diary of Anne Frank because they will just destroy the books.
Gruwell tries to find help in her quest to get copies of the book for her kids from the honors teacher, Brian Gelford. Gelford mocks Gruwell and sarcastically says Anne Frank is just like Rodney King. He then goes on an epic rant about how the non-white students don’t want to learn and says they drive away the good white students. Gelford declares integration a failure in the teachers’ break room, acknowledging that saying such a thing may get him fired. Gruwell walks away from him, shocked.
Hilary Swank’s character realizes she has no friends among her bigoted white superiors. She ends up working two extra jobs to get the books and resources for her kids. She also goes over the heads of her superiors to the school district’s administrator, a black man curiously named Carl Cohn, to win approval for her projects. Gruwell then starts to connect with her students. She has them play the line game, where most of the class reveals they have had friends killed by gang violence and suffered other troubles in life. This makes the various races and tribes in the class realize they have a lot in common.
She also then gets her kids to write diaries of their own, charting their daily struggles and troubles. This is where the “Freedom Writers” idea comes in, being a play on the Freedom Riders who pushed for integration in the South in the 1960s. These stories help to turn these kids into the little multiculti libs Gruwell wants them to be.
Gruwell continues to get her kids excited about the Holocaust. She takes them to a museum to learn about this event that has nothing to do with their lives. They learn that the Nazis were like a gang who brutalized people who weren’t like themselves, making the non-white students reflect on their own behaviors and attitudes toward others. They start to believe their ethnocentric behaviors are wrong and begin fraernizing regardless of race. The teacher continues her Holocaust obsession into their sophomore year by having a woman who had helped Anne Frank come and speak to the class. The students request to meet this woman themselves and work hard to bring her to the school. She does eventually come and gives the standard speech about how the students need to imitate her behavior.
This has an impact on Eva. When she’s called to testify in the trial against Paco, she tells the truth and says that he killed Sindy’s boyfriend. (She has since befriended Sindy in class.) This is seen as a betrayal by her people and makes her a target of the gang. They end up sparing her life but force her out of the crew. She’s now an alien to her own people, but she feels this is in keeping with the Holocaust lessons she has received. You should always side with the “truth” against your own people. Tribalism is bad; individualistic liberalism is good! Who cares what your own flesh and blood thinks?
Gruwell’s own life collapses in her pursuit of turning non-white kids into good white liberals. Her husband divorces her because she cares more about her students than her marriage. Her father criticizes her for being a teacher at a ghetto school rather than a successful urban professional. The school’s officials also turn against her, feeling her efforts are beyond the scope of her job.
But Gruwell at least wins her final fight: to keep teaching her students into their final years of high school. She manages to get these once-bad kids to graduate and go to college, the film tells us at the end. And the film concludes with a reminder that it’s based on a true story and that these plucky kids actually did go to college. Their diaries were later published as The Freedom Writers Diaries in 1999.
The film concludes by showing us that Gruwell has ruined her family life and that some of her students ended up turning their backs on their own people because of the Holocaust. Blood and kin should be discarded if they fail to conform to liberal ideals. No wonder this film is assigned viewing in many American public schools today.
Nevertheless, Freedom Writers is probably too out of touch with contemporary racial liberalism to remain required viewing for long. Tribalism is only bad for whites, after all. It’s celebrated for non-whites. California, the state where the film takes place, recently mandated ethnic studies in all public schools. The new curriculum upholds racial identity and tribalism for non-whites. It teaches them that they are unique due to their ethnicity and that they must adhere to their heritage. Only whites are told to pretend they’re amorphous individuals without a past. Whites’ only duty is to dedicate themselves to the ideals that allow for everyone else to be racialists.
Freedom Writers offers a different message, one that’s probably not too far from what many Critical Race Theory opponents want. They want everyone to be taught to be individuals and to despise collective identities. But something different reigns today — and it answers to the call of the blood.
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