Freedom Writer’s Movie, Soundtrack and Diary, A Wonderful Mix
Reading “The Freedom Writers Diary” makes you wonder why “inspirational” is not the top
competency demanded from all high school teachers. I sincerely wish my kids would come home saying they were
totally blown away by their learning.
The book is the result of the work of Erin Gruwell, an idealistic English teacher from a California High School.
As a 23 year-old rookie at Wilson High School, Long Beach she discovered vast ignorance of racism and intolerance
amongst her branded “unteachable” students. This lack of understanding was driving them apart in
their lives and in the classroom.
Then, through a class project they mimicked the diaries of Anne Frank and Zlata Filipovic, whose stories are
so poignant. The relevance of these books slowly dawned on the students. Her class in Room 203 became a sanctuary
where the children could share their personal stories about immigration, drugs, gangs, violence and a whole
raft of contemporary issues that affect the lives of urban youngsters. In writing, they found their therapy
and in sharing their stories, they found tears, laughter and a greater capacity to bond with one another.
“The Freedom Writers Diary” is a compilation of these stories with a narrative by Erin Gruwell.
Gruwell has also penned “Teach with your Heart: Lessons I Learned from the Freedom Writers” to
reflect the fact that the whole process was as much a growing experience for her as it was for the kids.
By calling themselves “The Freedom Writers”, the students pay homage “The Freedom Riders”,
civil rights protesters from the 1960’s. The students see their work as a solution for today’s segregation
problems. The successful template has been adopted across the country as an effective method of teaching
students who have become pigeon-holed as delinquent or unreachable.
“Freedom Writers” has now also been released as a movie Directed by Richard LaGravenese. Although
it mirrors other works like “Dead Poet’s Society” and “Dangerous Minds” with the odd
hint of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”, Hilary Swank, who plays the role of Erin Gruwell, provides
a powerful performance supported by a talented cast of first-timers. This adaptation of the book might be
a little too cheesy for some but Swank manages to keep it on track.
The story is told pretty much as it happened in real life; however the sometimes weak script is regularly
saved by the stories gleaned from the book. The young performers are outstanding and you will be gripped
by their portrayal of this mixed race class.
Gruwell is a privileged, young, white woman who feels her destiny must be to convert ghetto kids through education.
However the journey is as tough for her as it is for the kids. First, she must be educated by them to understand
their, sometimes unbearable, lives. Secondly, she is shown making their enlightenment her mission against
everyone else’s best advice. In organizing trips to the Holocaust Museum and teaching “off curriculum” she
incurs the wrath of her work-weary colleagues.
She takes on part-time jobs to pay for books that the schooling system can’t afford and in the process abandons
her home life. Patrick Dempsey, who previously worked opposite Swank in HBO’s “Iron Jawed Angels”,
takes the role of Gruwell’s neglected, wimpy husband. He probably has some of the best lines in the film
as he struggles with his wife’s new-found zealotry.
In the movie it is Gruwell who takes the prize. The real-life success, not fully celebrated in the film, is
that of the students. That they overcome their racial and cultural differences and turn their lives from
hopelessness into an impassioned crusade to provide help to other kids like themselves is partly lost.
The story of “The Freedom Writers Diary” whether in book form or movie is a consuming one. It is
heartening that there can be a solution to urban restlessness in the young. Around the world, we struggle
on a daily basis with our own “normal” teenagers sometimes with high stress and the greatest of
difficulty. We all know about “delinquent” kids. Wouldn’t it be great if every “unteachable” child
had an inspirational guide like Gruwell to open up the doors of possibility?
Book Review by Mike Kay
(There is also a Freedom Writer’s teacher’s guide available at Amazon.)