As the Chicago teachers strike played out, I kept thinking of the new film Won’t Back Down. How rare to find such a topical drama. Debates about public education continue to bubble up across school systems. In most cases, parents end up pitted against teacher unions. Should parents be allowed to choose where their children go to school? Should teachers’ job security be based upon seniority or effectiveness? If parents choose to test teachers, then how should effectiveness be measured?
Won’t Back Down pushes past politicized positions towards compelling characters. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Jamie Fitzpatrick, a single, working mother eager to give her daughter the educational nurture she needs. But financial limitations force them out of a parochial school and into the failing John Adams Elementary. Viola Davis portrays a beleaguered teacher at Adams far removed from her earlier, idealistic self. She ships her own son out of Adams, in search of a better education. While Nona is resigned, Jamie is motivated. Her daughter’s dyslexia drives her to register for a lottery. Perhaps a charter school will lift her out of the failing school dragging her further down. But the odds of getting into Rosa Parks Elementary are long–for both Jamie and Nona.
As the final names are called, disappointment plays across the faces of Jamie and her daughter, Malia. Their expressions are a different kind of special effect, drawing us into their struggle via empathy and compassion. Stuck at John Adams, Jamie adopts a different strategy—rallying Nona and the parents to take over the school, to form their own charter. Who could possible oppose an effort to reform the school?
Enter the teachers’ union, lead by refined Southerner, Evelyn Riske (Holly Hunter).
And at this point, a crowd-pleasing drama suddenly became a lightning rod for teachers unions across America. And before the public ever saw it, critics were already going to great lengths to discredit Won’t Back Down. Protestors marched outside the New York premiere. Normally, enlightened actors like Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis would be praised for portraying strong, independent women. How cool to see a working class story, where the 99% rise up in solidarity to challenge the powers that be. It is great to see a diverse cast given an opportunity y to inhabit such a humane drama about the power of education, the importance of reading, the glory of community organizing.
I heard him tell an audience of educators and activists, “I began with the romantic hope that this could bring people together; a narrative about parents and teachers coming together because they want to put their children first.” Clearly, a filmmaker can dream. Won’t Back Dream is a beautiful, hard-earned dream, full of weary public servants and desperate, hard working parents. Most of the characters want to do the right thing. But the bureaucratic hurdles appear so enormous. Marianne Jean-Baptiste (from Secrets & Lies fame) plays a school board member counting down the days to retirement. Will she dare to care, to give Nona and Jamie a hearing? Barnz admits, “I love the David versus Goliath genre.” We all do. But we all want to cast ourselves as David, not Goliath.
The teachers union have become a Goliath, successfully defending educators’ rights, seeking as many concessions at the bargaining table as possible. But who seeks the welfare of children? Who lobbies for students? Barnz wonders, “Can this film step out of weighted debates so we can all come together, inspiring people to go out and want to change things?” Won’t Back Down shows people power in action. The movement organized by Jamie and Nona causes Evelyn to reflect upon her roots. She recalls the early union meetings, held in her parents’ home. She laments how any criticism of teachers became an occasion for misinformation and counter attacks. Can those teaching responsibility demonstrate some as well?
The roots of organized labor are a beautiful. Surely, we all believe in protecting teachers, offering them ample benefits commensurate to their responsibilities. But blanket protections for those who might abuse the system color public perceptions. We want freedom to also involve responsibility. The title may be, Won’t Back Down, but the movie asks us to all step back, to pursue the greater good. We desperately need to recover the purpose of education. As Nona rediscovers the joy of teaching, she unearths a quotation from John Adams: “Cherish the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write.” Education has become a political football, kicked around so often that nobody seems to cherish it. Where is the love of knowledge, the appreciation for teachers? Asked to articulate his hopes for the film, Daniel Barnz encourages us to “Go find that amazing teacher and thank them and reward them.” What an old-fashioned, subversive sentiment.