Thought to be one of the most heart-warming movies of its year, Freedom Writers is more than a drama; it tackles the hardships and economics of race and gender. On the surface, the movie first appears to be nothing more than a simple story of an optimistic new teacher wanting to help a group of disadvantaged students. However, it is only through her lessons that Ms. Gruwell teachers her students that each person is more than his race or ethnicity and helps them focus on the understanding and acceptance of others. Confronting issues such as the lower socio-economic background of minorities, racism, sexism, and gang-wars, Freedom Writers gives insight into the lives of an underprivileged population.
The movie Freedom Writers is a drama directed by Richard LaGravenese and released in 2007. Its sub-genres include themes strongly centered around the importance of self-worth, overcoming stereotypes, race and ethnicity, socio-economic status, and gender bias. It is based on the real-life stories of Erin Gruwell and her 150 students known as the Freedom Writers. More than just a drama, Freedom Writers is a story of overcoming a world of violence, drugs, fear, and poverty. The movie is meant to convey a message of hope, liberty, understanding, and acceptance.
Freedom Writers is a movie based on a true story that took place in 1994 after the brutal beating of Rodney King. With a city embroiled in constant riots, the students at Woodrow Wilson High School become involved in their own rivalries between black, Asian, and Latino gangs. When first-time teacher, Erin Gruwell, is assigned a class of underprivileged “at-risk” students, she takes it upon herself to ensure that they do not become products of their own environment. After giving the students an assignment of writing daily in a journal, she begins to understand that these students – all of whom deal with many challenges such as being physically or sexually abused, domestic violence, drug or alcohol addiction, homelessness, or race-based gang violence – have a lot in common. It is through these journals that the students begin to open up to “Mrs. G”. She further teaches her students about the Holocaust and uses the remainder of her second year to teach them about the understanding and acceptance of others. Not only does her efforts create a positive learning experience for her students, but it also attracts the media’s attention. Though other teachers considered these students to be unteachable and belligerent, it was through Gruwell’s unorthodox lesson plan that every single one of her students graduated from high school, with half going onto college.
Freedom Writers is a film that has strong themes centered around racial discrimination. In a verdict that stunned Los Angeles, acquitting the four police officers involved in the brutal beating of Rodney King, an uprising spurned a series of riots, lootings, arsons, and civil disturbances. Two years later, in the city of Long Beach, California, racial tensions have reached an all-time high. Tensions that are only worsened after voluntary integration was suggested at Woodrow Wilson High School. It is because of the integration program that the teachers at Woodrow Wilson blame the “at-risk” students for the school’s academic decline. Not only does the integration program throw all the “at-risk” students into one classroom, but in the first four minutes of the film, it’s obvious that Mrs. Campbell judges these students based on racial stereotypes. She believes that because of their socio-economic background, race, and ethnicity, they are incapable of learning and remarks that it’s best for Mrs. Gruwell if she doesn’t wear expensive jewelry to the classroom. It’s not enough that these students were raised to be prejudice toward anyone that is not their same race, but the negative attitude of teachers, such as Mrs. Campbell and Mr. Gelford, is damaging to their self-esteem.
In the Freedom Writers, the city of Long Beach is engulfed in a racial war where blacks, Asians, and Latinos fight one another for gang territory, respect, and personal satisfaction. These wars have carried over from parents to the children that have started their freshman year at Woodrow Wilson High School. With both the school and city are both divided, the children of room 203 have no place they can turn for solace. It is only through the lessons of Mrs. Gruwell that these children begin to see that, despite the color of their skin, they actually have a lot in common and learn to understand and tolerate one another.
Though Freedom Writers focuses on the story of a teacher reaching out to students who were thought to be unteachable, there are obvious moments of scopophilia. For starters, the main character Erin Gruwell, played by Hillary Swank, is objectified in two separate scenes in which the camera focuses on her backside. In the first scene, Gruwell/Swank has her back turned toward the students as she writes something on the blackboard. As she is writing, the camera focuses on a chalk stain on her buttocks and a student make a vulgar comment. Later, the camera once again focuses on her backside as she is taking cookies out of the oven and her husband is staring at her behind. Furthermore, there are additional moments of scopophilia in the costumes of the actors who play the female students. Though LaGravenese does an amazing job keeping the focus of the film on racism and how the children learn to overcome their hatred of other races, the actresses who play the students seem too old for their parts and their attire is better suited for an older teen. The girls in the movie are sexualized, wearing tight-fighting jeans and tank tops. However, in the early to mid-1990s, fashion consisted of either loose-fitting and colorful clothing, tapered pants, sweaters with turtle-necks underneath, and extra-long t-shirts. The hip-hop look of tight jeans and tank tops was not popular until the late 1990s. By sexualizing the women in the movie, LaGravenese has turned them into mere objects to be looked at, rather than subjects with their own voice.
One significant editing technique that is used in Freedom Writers is the montage. The movie starts out with a montage of the L.A. riot footage. Likewise, roughly twenty minutes into the movie, the editor uses similar quick cuts to signify the passage of time. By editing nine different scenes together in the classroom, viewers can see that time is passing and Mrs. Gruwell is slowly losing the student’s interest. As the montage continues, it becomes clear to the viewer that the students are cutting class because of their hatred for their teacher. Finally, the film also uses a cross cut to show multiple scenes happening in different locations but at the same time. A great example is the scene in which Eva and Sindy are getting ready to go out. The scene switches back and forth from both girls as they do their hair and makeup and get dressed to go out with their friends.
From 2Pac’s “Keep your Head Up” to Digable Planets’ “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” to Montell Jordan’s “This is How We Do It”, Freedom Writers constantly uses hip hop and rap music throughout the entire movie to represent the violence the students face at home and on the streets. The songs are used in such scenes as the shooting of Sindy’s boyfriend and when Alejandro throws his gun away to emphasize the seriousness of each situation. In other scenes, the film uses a softer melody in the background for the meaningful moments, such as when Sindy and Eva finally bond.
LaGravenese makes brilliant uses of visual effects in Freedom Writers. For example, in the scene where Brandy is being beaten by her father, LaGravenese uses a range of camera angles to convey to the viewer how small and defenseless she is compared to her father. By using a high-angel shot, viewers can see how her father dominates the scene and exerts himself as having the highest authority in their household. Additionally, LaGravenese makes use of close-up shots when he wants to draw attention to a character’s facial movements or feelings. In any scene where a character is expressing their personal feelings, the camera always zooms in onto their face. Finally, the camera pans out in scenes where the viewer must pay attention to what’s happening in the background. For example, when students get into a fight in Mrs. Gruwell’s class, the camera is zoomed out and the two students who are fighting are placed far left on the screen. In the center-right of the scene, viewers can see Mrs. Gruwell running out of the classroom to get a security guard.
In conclusion, Freedom Writers is not just a movie about racial wars, with strong themes that center around unity, betrayal, violence, perseverance, and segregation, it’s about how even the most different people can come together in the right environment. It is through Mrs. Gruwell’s perseverance that the students are able to unite after finally understanding and accepting one another. Just as it is through LaGravenese’s clever use of visual effects that the viewer is able to feel what each student went through in their home life.