We were invited to see a screening – followed by a panel discussion – of Won’t Back Down, which comes out this Friday, September 28th. The movie, written and directed by Daniel Barnz, is a fictionalized account of a mother and a teacher who decide that they’ve had enough of their failing school in Pittsburgh, PA, and fight a prolonged battle to turn it into a charter school. Their challenge is to overcome resistance from fellow teachers, parents, the teachers’ union, and the school board – all of whom place enormous obstacles in their path – in order to win a Board of Education vote so they might take over the school and give the children in it a fighting chance to achieve a quality education.
What made this movie extraordinary was that Hollywood had green-lighted a movie that challenges the existing orthodoxy of the education establishment. Those of us committed to this issue had previously sung the praises of Waiting for Superman and The Lottery, two terrific films that show the horrible condition of America’s inner city schools and the discouraging lack of choice for both parents and children. Though deeply moving, they were nonetheless documentaries that played to limited audiences, ultimately garnering box office revenue well below $10 million.
Won’t Back Down has a stellar cast, including Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Holly Hunter, Ving Rhames, and Rosie Perez, and is scheduled to open on about 2,000 screens across the country. Documentaries can be quite moving, but this is a full-throated drama that tugs at your heartstrings, yet never forgets the central purpose of the film – the kids and their education.
It should come as no surprise that even though the film has not yet been formally released, it has already been attacked by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. She cast the film as anti-union even though one of the two primary union characters (Holly Hunter) appears in a favorable light.
When I spoke with Mr. Barnz, he indicated that he made the movie principally to celebrate teachers. He rattled off a protracted list of relatives who are or have been teachers, so it’s quite apparent that he has an affinity for the profession.
It’s amazing that Mr. Barnz was able to get the movie made, inasmuch as it confronts the education establishment – a theme that would reflexively be perceived as being anti-left. Barnz stated that the film, which was based on an amalgamation of episodes, was written to call attention to the need for change in the education system to better serve the children of America. He had seen both Waiting for Superman and The Lottery, which led him to include in his film a scene reflective of those movies. We both agreed that it is a national scandal that the future of any child in America should be determined by a careening numbered ball.
The movie received a rousing response at the Republican National Convention, and was followed by a panel which included Barnz, Governor Jeb Bush (who should be the next Secretary of Education), and the heroic Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the D.C. school system. Barnz stated that the film received a warm reception at the Democratic National Convention, where they had a similar showing and panel. There was a rumor of protests (an estimated 20% of the delegates are teachers), but nothing ever materialized.
Won’t Back Down may be a Hollywood dramatization, but it speaks well beyond that characterization. The fact that we have moved from documentaries to full-length movies that confront an education establishment that is failing our children on a colossal scale speaks volumes. Barnz just hopes that the initial reaction of the film’s viewers – who tell him that they intend to be an agent of change in their own communities – will resonate throughout the country. God knows we need it.