One of the events I attended last week at Education Nation in New York was the premiere of the movie Won’t Back Down. As a high school teacher, you might be surprised to learn it was the first time I’ve ever been to a movie premiere complete with a red carpet, actual movie stars, and outraged protestors. In order to get into the theater I had to weave my way around a police line and a large (50+/-) group of protestors wearing AFT shirts and chanting, among other things, “Don’t Back Down, get out of town.” There was all the free popcorn you could eat and big cups of Coke. I sat within sight of education stars like Michelle Rhee (7 seats away!) and actual stars Jake Gyllenhaal (10 rows away!).
Earlier that day I listened to a pannel discussion with Viola Davis (who stars as a teacher), Maggie Gyllenhaal (who plays an activist parent), Rosie Perez (who also plays a teacher), and the director of Won’t Back DownDaniel Barnz.
Much of the conversation centered around accusations the film is “anti-union” and “teacher bashing” – claims everyone on the panel adamantly denied. The director is the son of a teacher and long-time New York city principal and was inspired to co-write the film in part by his mother’s work. Likewise, Gyllenhaal and Davis seemed a little stunned to find themselves in the middle of controversy. They both said something to the effect of “this is a film about two people who decide to change things for the better . . . it isn’t a political statement.” Needless to say, as I pushed through the protestors I was interested to see if the movie would live up to the negative hype. And the verdict? This is not a teacher bashing movie.
The movie follows the struggles of teacher and a parent trying to takeover their local school through parent trigger laws. There are heart-wrenching scenes between mothers and children, there are quirky line-dance numbers involving tipsy teachers, there are several scenes of Hollywood-awesome classroom instruction, and there is a sexy, ukulele-playing love interest teacher. I laughed, I cried; granted, I do both of the above really easily but overall it was an enjoyable flick. What is was not was a carefully orchestrated piece of propaganda designed to disempower teachers everywhere. There were numerous scenes where characters discussed the critical importance of both teachers and their unions. Was it oversimplified? Yes. But when was the last time you went to the movies for a carefully articulated explanation of anything? We did not go see The Pirates of the Caribbean to learn about the historical issues surrounding 19th century buccaneers nor did we see Transformers to gain insight into future technology.
Oversimplification becomes a problem when it has dangerous implications (ex. racist portrayals of slap-happy people of color in early 20th century films like Gone With the Wind); however, Won’t Back Down humanizes teachers and makes us root for parents trying to get a better education for their children. There are even attempts at nuance. For example, the love interest teacher is both a Teach For America alumni AND an adamant supporter of his union – ooh, the complexity! Frankly, it was refreshing to see a teacher movie deviate from the well-worn plot of teacher, often white female teacher, saves students of color (Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers, Lean on Me, Stand and Deliver, etc.)
On the other hand, the teachers’ union was certainly the bad guy. They actively fought against the heroines and stooped to bribery and slander. I winced when the assistant to the union president recited the quote questionably attributed to the former president of the AFT Albert Shanker: “When children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interest of school children.” This line of thinking assumes what is good for teachers is not always good for children. I would argue the welfare of teachers is inextricably linked to the effective education of children – when we elevate the teaching profession we secure an excellent education for students. Teachers unions play a critical role in advocating for teachers.
Additionally, there is no question in my mind that the movie’s teacher union president Evelyn Riske, played by Holly Hunter, was a caricature of AFT president Randi Weingarten.
Looks so much like . . .
The movie’s union president has short blond hair, talks about her union-supporting father (mother in Weingarten’s case), is childless, and is potentially a lesbian; the only piece that was missing was an iPhone in hand to enable the almost omnipotent presence on Twitter for which Weingarten is famous.
It is no spolier to say the school is successfully taken over by the end of the movie. My heart soared as I watched Viola Davis rally her jaded colleagues in the teacher’s lounge and eloquently vanquish her incompetent principal (boom!). Who among us has not dreamed of leading a mob of ruler-waving parents, students and teachers to the steps of our school where we will begin a reign of benevolence, competence and musical education for all? If you’re looking for a feel-good movie, check out Won’t Back Down; but if you’re looking to gain insight into our country’s complex education issues you’re better off sticking to reliable news sources.