For more than half a century, in Hollywood message movies from “Blackboard Jungle” to “Lean on Me,” Stand and Deliver” and “Dangerous Minds,” academic failure and juvenile crime have haunted the corridors of failing inner-city schools that were little better than war zones.
Docilely reflecting liberal conventional wisdom, such Hollywood films typically let the public school system itself off easy, instead tracing the “root causes” of inner-city school failure to American social injustice — poverty, inequality and underfunded schools.
But times have changed: The faceless bureaucrat and parochial union executive have replaced social injustice and neglect as the enemies du jour. A series of recent documentaries — most famously “Waiting for Superman,” but also “The Lottery” and “The Cartel” — have lambasted teachers unions for putting the demands of failed educators ahead of the needs of struggling children.
These films bubbled near the surface of debate but failed to break through to the mainstream and seize the public consciousness. All that might change this weekend.
“Won’t Back Down,” opening nationally Friday, is an issue-advocacy feature film, the sort of agitprop that liberals have been churning out in prodigious volume and variety for decades (think the pro-union “Norma Rae,” the anti-nuclear power “The China Syndrome,” or next January’s “The Promised Land,” Matt Damon’s anti-fracking film). But this time, the message movie is dramatizing an issue conservatives can rally behind: public school choice to empower parents in a struggle with entrenched and powerful unions that have become the main obstacle to school reform.
“The movie does a wonderful job depicting the frustration of parents with a system that is not responsive to their needs,” said Michael McShane, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the policy briefing “Turning the Tides: President Obama and Education Reform.”
“Its depiction of the stifling, intransigent bureaucracy is spot on, and should hopefully drive a conversation about how our schools are managed.”
The film’s stars are heavyweights: Viola Davis (“The Help”), who plays a burned-out teacher who finds new purpose in school reform, is a two-time Oscar nominee; Maggie Gyllenhall, who plays a single mother working two jobs to better her dyslexic daughter’s chances in life, played Batman’s love interest in “The Dark Knight.”
The film’s villains are incompetent, indifferent teachers who spend the school day sending text messages, bureaucrats in the pocket of union officials and — above all — scheming unionistas who try to buy off education reformers, utter lines like “You have no idea what’s true, so let me tell you” and invoke legendary American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Albert Shanker’s infamous line: “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, I’ll start representing schoolchildren.”
Subtle this movie is not.
But issue-advocacy films rarely are. Nuance is not easily translatable to the big screen, nor is it particularly necessary when you’re convinced of the righteousness of your cause. And Walden Media — the conservative production company behind both “Won’t Back Down” and “Waiting for Superman,” as well as more typical theatrical fare like the “Chronicles of Narnia” adaptations — is looking to shift the terms of public debate and inspire change, not lend equal credence to both sides of the story.
“We … have met more than a few parents — particularly poor and minority single mothers — who have been rendered helpless and heartbroken as they fight to achieve equal educational opportunity for their children,” said Walden Media President Michael Flaherty, in a recent interview with the Deseret News. “So we decided to make an inspirational movie that would show dedicated parents and teachers working together — heroically and with great personal sacrifice — to transform their local public school.
“I highly doubt this movie has enough clout to take down teachers unions,” said Mr. McShane. “Now, what it might do is help spur meaningful conversation about the role of teachers unions in promoting or blocking reform, which would be a positive development.”
Teachers unions are terrified of such a conversation, if their leadership’s reaction to “Won’t Back Down” is any indication: “I don’t recognize the teachers portrayed in this movie, and I don’t recognize that union,” said Randi Weingarten, head of the AFT.
The tide is turning against Ms. Weingarten and her compatriots, however.
“The public education system is at a crossroads,” Madeleine Sackler, the director of the pro-charter school documentary “The Lottery,” told the Wall Street Journal in 2010. “Do we want to go back to the time when children are forced to attend their district school, no matter how underperforming it is? Or do we want to let parents choose what’s best for their kids and provide a lot of options?”
By Elaine Donnelly
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