The feature film “Freedom Writers” appeared on DVD this week. It stars two-time Oscar winner Hillary Swank as a very young Long Beach (CA) high school teacher assigned to a freshman English class made up of students all destined to fail. The kids are African-American, Asian and Latino inner-city kids raised on drive-by shootings in a hard-core death-based culture. The story is true and the film is genuinely beautiful.
Erin Gruwell, the teacher in the story, gave her students a voice of their own, a sense of place and a future. She empowered her kids by getting them to read, write and think. She accomplished this by getting them to read The Diary of Anne Frank and then by having them write their responses in a personal journal. The experience slowly transformed how these kids understood life and coped with their own past. Gruwell continually battled an uncaring school system that was set up to fail, like most school systems in the cities of America. She was hated by some of her peers for rocking their boats and she lost her husband’s support, and thus her marriage, in the process. (Sadly, her husband is the epitome of a self-centered male who wants his little wife to abide by his desires and then give up her own personal dreams. I know too many Christian males who think this is godly but I will save that sermon for another day!)
The kids learn to tell their own stories and through this they find real freedom. A group of “unteachable” teens discover the power of acceptance, tolerance and love. Their lives are changed and their dreams are recovered in the process. The cast is superb, the script compelling and the end is deeply moving. The movie is rated PG-13 for violence and language, as you would expect. I recommend “Freedom Writers” to teens and adults. Christians have a lot to learn about getting involved in real culture change. Gruwell’s transforming work provides a powerful model that tells a very moving story quite well.
John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at “encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening.”