The movie Freedom Writers is one of the most touching to have come out of Hollywood in recent years. Starring Hilary Swank in a lead role, the movie takes up a subject that is at the heart of American culture, namely juvenile delinquency and ways of dealing with it. It also touches upon the economics of race and gender. On a cursory viewing the story looks deceptively simple. But when the storyline, screenplay and other nuances in the film are observed, numerous interpretations are made available. Embedded within it are themes of economics, especially that applying to race and gender. Moreover, what comes through the narrative is the strength of character and commitment shown by Erin Gruwell as she undertakes to set right a challenging group of students. For example,
“She encounters a diverse but segregated community so racially charged, hostile and potentially combustible that she likens it to Nazi Germany. Without the support of her administrators (played by Imelda Staunton and others) and the school system, which views teenagers more as threats than scholars, Miss Gruwell devises her own methods for reaching students. She begins educating them about other young people who’ve endured wars, like Anne Frank, and simultaneously gives them journals so that they can tell their own stories, thus, giving each person a voice and a sense of value.” (Mayo, 2007, p.43)
Another test of character and commitment for Erin was the divisions within the classroom on the basis of race, ethnicity and class. The term ‘Economics of Gender and Race’ is usually employed by economists to talk about disparities in income and work opportunities among different races and the two genders. In the American context, these disparities are skewered in favor of white Americans, especially the White Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASP) group. The whites generally have a head-start in terms of standard of living they are born into, career opportunities they can avail of, neighborhoods they can inhabit, etc. Also, on average, whites earn more income than other minority groups. A similar disparity exists among the genders, where males are favored for both positions of high office and in the incomes they earn. In the movie Freedom Writers, the classroom under the charge of Erin Gruwell is a representative collage of these realities. There we see white pupils born to well-to-do parents (who also perform better in exams) contrasted against pupils from minority communities such as blacks and Hispanics, who are projected to be disorganized and less disciplined (indicative of their socio-economic backgrounds). The microcosm of the classroom is a reflection of larger realities in American society. The semblance to reality is all the more so because the movie was based on the real life story of an American teacher of the same name – Erin Gruwell; and the school she works for Wilson High School. (Pimentel, 2010, p.51) Hence only a person of impeccable force of character and commitment could have overcome these many disparities and bring out the creative energies. Any other ordinary teacher in Erin’s place would have utterly failed in uniting and pacifying the group of students.
What moves the story forward are a) a racially motivated shoot-out involving members of the class and b) the interception by Erin of a racially-loaded drawing in the classroom board. This is a crucial juncture in the movie from where the students will embark on a creative, developmental journey. Instead of indulging themselves in gang-wars and wasting their lives, by recording and exchanging their experiences they would gain insights into other perspectives and viewpoints. Erin struggles to procure necessary stationary for students’ writing projects – since the class is largely comprised of minority students, their lower socio-economic background meant that they cannot buy stationary supplies with their own money. Erin’s out-of-the-box thinking helps her to transform the attitude of her pupils. The proof of her methods is that every one of her original 150 students went on to graduate from high school, and then to university, she says, and that every one of them has put their life as a gang member behind them. Beyond the movie, Erin Gruwell has also advocated a more compassionate approach toward juvenile delinquency. The following words from her truly capture her steadfast commitment and purposeful character:
“We have to stop expecting disaffected teenagers to fit into the traditional education system, and instead tailor the system so they can connect to it. We need to show how every great piece of literature – essentially about the triumph of the human spirit over adversity – is their story, every journey their journey. And we have to free them as writers – letting them tell their story without worrying about spelling, grammar or it being graded. Writing validates what they’ve been through – just like it did for Anne Frank – and can help pull kids out of a spiral of violence.” (Gruwell, as quoted in Cohen, 2007, p.4)
I personally admire the fact that Erin has continued to advocate her liberal and compassionate methods of teaching. She also strongly believes that government policy both in countries such as the UK and US is “failing disaffected teenagers because it’s reactive rather than proactive. The idea of putting more police on the streets and making membership of a gang an aggravating factor in prosecutions is not the solution. In America it costs $40,000 a year to incarcerate someone and just $8,000 a year to educate them, and the relative costs are similar in the UK. It’s a shame, because after they’re incarcerated, they become hardened criminals.” (Gruwell, as quoted in Cohen, 2007, p.4)
As I watched the movie, I was able to reflect the relevance of the Holocaust in the plot. It then occurred to me that her employment of the Holocaust itself can be seen as the result of historical economic disparities leading up to Weimar Germany. That is, the systematic rounding up and extermination of millions of Jews by the Third Reich was in part economically motivated (for folklore and religious dogma portray Jews as the usurpers of wealth in which ever region they inhabit) and in part racially motivated (for Jews are also perceived to be of an inferior race to the Aryans). So within the main cinematic theme of economics of race and gender, the Holocaust provides us with a thematically consistent sub-plot as well. Adding poignancy to Erin’s allusions of the Holocaust is the usage of The Diary of Anne Frank as a model for students’ exercises. Erin Gruwell inspires her students to follow the example of 13-year old Anne Frank, the heroic historical figure, who resorted to writing down her feelings and thoughts, when forced to live in an attic for fear of being rounded up by the Nazis. (Mayo, 2007, p.43)