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Film / Freedom Writers

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Freedom Writers is a 2007 drama based on a non-fiction book about a young teacher named Erin Gruwell, who is thrown into a class of at-risk students during the L.A. Riots of 1992. She's given an integrated class, which seems anything but, as each race sits with others of their kind. As the story progresses, the integrated class becomes what it was meant to be. The name comes from the fact the students are given diaries to write whatever they want in, that can be private or read by the teacher. They write about their family situations, their feelings, and being at-risk teens, the diaries are full of angst.

Gruwell wrote a followup, Teaching from the Heart, which provides the real-life context for the movie from her perspective.

Hilary Swank stars as that teacher.

This film/book provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Some students have these. Brandy writes about it in her diary, as does Sindy.
  • Adults Are Useless: This is essentially what Erin's students initially believe, and considering their lives outside school, it's justified. Erin helps turn it around somewhat, but only in that they come to believe adults except Erin are useless. It's implied that they at least see Dr. Cohn who sits with them during Miep Gies's visit.
  • The Cameo: The real Erin Gruwell can be seen briefly when Miep Gies is escorted into the Wilson High library.
  • Casting Gag: Hilary Swank and Imelda Staunton play rival teachers. At the 2005 Oscars, Hilary beat Imelda out for Best Actress (for Million Dollar Baby and Vera Drake respectively).
  • Cool Teacher: Erin, naturally, although it does take awhile for the students to realize this. It gets to the point that when they find out her husband was cheating on her, they offer to send a message, written on his car.
  • Cycle of Revenge: A nonlethal version involving people innocent of crimes being sent to prison by rivals in gang life. Eva's father was imprisoned for a crime committed by members of a black gang, and he outright says that it isn't the first time they've done so. In turn, Eva is pressured to do the same for her own people against a black boy accused of killing a man at a convenience store. She eventually realizes that this isn't right either way, as the boy is truly innocent, and sending innocent people doesn't help anyone.
  • The Dead Have Names: When Erin Gruwell's "line game" turns to the serious topic of students who have lost friends to street violence, at the end of it, she asks every student to say the names of the people they lost. They say the names quietly, but a few names are heard.
  • Determinator: Two words: Erin Gruwell.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Erin's husband cheated on her because she was spending more time with her students than with him. The kids find out when they see him driving with another woman and get righteously furious.
  • Domestic Abuse: In her diary, Gloria mentions that she has bruises under her shirt and wonders "What did [[she]] do to make him so mad?"
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • At the very beginning, Margaret suggests that Erin remove her necklace, citing that the kids were likely to steal it. She doesn't, believing in the best in the kids. She also rarely is seen without it, just like she never loses faith in her students.
    • The "Line Game" makes it very clear that all of the students have quite a bit of trauma in their lives, before they're even 16 years old.
  • Everyone Has Standards: The students have seen death all their lives, and many seem rather resigned to their inevitable fates of joining the cycle of violence. Nonetheless, all of them are taken aback and horrified beyond imagination by the actions of the Nazis during the Holocaust and the deaths of so many innocent people...over racial hatred.
  • Godwin's Law: A particularly epic subversion. Erin grabs a note while it's being passed, to discover it's one student's racist caricature of another. This is actually somewhat mild, considering many of the students spend their free time killing each other in gang warfare. Gruwell spots the apt Nazi parallel, milks it for all it's worth, bakes it 'till it's cheesy, and shoves it down the students' throats. Massive group racial tolerance ensues.
    • The actual unity takes a while, but this moment is the first time she actually gets them to pay attention. One of them even asks what the Holocaust is. This is also the key to her realization of how she can reach them.
  • Harmful to Minors: The students all have a Dark and Troubled Past behind them. Many of them endured violence and destruction of their livelihoods and families...and they're barely 14 or 15 or 16 years old.
  • Hate Sink: Brian Gilford, the honors English teacher. At first he seems kinda friendly to Erin, but then quickly reveals himself to be an incredibly racist Bitch in Sheep's Clothing POS. He not only thinks "immigration doesn't work" (which gets him a Death Glare from an Asian faculty member), he asks the one Afro-American student in his class to give them "the black perspective" on The Color Purple apparently thinking all black people think the same.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Eva, when she admits that her boyfriend killed Sindy's boyfriend at a convenience store, after being inspired by Miep Gies—when the class gets her to speak at their school—to do what's right.
    Eva: Paco did it. Paco killed the guy.
  • Heroic BSoD:
    • Eva when she finds out how Anne Frank died after the class was assigned her diary. Although, there are implications that she didn't know the book was nonfiction until she reached the end. She actually thought that Anne was going to defeat Hitler.
    • Erin, briefly, after her husband leaves her.
  • Heroic Bystander: Miep Gies was this, hiding the Franks during the Holocaust. When they were busted, Miep grabbed all her valuables and offered them to the Nazis. It didn't work, and she says she wasn't brave or a hero, just doing what any decent person should do to save their neighbors.
  • Hot Librarian/Hot Teacher: Well, Erin Gruwell is played by Hilary Swank...
  • Inner City School: Woodrow Wilson High. While the school itself is not that graffitied, some of the art the students make (especially Tito) is of the graffiti style.
  • Irrational Hatred: The various students let go of their racial divides after they see learn about the Holocaust, and what this kind of hatred can eventually lead to.
  • Jive Turkey: The gang-speak of the students.
  • Mirror Character: Erin Gruwell, realizes that World War II Germany and the Holocaust victims, and especially Anne Frank, are this to the students. She immediately gets to work to educate them on Anne Frank specifically, hoping that they'd see themselves and empathize with her plight. It works tremendously well, and even lets them see what that kind of hatred could lead to later.
    • In real life, she also did the same with Zlata's Diary, which is a similar nonfiction diary book written by Zlata Filipović who was living in Sarajevo when it was under siege during the Bosnian War (a war that also had a genocidal ethnic cleansing).
  • Mirroring Factions: Erin sees gangs and the Nazis as one and the same kind of gangnote . She even gives the students a big speech about them, without actually saying their group name, and calls them the most successful gang in history, as they conquered nations while the students' gangs conquer neighborhoods. It's through this that Erin sees how she can get through to them.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: Erin Gruwell invokes this with the 'line game', allowing every student in the class to see just how much they have in common. Shown especially with Eva and Sindy during the scene when they get ready to go out.
  • Parental Abandonment: Marcus's mother kicked him out when he got involved in the gang life. He wishes to reconnect with her and hoping that she'll get to see him graduate. Both come true for him.
  • The Pollyanna: Erin goes through some hard times, but she continues on with a smile.
  • Precision F-Strike: An extremely jarring example coming from a teacher (after Andre gives himself an F).
    Andre: It's what I feel I deserve, that's all.
    Erin Gruwell: Oh really?
    Erin Gruwell: You know what this is? This is a FUCK YOU to me and everyone in this class. I don't want excuses. I know what you're up against. We're all of us up against something. So you better make up your mind, because until you have the balls to look me straight in the eye and tell me this is all you deserve, I am not letting you fail. Even if that means coming to your house every night until you finish the work. I see who you are. Do you understand me? I can see you. And you are not failing.
  • Pronouncing My Name for You: Eva is Hispanic, so the E of her name is pronounced with a long a, not a long e. She will not hesitate to correct someone who mispronounces her name.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech:
    • Jamal gives one to Erin, as do Marcus and Eva, out of the belief that she doesn't understand how they live. Erin hands one right back after discovering one of her Latino students has drawn a hateful, propaganda-like picture of a black student. It goes back and forth between the class and her, and she wins when she finishes the back-and-forth verbal spar by telling them that if they die in gang violence, they'll rot in the ground and be completely forgotten by the rest of the world because all they left behind is a hateful drawing. It drives students like Eva to tears, and none of the students have anything to say to her.
    • Victoria, one of Erin's eventual students gives one to Margaret because the latter is part of a group that sees Victoria as a token inspirational black kid.
  • Save Our Students: The point of the film. Also a Real Life example.
  • Shown Their Work: According to the real Freedom Writers, this movie gets pretty much everything that matters about the story absolutely right.
  • The Smart Girl: Victoria is an honors student who transfers into Erin's class. Being more educated than the other students, she explains to everyone that the regulations from the Board of Ed are what prevent Erin from being allowed to teach juniors and seniors.
  • Supporting Protagonist: Erin Gruwell is the main viewpoint character, but the ensemble of students serve as the true main characters. Voiceover narratives jumps from student to student, providing exposition about their lives and their thoughts. Eva, Marcus, and Andre are given the most focus among the students, given their own character arcs and development independent but influenced by Erin.
  • Teen Pregnancy: One of the students, Gloria, mentions that her mother got pregnant at 16 and dropped out, and Gloria herself was always looked at as someone who would do the same. Defying this trope is her personal toast for change that she shares with the class.
  • Token White: Ben is the only White kid in the main classroom shown in the film. Averted in shots that include other classes, like the scene with Miep Gies, where other White kids are seen. The final image of the real Freedom Writers shows that a few of them were White.
  • Totally Radical: When Erin attempts to talk like her students. At first, they're not impressed, but they come to find genuine humor in it and love her for it.
  • Troubled, but Cute: Several of Erin's students. Specially Eva (female example).
  • Undying Loyalty: Eventually, the kids develop this for "Ms. G". They find out her husband was cheating on her and offer to get revenge for her. She convinces them that it's not worth it because she doesn't want them going to jail on her behalf.
  • You Are a Credit to Your Race: This is how Brian and Margaret view Victoria, an honors student who transfers to Erin's class after Brian asks her, the only African-American student in his room, to give "the black perspective" on The Color Purple. Victoria sums up her feelings about this to Margaret in an eloquent and respectful version of "The Reason You Suck" Speech.
  • You Are Better Than You Think You Are: A couple of the students realize this. During the "Toast for Change", one girl proudly declares that her personal war will come to an end, and she will survive it, and she will make sure she gets past it. Another girl declares that she will not become a teen mom dropout like everyone, including herself, thought she would.
  • You Are Not Alone: Teachers are people too.
  • You Have GOT to Be Kidding Me!: Black honors student Victoria has this written all over her face when Brian asks her to give "the black perspective" of the The Color Purple. She's so visibly angry that her voiceover is little more than a little bonus for the audience to truly understand just how angry she is.
  • Wham Shot: During the "line game", Erin asks the serious question about how many people lost a friend to gang violence. Only Ben doesn't step to the line. As the number increases to two, three, and then four or more, only a few students leave the line.