Last January, we had Glory Road. And now, with Martin Luther King Jr. Day coming up next week, it must be time for another true story about an educator who bucks the system and inspires his or her students to overcome racial barriers. At first glance, Freedom Writers looks like it might be just another one of those films in which a white idealist liberates her non-white pupils, but thankfully, it turns out to be something rather better than that.
The film, written and directed by Richard LaGravenese (best known perhaps as the writer of The Fisher King and The Bridges of Madison County), is based on The Freedom Writers Diary, a collection of essays about life in the inner city written by the students of Wilson High in Long Beach, California—and while the book may have been conceived and compiled by English teacher Erin Gruwell (played by Hilary Swank), the stories it tells are ultimately those of the students themselves.
LaGravenese honors the movie's origins by opening not on Erin, but on one of her students-to-be, a Latina teenager named Eva (April Lee Hernandez) who has witnessed a drive-by shooting and the arrest of her father, and has taken a beating as part of her own initiation into gang life—all before her freshman year in high school.
Although these events are depicted in chronological order, they feel like a flashback, partly because we hear Eva narrate these events in what we gather is a passage from the diary that she will eventually write for Erin's class. And so this sequence unfolds as tragedy, but it also has an element of hope, because we are witnessing these events through the eyes of a young woman who is finding her voice; by reflecting on her circumstances, she will, hopefully, be able to rise ...