By Frank Wells
“Inspired by actual events” states the promotional trailer for 20th Century Fox/Walden Media’s film Won’t Back Down, which opens nationwide Sept. 28. But how closely does the film follow the events its producers claim inspired it?
Produced by the group that made the controversial documentary Waiting for Superman, this film tells the story of a mother (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and a teacher (Viola Davis) who team up to take over a struggling inner-city school. Set in Pennsylvania, the film centers on a fictional law modeled on California’s “parent trigger” legislation.
In Compton and Adelanto, the only places where there have been attempts to invoke the parent trigger law, the supposedly grassroots parent effort was agitated, organized and largely paid for by Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles-based group dedicated to the proliferation of parent trigger laws throughout the nation. Parent claims of misrepresentation by some pro-trigger organizers and petition signature gatherers led many parents to rescind their signatures.
The real trigger-targeted schools were already making school improvement efforts, had new principals in place, and in some cases were showing remarkable test score gains. In contrast, the film presents an entrenched, failing, status quo system and a teacher who disciplines a slow learner by locking her in a custodial supply closet.
Lori Yuan, a concerned parent who helped lead the trigger opposition in Adelanto, is disheartened that Hollywood distorts and glamorizes a law that has wreaked havoc in both places it’s been invoked. “Real change involves parents and all stakeholders working together and exploring all the options for improving a school. It shouldn’t be a one-sided petition effort organized by people with a national political agenda who don’t even live in the community.”
CTA supports recognizing great teachers and is dedicated to increasing parental involvement in our schools, but Walden Media and the Walton family (which helped fund Parent Revolution and co-sponsored a benefit concert to publicize the movie) are vocal supporters of vouchers and charters, and are known for their anti-union views.
In the film, Academy Award winner Holly Hunter plays a local teachers union leader opposing the school takeover. “When did Norma Rae get to be the bad guy?” her character muses. Well, she didn’t, and certainly not in the actual events that led to this movie. Won’t Back Down may or may not be an absorbing film drama (at press time CTA had not seen a final cut of the film). But its skewed dramatization of real parent trigger events threatens to make it a propaganda piece for yet another harmful and divisive attack on public schools.