I first watched the movie Freedom Writers in my seventh grade English class. I was attending a Catholic school with a predominantly white student body; regarding the honors-level English class in which I watched the movie, I remember only Irish and Italian Catholic students. At the time, we watched Freedom Writers through the lens of charitable service, a theme rampant in our dioceses’ curriculum. If there was one thing my school hoped that we would take out of our education, it was that there are people less fortunate than us, and we need to help them. Freedom Writers acted as an exemplar of charitable service as we were preparing to launch into our yearly coat drive for public elementary school students in our area. They needed our help, just as the students in Freedom Writers needed Erin Gruwell’s help.
At the time, I wasn’t thinking critically about the content of Freedom Writers, nor about the implications of how it was shown to my class. Upon rewatching, however, I have swapped my lens of service for a lens of critique, utilizing course readings and experiences in my field placement as a groundwork for analysis.
Much like the perspective taken by my own school towards the “less fortunate” that we would so often “help,” Freedom Writers depicts a group of minority students from Long Beach, California as needing the help of a caring, more fortunate teacher. In this paper, I will demonstrate how the deficit lens through which the students of Freedom Writers are portrayed to the audience and seen by their teacher, as well as the ironic motif of storytelling, both give way to an invalidation of student identity, supported by the culturally prominent “white savior” narrative theme.
The movie opens with a scene of violence and chaos. The community in which new-teacher Erin Gruwell’s classroom is situated is depicted as a “war-zone,” while “gang violence and racial tension reach an all time high” (read on screen). Soon, we see that Ms. Gruwell’s students are very much a part of this community. They are painted to be both victims of and participants in the devastating and seemingly senseless crime that pervades the town of Long Beach, and racial conflict becomes an immediate explanation for the unpredictable violence. A student narrates, “If you’re Latino, or Asian, or Black you could get blasted any time you walk out your door,” as she and another student are unexpectedly chased then shot at while walking down the street. She continues, “We fight each other for territory. We kill each other over race, pride, and respect. We fight for what is ours.”
These opening scenes establish an immediate sense of turmoil inherent in the Long Beach community, serving to devalue the students’ communities and distance their identities from those of the viewer. The scenes reinforce associations between urban minority cultures and criminal behavior described by Kitwana in “Race Wars” (in Ayers et al., 2008), as he explains how media coverage and pop culture serve to perpetuate stereotypes of black youth as members of street gangs, and eventually, of prison gangs. Throughout the movie, this stereotype is reinforced: nearly every scene depicted in the Long Beach community of the students involves either violence or drugs in the context of gangs.
The movie continues this image within Woodrow Wilson school. Although Ms. Gruwell, cast as protagonist, seems to want to combat the deficit lens of her students that other teachers and administrators take, the students’ behavior seems to justify it through routine fights, social segregation by race, and an utter disrespect for schools and teachers. Ms. Gruwell tries in vain to connect to her students through curriculum which tokenizes her students’ identities, like a lesson about internal rhyme in a Tupac song, while the students react harshly and dubiously. The audience is meant to sympathize with Ms. Gruwell during her jarring early encounters with her students, which mirror illustrations given by Ladson-Billings in “Yes, But How Do We Do It?” (in Ayers et al., 2008). Ladson-Billings writes, “I regularly see prospective teachers who approach teaching with romantic notions about students. They believe that the goodwill and energy they bring to the classroom will be rewarded by enthusiastic, appreciative students, who will comply with their requests and return the love they purport to give their students” (p. 164). She adds that students seen as “needy and deficit” (p. 164) like those depicted in Freedom Writers are “quickly [...] constructed as problems - “at risk,” behavior problems, savages” (p. 165).
This deficit lens through which the students are depicted culminates in scene where a frustrated Ms. Gruwell draws a parallel between the students’ lives and the Holocaust. Responding to a racist caricature of a black student being passed around the class, Ms. Gruwell professes,
You know something? I saw pictures just like this once, in a museum. Only it wasn’t a black man, it was a Jewish man. And instead of the big lips he had a really big nose, like a rat’s nose. But he wasn’t just one particular Jewish man, this was a drawing of all Jews. And these drawing were put in the newspapers by the most famous gang in history. You think you know all about gangs? You’re amateurs.”
She continues by explaining that pictures like this, portraying people of other races as less than human, helped to instigate the Holocaust. “And that’s what you think of each other,” she finishes. Students retort, however, telling Ms. Gruwell that she doesn’t understand the daily suffering that they face, and that white people like her demand respect they don’t deserve. One student asserts that they aren’t even sure how long they will survive; that they die for the respect of their people, to which Ms. Gruwell answers,
So when you’re dead, you’ll get respect, is that what you think? You know what’s gonna happen when you die? You’re gonna rot in the ground, and people are gonna go on living. People are gonna forget all about you. And when you rot, do you think it’s gonna matter whether you were an original gangster? You’re dead! And nobody, nobody is gonna wanna remember you because all you left behind in this world was this [holds up caricature].
As the students fall quiet and start tearing up, one asks what the Holocaust is, and it is revealed that only the single white male in the class knows the answer.
In this emotionally poignant and pivotal scene, Ms. Gruwell negates the experiences of her students by comparing them, it seems, both to Jews and to Nazis. She invalidates the rebuttals of the students who don’t feel that she truly knows what they experiences. She marginalizes their very existence by telling them that should they continue along their current paths, their lives will not have mattered. In addition, Ms. Gruwell introduces components of European history as the epitome of gangs, victims, and valuable classroom content, and the non-white students’ ignorance about the Holocaust reinforces to the audience their deficit in worthwhile knowledge.
The scene demonstrates Ms. Gruwell’s propagation of the dominant “culture of schooling.” As described by Frutcher (2007), the culture of schooling “reflects, and embodies, the dominant values of each society’s hegemonic class and race” and, like in this case “may clash with the values that children from minority cultures bring to school” (p. 27). The culture of schooling is largely established by the cultural capital, “the inherited or acquired linguistic codes, disposition, tastes, modes of thinking, and other types of knowledge or competencies” (Dance, 2002, p. 74), possessed by the dominant class. It is largely through the culture of schooling that minority students are marginalized within the classroom: as these students, like those in Freedom Writers, have a cultural capital different than those in the dominant class, their “intellectual and academic abilities are too often conflated with their lack of school-valued cultural capital” (Frutcher, 2007, p. 30). The portrayal of the Freedom Writers students to the audience perpetuates the perception of their culture as inferior, even dangerous and chaotic, and the interactions between Ms. Gruwell and her students in this scene demonstrate that Ms. Gruwell, too, has internalized this belief.
At this point, the movie takes an ironic turn. Despite the shame Ms. Gruwell cast upon her students, the Holocaust scene gives way to new arc in which students Ms. Gruwell gives her students diaries, to be shared or kept private, for any written form of expression about any aspect of their lives. In contrast to previous invalidating interactions, Ms. Gruwell now puts forth an affirming assignment, designed around storytelling of personal life experiences. Here, it appears that Ms. Gruwell is demonstrating a care for her students’ experiences, and is working to establish mutual respect, ultimately positioning her to come to value the culture and community of her students. I have witnessed the importance of such a pedagogy in my field placement at Ms. Diane’s class in Riverbank Charter School: while I’ve listened to numerous students account for their disengagement in a class activity by stating that Ms. Diane simply doesn’t care, I’ve also noted that their favorite activities, those in which they are the most engaged, are those that ask them to draw on personal experience and beliefs. In these instances, the students are empowered by the opportunity to value their own identity, and we see this same empowerment for the students in Ms. Gruwell’s class.
As such, Ms. Gruwell has adequately positioned herself to build the cultural competence of her students. Cultural competence, within the framework of Ladson-Billings’ culturally-relevant pedagogy, involves “helping students to recognize and honor their own cultural beliefs and practices while acquiring access to the wider culture” (in Ayers, et al., 2008, p. 170). With culturally relevant pedagogy, teachers may act as a “vehicle for improving students’ lives” by “expos[ing them] to the very culture that oppresses” so as to foster a critical awareness of it. Noguera builds on this, saying that a student’s critical awareness must start with educators’ willingness to “open themselves to learning about the lives of the students they teach” and “to engage in acts of solidarity in the fight against the oppression they face” (in Ayers et al., 2008, p. 144).
Yet in seeking for herself and fostering in her students critical awareness of oppressive aspects of dominant culture, Ms. Gruwell departs from a culturally relevant pedagogy, and the storytelling motif becomes only a guise for further devaluing of identity. The students’ journals are shown to lead to critical awareness of their own actions, rather than of societal structures, and encourage the students to change their own behavior by disconnecting from the identities and communities which they had previously embraced. During their first day of sophomore year together, Ms. Gruwell and the rest of the class celebrate their transformations in a “toast for change,” as Ms. Gruwell tell them, “The person you were before this moment, that person’s turn is over.” The Freedom Writers are now freed from themselves.
Similar to the experience of immigrant students who face “identity ‘choices’ [...] based on a disaffirmation of the self and of the family’s social identity” (Valenzuela in Ayers et al., 2008, p. 179), Ms. Gruwell’s students were depicted as successful only after she helped them to overcome their own identity and culture. Ultimately, the students become dependent on Ms. Gruwell for their success, and the final triumph of the movie is the school district’s decision to let the cohort continue with Ms. Gruwell through their junior and senior years. In this way, Ms. Gruwell embodies the classic “white savior,” a white individual who helps the damaged lives of people of color by teaching them that societal and structural barriers to particular races may be overcome with a moral and disciplined lifestyle (as described in Hughey, 2010). Such a narrative misleadingly reinforces the American Dream, the ideal that success and social mobility are achieved through hard work, but in reality, the white savior narrative works out quite differently. As demonstrated by the Teach for America teachers who “position [them]selves as savior[s] able to draw out and actualize a child’s hidden assets and intellects,” the white savior mindset leads teachers like Ms. Gruwell to “blame the students rather themselves” or structural oppression for the challenges of the classroom (Crawford-Garrett, 2013, p. 16-17).
The Hollywood portrayal of Ms. Gruwell’s white savior success, driven by a deficit lens but hidden by an ironically insidious storytelling motif, supports this sort of mindset, common not only throughout Teach for America but throughout pedagogies of traditional and reform programs in American education. Reflecting on my own experience watching Freedom Writers in seventh grade, I see that this movie should be taken seriously, not as an accurate depiction of urban education, but as a very real tool of oppression. It is through superficially uplifting and inspiring tales like this that people come to believe in the strength of the white savior, and in the freedom that they might provide to the less fortunate.
Ayers, W., Ladson-Billings, G., Michie, G., & Noguera, P. (Ed.). (2008). City kids, city schools: More reports from the front row. New York: The New Press.
Crawford-Garrett, K. (2013). Teach for America and the struggle for urban school reform: Searching for Agency in an Era of Standardization. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.
Dance, L. J. (2002). Tough fronts: The impact of street culture on schooling. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.
Fruchter, N. (2007). Urban schools, public will: Making education work for all our children. New York: Teachers College Press.
Hughey, M. (2014). The white savior film: Content, critics, and consumption. Pennsylvania: Temple University Press.