Teacher steers ‘Freedom Writers’ to Holocaust

by michael fox

We could spend hours debating which is the more effective cinematic approach to educating young people about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, the collar-grabbing melodrama of “Schindler’s List” or a feel-good documentary like “Paper Clips.”

Writer-director Richard LaGravenese offers a third route in “Freedom Writers,” a surprisingly intelligent Hollywood drama based on the true story of a white rookie English teacher at a Long Beach high school and her tough-as-nails class of underrated, undervalued minority students.

The teacher, Erin Gruwell, is portrayed by fresh-faced Hilary Swank as a blend of naïve idealism and can-do gumption. She is the obvious point of identification for middle-class moviegoers, and a lesser film would be all about her rocky road through sacrifice and disappointment to triumph and redemption.

There’s plenty of that here, of course — we’re talking about Hollywood — but LaGravenese wisely works in the voices of the students. At a crucial juncture in the battle for their attention during her first semester, Gruwell assigns them the project of keeping a daily journal. The students read selected entries in voice-over throughout the film, a device that conveys their home (and interior) lives and also gives their point of view the same weight as Gruwell’s.