Won’t Back Down (2012)

Rated PG. Our ratings: V -2; L -2; S/N -2. Running time: 2 hours 1 min.

Speak out for those who cannot speak,
for the rights of all the destitute.*
Proverbs 31:8

If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. 7Woe to the world because of stumbling-blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling-block comes!
Matthew 18:6-7

Then Jesus* told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone,5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” Luke 18:1-5

Nona and Jamie at the rally they have organized.

2012 Walden Media

Director Daniel Barnz and writer Brin Hill take on school reform in this, still another of those “inspired by true events.” Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as single mom Jamie Fitzpatrick working at two jobs, a receptionist at a used car lot and a night-time bar tender who becomes fed up with her lousy school. Her eight-year-old daughter, Malia (Emily Alyn Lind), attends Adams Elementary school in Pittsburgh where the lackluster teacher pays no attention to the girl’s dyslexia. Unable to read, Malia is the object of ridicule of her classmates, and later, even of her teacher when the latter refuses to allow her go to the bathroom and then sham,es her before the class when the girl soils her pants.

Fed up by her inability to get any help from the principal, and failing to win the lottery for one of the few places open in a charter school, Jamie works hard to convince the one or two good teachers at the school to join her in seeking to take it over and convert it to a charter school. Viola Davis is Nona Alberts, teaching second graders at Malia’s school. Although once a Teacher of the Year, her spirit has been crushed by the school system and bureaucracy so that she now teaches by a dull book and video plan. She is at the lottery also hoping to get her own son into the charter school, and also loses out. When Jamie tries to enlist her in her cause, she turns her down. Maggie is like the persistent widow in Jesus’ parable, refusing to give up on her, until Nona agrees to help on a provisional basis.

Jamie has even less success with the school’s able music teacher Michael Perry (Oscar Isaac). Even though the two become romantically involved (no doubt a subplot required by the studio to “make it interesting” ), he follows a Hans Solo path of not wanting to get involved—as do most of the other teachers and parents. Jamie persists, and persists, knocking on door all over the area to enlist parents and teachers in her cause.

The story could have come out of the documentary Waiting For Superman, so stark are the contrasts between the reforming parents and teachers and those supporting the status quo. Especially the head of the teacher’s union is depicted as a soulless bureaucrat concerned more for the teachers than the children. To be fair, the writer does try not to over-demonize the union by providing Holly Hunter as Evelyn Riske, a member of the board of the Teacher’s Union. In one confrontation with Jamie, Evelyn tells her story of growing up as the daughter of two union organizers who organized workers at a Southern textile mill, where working conditions were terrible until the union prevailed. Someone also mentions a creative, popular teacher at another story whom the administration tried to fire, but had to back down when the union came to his rescue. Thus the film is not quite as one-sided as some critics have claimed, although there is no doubt as whom we should root for. Jamie is portrayed as pluck as Norma Rae, a feisty fighter who “won’t back down.” It is not spoiling things in this predictable plot to reveal that the good gals win after many, many obstacles are placed in their path, first by the school, and then by the Pittsburgh School Board, but the film’s championing of private charter schools must not be seen as The Answer. There is no notice taken of the children in the dozens of other failing school whom Jamie and Nona’s victory will be of little help. Viewers who are members of a teachers’ union may well regard this as an exploitive film, while others will be tempted to see it as pointing the way to the solution of a very vexing and complicated situation. Given the importance of all of this to our children, it is at least good that such a film can arouse interest and discussion of the subject.

For Reflection/Discussion

1. List the films that you have seen in which one or more teachers are the main characters. How is the teacher usually portrayed? Creative; caring; persevering; persecuted;—?

2. In how many is the teacher up against a system? In Conrack and Dead Poets’ Society what is the system? How did the two teachers in these films fare? Have you ever seen a film in which the teachers’ union was the villain?

3. How fair do you think the film is in its portrayal of the union? What situations are described in which the union played a positive role? How are teachers’ unions being described today in states such as Wisconsin? Why is tenure so important to teachers? How can tenure be an obstacle in rooting out incompetent teachers?

4. Compare the way that the union is portrayed in this film with other union films such as Matewan or Norma Rae. Or in On the Waterfront? What do you see as the good and the bad points about unions?

5. What does Jamie share with other heroines such as Norma Rae or Josey Aimes in North Country—and with the widow in Jesus’ parable?

6. Olivia Lopez (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is depicted as an overly busy school administrator: how is she like the judge in the parable? How does she show that she does care about the children?

7. Do you think this movie helps or hinders in the on-going controversy over our public schools? What course(s), if any, do you believe our communities should be following in order to insure that children receive an education that will challenge and equip them for living in the world?