Two Thumbs Up for Won’t Back Down

The latest film from Walden Media and 20th Century Fox shows American audiences how to stage a parent revolution.

Won’t Back Down is a new feature film starring Oscar-nominated actresses Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as two moms, Jaime and Nona, who take over their F-grade public elementary school. The school has a mathematical problem: Eighty percent of graduates can’t read. It’s personal for Jaime, whose 8-year-old daughter, Malia, is a walking statistic. The film opens with Malia’s anguished attempt to sound out a command: “Put the story in order.”

Okay.

  1. Choose an American city with a troubled public school system. Make it Pittsburgh.
  2. Cast a svelte pale-skinned girl with deep brown eyes and honey-blond hair as a FARM-eligible dyslexic second grader.
  3. Give her a feisty, single white mom who has no college degree, works two jobs, and earns less than $27,000 a year.
  4. Stick them in a class with a really bad union teacher who is “tenurized” (in non-college-educated-white-mom parlance), and therefore can never be fired.
  5. Block the exits. a) Make sure the kid can’t switch classrooms. b) Show the heartless Catholic school turn the child away for her parent’s failure to make timely tuition payments (as in Walden Media’s Waiting for Superman.) Then c) recreate the emotional trial of a lottery for a seat in a charter school. Call it Rosa Parks.
  6. When luck is less than a lady, have a linebacker of a principal (Ving Rhames) say something locker room-speechy, like, One in four Americans can’t read. If you don’t like the odds, go out there and fight for something better. You can do it. Yes you can.

But how?

  1. Read The Secret (Jaime has), and brush those teeth. Your winning smile is your greatest asset.
  2. Get the gossip. Pull the receptionist card to get in with the superintendent, then buy that chatty gal a cup of coffee. You’ll never need her again, but she’ll give you the skinny on the latest law that will enable you to takeover your failing school if only you can get half the parents and teachers to agree.
  3. Find a partner. A smart woman. A smart Black teacher whose ideals are in a cardboard box at the bottom of a closet in a Cosby Show-quality African-American home from which her soon-to-be-ex-husband has removed his clothes. Throw in a kid who is picked on for being slow. (This fact may be her fault and your plot’s undoing. Drama!)
  4. Crush on the miraculously still-teaching Teach for America alum at your F-grade school who plays the ukelele, can do the electric slide, and will rub his teeth clean for a woman with a full grown kid and no college degree. You’ll need him.
  5. Try and try and try again to get girlfriend fired up. Keep at it until you see a curl of smoke in her smile and a glint in her eye.
  6. Get to work.

This is the point when real parent organizers will start sharpening their pencils. Because from the looks of it, you need to buy three reams of paper ($15). Make that colored paper, so it looks good on camera (add $3). Copy up some petition forms (200 x $.10). Then take off from your minimum wage receptionist job so you can gather signatures when school lets out at 3 p.m. sharp (at least 8 hours at $8.48 an hour) and lure your new squeeze away from his union with shots of Jack Daniels from the bar where you work nights ($9). Use him to a) convert other teachers to your anti-union cause (his soul), and b) babysit your kid (free) while you and your partner canvass the tenements in your inner city neighborhood in the dark (priceless).

Once you’ve got your petitions signed, stage a rally. Borrow some bullhorns. Call the media. Make sure to have 220 or so custom green T-shirts ($2,200), two bounce houses ($378 plus tax), and a bakery-grade cookie the size of a Frisbee for everyone and his/her mother ($500). Reserve one plate of cookies for the crew in the local news van so they’ll run your story at the top of the hour. Don’t forget the $60 you need to replace your daughter’s backpack, which her classmate broke during an in-classroom cat fight. You’ll also need money for the two buses it takes you to get to the tony private school where the beret-wearing head of the teacher’s union (Holly Hunter) wants to pay your child’s way in a last ditch effort to prevent your becoming the downfall of the American labor movement ($9.50).

By my count, Jaime is out $3262.34 so far. Not that the film ever mentions money. (That is, not until a line item in a proposed budget almost torpedoes the entire enterprise. But I don’t want to spoil the ending.) The question of who’s paying for all this is another math problem the film never solves. For that, one has to look at “actual events.”

“Inspired by actual events” may be the most honest line in Won’t Back Down. Though the city and the cast looked and sounded a lot different. In real life, the first attempt to call “Action!” on the set of a parent trigger law-enabled takeover took place not too far from the sound stages of Hollywood. Printing up forms, canvassing, transporting people to rallies, handling the press – Parent Revolution, a nonprofit with a $1 million budget paid for by corporate philanthropists, took care of all that. (For the skinny, read Parent Trigger: Straight Outta Compton? I wrote it.) Parent Revolution told parents about the trigger and collected their signatures. Just like in the movie, they never asked about a PTA. They even fronted people matching T-shirts. They made them yellow.

Won’t Back Down is unbelievable crap. But it’s also phenomenal as a witless send up of Parent Revolution. The Los Angeles-based equivalent of a production company hammers together Potemkin villages of faux-populist uprising for audiences across America. The ruse, for which Compton was a dress rehearsal, seems designed to convince elites (Democrats for Education Reform, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, Michelle Rhee, etc.) that real people will buy the reform package that their money bought and paid for.

Brilliant. Two thumbs up.

UPDATE: Parent Revolution had a $1 million budget when it was working in Compton, per this article in Mother Jones published April 7, 2011. According to this article, published October 2, 2012 in the Hechinger Report, Parent Revolution’s budget is “roughly $3 million.”

16 Responses to “Two Thumbs Up for Won’t Back Down”

  1. Thanks for posting. After reading a couple of times, I get it–but it’s a little subtle. I’m not saying this HuffPost is a better critique but it does lay out some supplemental information about the back story. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nancy-schniedewind/wont-back-down-mythmaking_b_1929034.html

  2. Thank you for an excellent and engaging critique of Won’t Back Down! I am a Pittsburgh Public Schools parent who has been fighting for equity and fair funding for our public schools for the past year. Parents here are outraged at the film’s suggestion that it is based on real events in Pittsburgh (it isn’t) and at the film’s anti-public school message. On top of our governor’s unprecedented cuts to public education ($900 million in the past two years), we now have to contend with this film’s agenda to privatize public education through parent trigger laws by misrepresenting schools, teachers, and unions. It is so important that as parents of public school students across cities, we make sure our voices are heard and we refuse to let politicians and corporations dismantle our children’s schools for their own gains. Thanks again!

    • Thanks, Amanda. This review had a very different ending at one point, which involved the statistical improbability of a cast of characters and a failing schooling looking, demographically, like the one in this film. But I’m not from Pittsburgh, so I scrapped it. Maybe you can start a blog called Re:education in Pittsburgh? There are still many ways to make our voices heard. Even if they only sound like a fly in Goliath’s ear.

  3. What is frustrating, however, is that much like Waiting for Superman, it doesn’t matter how this plays in the box office. Parent Revolution and DFER will sponsor so much free showings of this movie to monied interests and use it to advance their agenda. How the movie actually does as a movie is irrelevant. This movie isn’t for the general public which has, time and time again, shown a profound lack of support for dismantling public schools. This movie is one more propaganda piece to be shown again and again by those who wish to monetize public education.

    • I completely agree. The claims of DFER and Students First that they stand for the interests of poor minority children (forget about the dissolving middle class) is galling. That’s why I invest a few bucks and many precious hours writing about it in a format that real people might actually read. I am a big backer of the notion that well-informed citizens make good choices. The fact that this movie is being used as a fundraising tool to dupe well-meaning white liberals into supporting national nonprofits with anti-local public school reform agendas scares the crap out of me.

  4. The premise of this movie pisses me off so much that I refuse to go see it in the theatre. I do not want a dollar of my money to support this BS fairy tale.

  5. Fantastic. So I guess the trailer for the movie pretty much sums it up?

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