By Denyse O’Leary
The film Won’t Back Down may not get much backup.
And that fact alone advertises the very problem Won’t Back Down addresses. Based on actual events and set in Pittsburgh, featuring a star-studded cast, the Walden Media film portrays a school named after the second American president, John Adams. It is a failing school by any standard, and hardly alone in that category. The United States spends more per student than most Western countries but gets mid-level results.
Single mom Jamie Fitzpatrick’s dyslexic daughter is failing too. No amount of slick rebranding of her problems -- or the school’s -- will change that. One reason is obvious: The girl’s teacher is manifestly unfit to teach. But she is protected by tenure in a system where good but demoralized teachers like Nona Alberts are openly asked to falsify attendance records in order to keep the money coming in. A courageous band of parents and teachers, including Fitzpatrick (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Alberts (played by Viola Davis) want to turn Adams into a union-free and bureaucracy-lite school, to take back the children’s future
I was motivated to see the film in Toronto, Canada, because I have been on both sides of the divide: At one time a broke single mom fighting for my kid, at another a well-paid curriculum writer and equity reviewer for both corporate and government interests.
Won’t Back Down is a heartwarmer but also something more. In some respects, the film is an edgy shoutout to President Obama: The Fitzgerald girl’s name is Malia. Is she Obama’s “daughter,” just as if he had a son, the boy might “look like” Trayvon Martin? This Malia does not look at all like Obama’s daughter but that begs the question: Is she in the same fix as Trayvon (who was also in trouble at school)?
Message to Obama? Well, when a wavering union employee in the film asks her boss, has he learned “the futility of retaliation?” No, he replies, he learned “The truth of social Darwinism.” Obama sent many news reporters scrambling to their lexicons when he used that very term, “social Darwinism,” in comments to the media. In the context of the film, it would mean that the union gets ahead even if everything else lags. But not many people besides Obama and that guy in the film are using the term these days, so ... whom else could it be a message to?
Won’t Back Down faces a difficult hurdle: Many people remember back when school boards and unions were a reform and not a barrier to reform. At one time, schools boards saw to it that virtually all children turned up at school even when parents saw them as free labour.
Unionisation rescued many teachers from oppression. But those benefits are largely appropriated now and today the problems the system creates undermine education. In the film, a union boss captures the mood when he tells a wavering colleague that the union will represent students on the day that students start paying union dues.
That is the problem in a nutshell: The teachers’ union ended up helping teachers at the expense of students in precisely the way the coal miners’ union helps coal miners at the expense of mining bosses. But that doesn’t work out the same way in education as it does down the mine. Students are not coal faces, they are human faces.
This film, an odd product to come out of Hollywood, is good, but it tanked at the box office, attracting scorn: “disastrous”; “set a record over the weekend forworst film opening ever,” “bombed big time”, and “dead on arrival” compared to films people are “interested in seeing,”and “wasn't even enough to beat Universal Picture's musical comedy Pitch Perfect which opened in only 335 theaters and landed in sixth place with $5.2 million.
A key reason Won’t Back Down tanked seems to be that, as box office analyst Jeff Bock notes, “its marketing was almost non-existent.” No surprise, really. How doyou market a film whose premise is that a tenured timeserver protected by a union should accept the same risks as the young contract teacher who is still enthusiastic? The timeserver probably has much more time, energy, and influence than the young contract employee to agitate against the film and the ideas behind it.Won’t Back Down can only be marketed by stealth.
Still, defiantly showing the flag, the film ends with a choral dance number whose theme is John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address (January 20, 1961),
“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
This is a clear rejection of the entitlement culture for which the only requirement is to fail. And a shoutout to many progressives, perhaps, to remember that at one time they stood for empowerment, not entitlement. And that the difference is critical.
The scene that made the strongest impression on me was teacher Nona Alberts explaining to a heady but fearful school reform gathering that the folk who build prisons study the huge dropout rate at Adams and similar schools, to decide how many cells to build. According to government statistics, one in every 32 Americans is “either in prison or on parole from prison.” Schools like Adams are feeder schools for prison, not for universities, and nothing will change, absent an honest national discussion of that fact.
Break the mold. See the film.
Denyse O’Leary is a Toronto-based author, journalist, and blogger.
Related reading: Seceding from the Public Schools; Straight Talk on Public Education