Viola Davis: Her Film Challenges Status Quo

20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

(The Root) — The thing I had to remember while watching Won't Back Down, the new Hollywood release that follows the efforts of two determined mothers who set out to transform a failing public elementary school, is that it is only a movie. Despite the opening preface, "inspired by true events," or the spirited display of positive possibilities that can occur when parents and teachers work together, this film is entertainment, not a blueprint for change.


It's a David-vs.-Goliath feel-good flick that takes on the hot-button issue of school reform, coming out (rather eerily) mere weeks after the Chicago teachers' strike, an event that served as a real-life microcosm of today's public-education strife. Here the Davids are Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), and Goliath is a dysfunctional Pittsburgh school system and the local teachers union.

Jamie is a struggling young single mom at her wits' end over the lack of special attention her dyslexic daughter gets from a lackadaisical teacher at Adams Elementary. Nona, a teacher at Adams, was once a star educator who made local headlines. Now she's disenchanted with her profession and suffers under the weight of divorce and having to advocate for her learning-disabled son.


Armed with somewhat naive optimism, Jamie recruits an initially hesitant Nona to make over the school via parent-trigger laws, which give parents a way to implement changes in failing schools. The rest is a predictable trek through the highs and lows of flipping Adams Elementary, complete with fired-up parents; earnest teachers torn between revolt and staying unionized; rote-minded bureaucrats; a defensive, scowling union boss; and children who just want to learn.

Won't Back Down has been roundly criticized for vilifying teachers unions and simplifying the effect that community disparity and poverty have on schools. The fact that it was financed by billionaire entrepreneur Phil Anschutz's Walden Media, the same interest responsible for the controversial 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman, has added fuel to the fire.

In addition, the parent-trigger approach has been supported by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-wing group that has backed anti-union and anti-immigrant legislation, voter-suppression laws and Florida's "Stand your ground" law invoked in the Trayvon Martin shooting. The issue, many critics claim, is that the film's implicit message is closely linked with a movement that undermines the American public-school system and promotes for-profit charter schools.

However, at a recent press conference for the film held in New York City, the film's director, Daniel Barnz, said that if teacher-bashing is the overriding message you get from the film, you've misread it. "This is a movie that supports and criticizes teachers unions," Barnz said. "We ought to be able to do that in our country today."


There is a brief scene in which a young teacher, played by Oscar Isaac, recalls how seeing the union go to bat for his favorite teacher inspired him to pursue teaching, but mostly the organization is portrayed as an obstruction to any real progress.

Barnz went on to say, "When we start getting into these educational issues it pulls focus off of what the film is fundamentally about, which is kids. The thing we've got to be talking about is what can we do for these kids in failing public schools right now." Indeed — but the film is centered precisely on educational issues from the adults' perspective, and the only children's lives being explored are those of the two lead characters, and only to a minimal degree.


Viola Davis hopes the takeaway for audiences will be that improving schools requires a concerted effort on everyone's part, not just teachers. "What I want people to realize is that it truly does take a village, that a good teacher is not made on their own," she said. "They need the help of the community, the involvement of parents, the board of education and the union. It takes a culmination of forces to make [conditions] great."

Moreover, she added, "We as people need to challenge the status quo. To not go along in life by rote, and if you want to change a system, to understand that even the most so-called ordinary members of us can tap into what's extraordinary about us and change it."


But changing a school in the manner portrayed in Won't Back Down is a long and arduous undertaking that overworked teachers and working-class and low-income parents rarely have the time or energy to accomplish. Furthermore, it's legal in only seven states, a fact never raised in the movie.

And according to education reporter Dana Goldstein in a recent article in the Nation: "It could be years before any school fully completes the parent trigger process; the furthest along is Desert Trails Elementary, a predominantly Latino school in Adelanto, California. School choice activists there have been opposed by teachers unions and have received support from Parent Revolution, a nonprofit funded by Walden Media and the Gates and Wasserman foundations."


While director Barnz's claims that Won't Back Down is simply a vehicle to raise the issue of failing urban schools, it appears that Walden Media continues its anti-union agenda.

Julia Chance is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based journalist and the author of Sisterfriends: Portraits of Sisterly Love. Follow her on Twitter.

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