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This week, following an advance screening of Daniel Barnz‘s Won’t Back Down, a drama about the American education system that will hit theaters Friday but already has drawn the ire of teachers unions — more than 50 people protested outside of its New York premiere Sunday night — I sat down in New York with three of its Oscar-nominated stars, Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Rosie Perez, for an in-depth conversation about the film and its most controversial components.
Won’t Back Down — which also stars Oscar winner Holly Hunter, Oscar nominee Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Oscar Isaac, Ving Rhames and Lance Reddick from The Wire (season four of which also deals with the education system) — was inspired by several real incidents that have taken place throughout the country. In it, Gyllenhaal and Davis portray a single mother and a veteran teacher, respectively, who team up and lead an effort to shut down a failing public school and replace it with a new nonunion charter school using a little-known and rarely invoked “parent-trigger law” — referred to in the film as the “fail safe-law” — that is now on the books in seven states. Perez plays a teacher whose thoughts about their actions change over the course of the film from strong opposition to vocal support.
The film was financed by Walden Media, a production company owned by conservative billionaire Philip Anschutz (which also distributed the pro-charter education doc Waiting for Superman), and is being distributed by 20th Century Fox, the studio whose parent company is run by conservative billionaire Rupert Murdoch (who also oversees right-leaning Fox News), facts that have fueled suspicion about the film’s real agenda — particularly in the aftermath of the recent clash in Wisconsin between Republican Gov. Scott Walker and unions, which thrust the labor debate back into the forefront of the national discussion.
But the film was screened at both the Democratic and Republican conventions in the past month and has found supporters and critics on both sides of the aisle.
Actresses Strike Back
Davis, Gyllenhaal and Perez — all members of SAG — insist that they strongly support unions but do not believe that means that unions are perfect. They feel strongly that any idea that benefits children in failing schools deserves consideration.
Davis, whose sister is a teacher, says: “I belong to three unions. I don’t think the film is anti-union.” She continues, “At the end of the day, [the film is] pro-education. It’s pro-student. And I think the discourse is good. At what point did we feel that stirring the pot is a bad thing?”
Gyllenhaal, whose parents and brother also work in the film industry and belong to unions, adds: “Honestly, I wouldn’t be allowed to come home for Thanksgiving if I made an anti-union movie — like, you have to understand where I come from — and yet there are a lot of problems with the teachers union. I feel like I don’t want to be scared into not saying that. There are.”
And Perez, who works in public education through an arts-education charity and regards her colleagues as heroes, says, “I knew the film was going to push people’s buttons, and those buttons needed to be pushed.” She admits, “I would go back to the hotel and burst into tears because I wanted to get it right. This job was a different experience for me because it wasn’t so much that I wanted to get it right because I wanted to do good acting; it was that, but it was moreso that I wanted to get it right because I wanted to represent somebody, I wanted to represent someone’s voice.”
The actresses’ reaction to the backlash at the premiere and in the media differ greatly.
“I understood from the get-go that certain groups were going to stand on their soapbox and point fingers,” says Perez. Davis, however, says, “I actually was surprised at the reaction that this film got — I mean, the anger that came out of people.” Gyllenhaal, meanwhile, experienced conflicting emotions upon stepping out of her car at the premiere and seeing the folks across the street who were waiting to greet her: “First of all I thought, ‘Well, this is a movie about the power of protest, and the power of organizing, and the effect that it can have, and how kind of amazing that there are protesters here!’ But I also kind of wished that we could give them tickets.” What she means, of course, is that the vast majority of the people who are upset about the movie haven’t seen it. “Some of it will go away when the movie opens. Some of it is whipped up.”
Davis implies that she doesn’t necessarily agree with everything in the film — “One of my favorite characters is Madea. It’s a Greek tragedy. She kills her kids in the play. I’m against killing kids, but I would love to play that role!” — but thinks that it’s very important that films that provoke discussion and debate continue to get made. She says, “The one thing that I know about all these protestors, in terms of the union and the board of ed, is that none of those people have kids in a failing school. There was not one person — I guarantee you — that was outside there protesting with a picket sign who had their child in a failing school, because those people would not be out there, because they would have the mindset … ‘Do whatever you have to do, but just improve the schools for my kid.'”
Perez admits that she is now worried that the furor over the film could result in harm to the not-for-profit arts-ed program at which she works, which cannot afford to lose its 501 status. “All this controversy, does it scare me? Yes, it does,” she says. “Why? Because I’m fearful that the kids are going to suffer even more. That’s what I’m really fearful of. I’m not fearful about me, you know — like, ‘Oh, God, they’re gonna think I’m bad.’ OK, yeah, they always think I’m bad, so who cares? You know what I mean? But, the bottom line is I’m fearful for my charity.”
Gyllenhaal emphasizes that the ultimate goal of the film is not to win people over to a cause but rather to entertain and inspire. “This is a fairy tale,” she says. “This movie is really meant to make people say, ‘I want to do something!'”
The Bottom Line
As a left-leaning guy who found the aggressive behavior of Gov. Walker in Wisconsin to be thuggish and appalling, I fully expected to be turned off by Won’t Back Down. After seeing it, though, I found that I agreed much more than I disagreed with what it has to say. The vast majority of teachers in America care a great deal about their students and do a wonderful job in the classroom — but some do not, and we should all be able to agree that, when teachers are demonstrably failing their students, mechanisms should exist through which they can be replaced. Unfortunately, teachers unions have not done enough to address the bad apples among their members, which has tarnished their image, spurred the creation of parent-trigger laws in seven states (many others are considering similar legislation) and opened them up to the sort of criticisms that are laid out in this film. It seems to me that, rather than attacking the film before having seen it, they should see it, rebut the parts of it that they feel can be rebutted, and then begin figuring out how to address the legitimate points that it raises.
As far as the quality of the film itself, I am surprised and dismayed that so many critics have dismissed it — it has just a 35 percent approval rating on RottenTomatoes.com — because I think that it is one of the best films of the year. It presents a ton of information about both sides of a contentious debate, all the while remaining entertaining and gripping (if somewhat predictable). And it features outstanding performances by Gyllenhaal and, in particular, Davis, who was the favorite to win the best actress Oscar for The Help before Meryl Streep upset her for The Iron Lady, and who deserves another best actress Oscar nom for her breathtaking third-act scene with her son, to say nothing of the rest of her performance. This is a serious movie that deserves to be taken seriously, not marginalized by people who don’t want to hear an argument that might force them to reconsider their own long-held positions. I should know; it did just that for me.
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