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This story first appeared in the Oct. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In the face of criticism from teachers over its new classroom drama Won’t Back Down, 20th Century Fox and Walden Media are remaining steadfast. The film has drawn the ire of the American Federation of Teachers and grass-roots parent groups for its portrayal of a failing Pittsburgh school and the lazy, union-protected educators and administrators who run it.
About 50 protestors descended on the New York premiere at Ziegfeld Theatre on Sept. 23 to voice objections to the film, which stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as a single mother who invokes a so-called parent trigger law, a controversial measure available in some states that allows a majority of parents and teachers to choose alternative governance for their kids’ schools. “I’m not Maggie Gyllenhaal, but I play her in real life,” quips Zakiyah Ansari, a mother of eight and an education advocate who organized the protest. “When you have a super PAC like StudentsFirst pushing this movie, we are not fooled. We know the agenda of this group pushes for more testing, closures, teacher bashing and the privatization of our public schools.”
Although the film, which opens Sept. 28 and also stars Viola Davis, began to elicit the scorn of AFT president Randi Weingarten in August, insiders say neither Fox nor Walden opted to soften its message or tweak its marketing campaign. “It is a compelling drama, and we hope that, like all good storytelling, it inspires conversation and emotion,” says the film’s producer Mark Johnson.
In fact, the studio is embracing the controversy, basking in the publicity it has generated. “I happen to know that the protestors who are here tonight are protesting something different than what the movie is actually about,” director Daniel Barnz told MSNBC during a one-hour special broadcast live from the red carpet. But Weingarten, who saw the movie after requesting a screening in August, remains unimpressed. “I’m glad they admit the movie is fiction,” she says. “No school has ever been transformed using a parent trigger law because parents agree that we should fix, not close, schools and [parents] don’t like the idea of turning their school over to private managers.”
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