Freedom Writers Analysis
Sydney Asselstine 15/12/11
The movie Freedom Writers revolves around Erin Gruwell, a new teacher at an urban school. The school is a cultural mosaic, with representatives from various ethnicities. The students are generally from lower class families in rough neighborhoods. The scenes that I chose to analyze are all connected by Erin’s desire to bring the class together, and to encourage the students to participate. These portions of the film displayed the effects of contact zones and the importance of relating lessons to the lives of the students.
Scene 1: “You Don’t Know Me”
The first scene I chose to analyze started off with a drawing being passed between the students while Erin is trying to teach. Eventually the illustration reaches its victim and the class erupts in laughter. Erin takes the note and sees that it is a picture of a black man with large lips. Erin is ashamed of her class’ stereotypical views and open hatred towards one another. She tells him about the Holocaust and how people would post damaging images, like Jewish people with long noses. Erin admonishes them for trying to act like ‘gang members’ – they are only contributing to the violence in the world that can lead to something as severe as genocide.
Various camera angles are used to help convey messages throughout this scene. There are several close up shots on the drawing changing hands, as it is an integral part of the scene. This choice of camera shot also emphasizes how easily judgments can spread. The faces of the students after they look at the note are also viewed up close. This highlights their reactions, which generally consist of laughter, and allows the audience to see that the class can be brought together (even though it is not in the most proper manner). The camera also zooms in on the actual picture once Erin unfolds the note, and then it shows her reaction. When Erin is lecturing them on the Holocaust and the improperness of the students’ actions the camera shows only shows the tops of the students’ heads, displaying that in this moment Erin holds authority over them. Though she does not always convey a strict stance, in this instance it is important that Erin seems empowered. Another structural element of the scene is how Erin turns around when she first looks at the image - as if she cannot even bear to look at her class she is so dismayed. The director also chose to have the boy who constructed the drawing (a person who never participates in class) to raise his hand and ask Erin what the Holocaust was. Only one student in the class knew what this event was, yet it was important to have this boy ask the question in order to show that Erin was finally grasping the attention of her pupils. Throughout the majority of the scene there is no music playing, which allows Erin’s message to be focused on. At the very end there is some soft music playing to accompany the sad realization Erin has to face – that her students are living in a violent war.
This particular scene in Freedom Writers expresses multiple common ideologies. The students are all seated in groups based on their race, promoting the belief that stereotypes are prominent in schools. The racial hate displayed towards the black man of whom the image was drawn supports the view that urban schools are filled with viciousness. The ideology that a teacher must find a way to relate his or her lessons to the students is also observed. Erin relates her students’ gang infested lives to Nazi Germany and sees their interest increase.
This desire to relate to her students connects to Grant’s article about myths in urban schools. The article states that “students discover and solve real problems based on their needs and interests” (Grant 81). None of the students are concerned with the lesson that Erin is preparing on the chalkboard, however they pay attention when she speaks about the Holocaust because they find it to be applicable to the situations they must deal with. The scene also displays her frustration with her students’ cliques and how badly she wishes they would learn to coexist positively. The scene exhibits her class as a contact zone, which are described in Pratt’s article “Arts of the Contact Zone” as being areas where “cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other.” The racial tension within Erin’s classroom is evident, particularly during this scene and the passing of the drawing. Yet, despite their cultural differences, the students realize they do share similarities after all – their lack of knowledge regarding the Holocaust and their resistance to respect Erin just because she is a teacher are just some examples.
Scene 2: “The Line”
The second scene that I chose to analyze revolved around ‘the line game’. The scene begins with Erin observing the obvious segregation in the courtyard prior to class. She decides to ask her students questions, and if it applied to them they were stand on the line. The questions ranged from musical interests to criminal offenses.
One camera angle used consistently throughout the scene was a close up on the students’ feet as they step on the line. This exhibits how the students actually have quite a bit in common, despite the efforts they make to separate themselves from one another. Close ups are also done on the faces of the students while they are on the line. This allows the audience to see the kids’ reactions to who they are on the line with – they do not like being compared to the others. Another camera-related element of this scene is that Erin is never viewed at a superior angle – shots of her are always done in a level plane. This sends the message that she is trying to bring the entire class, including herself, together as one. Close ups are used when Erin asks the students whether they have lost friends to gang violence, displaying the mutual sadness in the room. A longer shot is also done at this time to view the shockingly high percentage of the class that remains on the line because they have lost four or more friends. Close ups and long shots are also used during the segment where the students are speaking the names of their friends who have passed away. This is effective, as it demonstrates that, while gang violence has isolated the students in so many ways, it has also granted them some commonalities. During this portion of the scene soft music is playing to enhance the sadness the audience should feel. When Erin announces the class’ new assignment a close up is done on the diaries, as they are an integral part of the connection that will be formed between Erin and the students. Erin’s obvious excitement at this point is portrayed through a close up on her wide grin, and through the slight skip she executes as she moves towards the cupboard.
This scene portrays several ideologies. It stereotypes urban schools and ethnic minorities as being violent and troublesome. When asked if they knew people who were in gangs or who sold drugs, the entire class stood on the line. This ideology was also prominent during the part where the students stand on the line if they know someone who has died because of gang violence. Every student except the Caucasian boy stood on the line. This scene, like the first one, emphasizes the belief that a teacher must adapt their lessons based on their students. Erin chose to have her students write their own story as an assignment, having given up on the grammar lessons she originally planned at the beginning of the year. She realized that, at this point, grammar was not going to play a key role in her students’ lives, and so she chose to help them be heard instead. She knew her class had endured a lot at their young age, and that they needed to feel like their life mattered. Grant mentions that movies tend to send the message that the measure of a teacher’s ability is through how well-liked he or she is by the students, not by the students improved skill level. In this scene, Erin is earning the respect of her students by showing that she cares. At the same time she is turning away from grades, as she remarks that she will not be assessing the diaries, just making sure that they were written in.
This scene has several connections to the readings done in class. By giving her students these journals she is giving them freedom and leeway to write what they would like. This contradicts the common situation viewed in Anyon’s article. Her study concluded that middle-class schools typically ran in a procedural fashion, where work is given and expected to be done with little explanation or choice involved.
Scene 3: “Home”
The third scene that I chose to analyze revolved around Victoria, a coloured and bright newcomer to the school, and her experience in the Honours English class. She is the only coloured person in the class, and she finds that the teacher segregates her because of this. She decides to go to Erin’s English class to see if she likes it. On that day Erin has decided to have the class take part in a ‘toast for change’, where they each state how they are going to change their lives for the better. Several students make comments about how they feel like this English class has become their family. The students also receive their books for the semester.
At the beginning of the scene, when the Honours English teacher asks Victoria to give the black perspective on a reading, the director chose to zoom in on her in order to display her shock. At this point the audience can hear Victoria’s thoughts regarding the question, giving us more insight to her character than if we only saw her facial reaction. Her body language suggests that she feels isolated in the class, for she looks at the other students in disbelief when they stare at her, waiting for her to speak on behalf of all blacks. When the students in Erin’s class are giving their speeches the shot includes the student speaking and Erin, as if to show the growing bond between the two and the influence Erin has had on her class. One student chose to read a passage from his diary that narrated the tale of how he was evicted this past summer and how hopeless he felt until he walked into the English class and felt ‘at home’. Following this speech there is a close up on Erin’s teary-eyed face that, to the audience, seems to create an even greater connection between the class and their teacher, for it is clear that Erin truly cares for them. There is also a close up of the other students coming together to pat this boy on the back and reiterate their friendship. Soft music is also playing at this time to highlight the mood. Throughout this entire occurrence there are several lingering close ups on Eva, a student who tends to hold back. Other than the tears in her eyes, she shows little expression. These close ups foreshadow that Eva’s change will be a difficult one. After the class Victoria tells Mrs. Cambell, the department head, that she would like to switch into Erin’s class. During this exchange close ups are utilized to display Mrs. Cambell’s dislike of the idea.
One ideology that is presented in this scene is that students of colour are rarely scholarly. Victoria is the only black student in the Honours English class, and the teacher’s behaviour towards her makes it clear that he is not used to dealing with this type of situation. The idea that lower class students are treated the worst in schools is also prominent. When Mrs. Cambell tells the Honours English teacher that Victoria is switching classes, he complains that it is not fair for Erin to receive an honours student. It is as if he views them as trophies, his agenda being to collect the top students and proudly display them as his products. Another ideology in this scene is that students prefer to be taught by someone who cares about them. In this scene the students are a great deal happier to be in school than they were when Erin first came to teach, and they attribute their feeling of comfort to Erin.
This scene exhibits Pratt’s idea of a positive contact zone, where cultures combine to create a productive and understanding environment with diverse opinions. The students used to be hostile towards ‘outsiders’, but now they freely share their horrors and hopes with the class. They have battled through the barriers that separated them and realized that, while culture does define certain aspects of a person, there are common threads between all people. This scene also connects to Beyerbach’s proposal that the portrayal of schools in popular culture often consists of a good teacher that “challenged other evil or incompetent teachers.” In this scene Erin is contrasted with the Honours English teacher, who evidently cares little about his students. The audience, as a result of this comparison, is led to further support Erin. Grant’s article about teaching myths also touches on this subject; she states that films usually show the heroic teacher as being the only staff member that “truly has the interests of the students at heart.” Grant also touches on the fact that movies tend to emphasize the need for a close student-teacher relationship. Erin is able to joke with her students and cry with her students in this scene. Her students feel that they are able to confide in her and willingly tell her some of their most terrible tales.
The film Freedom Writers portrays various elements of teaching and ideologies. The three scenes studied focus on overcoming the troubles in the lives of lower class students and defeating self-segregation. They also concentrate on the benefits of a caring teacher that is willing to go above and beyond for his or her students.