More than one thing lit a fire under writer-director Daniel Barnz for his new education drama “Won’t Back Down” — a film that opened in theaters Friday that has already sparked a huge debate over education reform in the U.S.
“As a filmmaker, I love David vs. Goliath stories. I grew up with them, I cried at them, and I always wanted to make a movie in that vein,” Barnz told me in an interview Thursday. “I also grew up with movies like ‘Norma Rae,’ ‘Silkwood’ and later, ‘Erin Brockovich,’ and those were also were great inspirations to me.”
The other part, Barnz said, is that he is the son of two teachers; his grandmother was a public school teacher in the 1930s in Brooklyn; his sister-in-law is a teacher; and his mother-in-law founded the first alternative public middle school in New York City 30 years ago and still is principal there now.
“Education has always been a part of my family, so I wanted to make a movie that would honor and celebrate them, so if you take those two things together, you end up with ‘Won’t Back Down,'” Barnz explained.
Maggie Gyllenhaal stars in the film as Jamie Fitzpatrick, a struggling single mother of a dyslexic daughter who continually runs into dead ends to get the girl the proper help she needs in her failing inner city elementary school in Pittsburgh. Viola Davis also stars as Nona Alberts, a teacher who’s not only grown disenfranchised with her district, but as a mother herself, is exasperated by her son’s learning disability.
Together, parent and teacher bind to drum up the support they need to enact the “Fail Safe Law,” a little-known law which will allow the group — if they get enough support from fellow parents and teacher — to fix the failing school. The success of such, however, means, the school will become a non-unionized charter school, which effectively means no protection for its teachers.
Holly Hunter also stars in the film as the head of a teacher’s union who does her best to quell any uprising, and Oscar Isaac plays a music teacher caught in the middle of the conflict as Jamie’s boyfriend.
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Of course, when you get a movie where the protagonist rises up against a well-established system — in this instance, public education — you’re courting controversy, and Barnz is well-aware of that. More than 50 protesters, in fact, gathered outside of the film’s premiere in Los Angeles this week.
While the film addresses the hot button issue of union busting and controversy over such issues as tenure (one teacher in the film skates on her tenure and puts forth no effort while her students learn nothing), Barnz insists “Won’t Back Down” isn’t anti-union. In fact, he said it’s pro-union and pro-teacher.
“I am a member of two guilds, I marched with one of my guilds two years ago. As a person, I’m very pro-union. Everybody in the cast to the producers are coming at this movie from similar vents,” Barnz said. “I think what we felt was — as somebody who is pro-union — you can both support and criticize unions. Those two things can co-exist. That’s very much the perspective we had. The collective filmmakers felt that unions built our middle class, and in the case of teachers, they protect them. That’s a wonderful, important and critical thing.”
Plus, as the son of educators, Barnz firmly believes that teachers aren’t paid enough for what they do — and the last thing he’d want to do is bash them.
“That’s why Holly Hunter says early in the movie how important it is that teachers aren’t underpaid and overworked. And of course, Oscar Isaac’s character’s whole narrative is about a person’s life who was inspired by a teacher who was allowed to keep his job because of the teacher’s union. So there are those sort of pro-union aspects to the film,” Barnz said. “The film also asks the question whether teachers’ unions are always protecting the interest of children. That’s a question we ought to be allowed to ask right now in our country. And what we find in this issue, like what we find in a lot of political discourse today is, people are uncomfortable with those sorts of honest questions. Therefore, you have to fall into one extremist camp or another.”
Effectively, Barnz said, he and his colleagues “wanted to make a movie that’s about how parents and teachers come together to create change for kids.”
“To do that, we had to look at the whole education establishment, and as uncomfortable that might be for us, personally, and ask how they were contributing to holding kids back,” Barnz added.
In the film, the characters invoke what is called the “Fail Safe Law,” which in actuality is a variation of the “Parent Trigger Law,” a little-known law on the books. Barnz explained the difference.
“The Parent Trigger laws that exists in California and several other states basically say if you have failing public schools, that 50 percent of the parents can come together and decide the fate of that school,” Barnz said. “The Fail Safe law that’s presented in the movie is a fictional law — it doesn’t exist, but it’s a different law in that it says 50 percent of the parents have to come together with 50 percent of the teachers.”
“That was something that was important for me to point out because I come from a family of educators,” Barnz added. “It was a very important question for me to ask, “How can educators be included in this? How can parents and teachers work together. Some people have identified the film as a Parent Trigger movie, but in fact it’s different in a fairly significant way. The criticism of the Parent Trigger laws is that educators aren’t part of the solution. This film tells a very different narrative about how parents can come together with teachers.”
Barnz hopes that potential audience members will notice the difference, come see the movie, and form their own opinions. At best he hopes it sparks some debate, because he doesn’t pretend to know all of the answers.
“My job is to tell the best story I can, and to entertain and inspire if at all possible. I think it would be presumptuous to suggest answers to the education reform debate,” Barnz said. “I’m trying to speak to this as somebody’s who’s trying to present a compelling story to pose questions. That’s where I hope the film will take hold in an interesting way.”
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