I Am A Public School Parent and I Won’t Back Down (Sorry
By Robin Dutton-Cookston
September 12, 2012
Last night I went to a media screening of the new film
Won’t Back Down, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola
Davis with Holly Hunter.
I’ll get right to the point, y’all.
I love you anyway, Maggie!
Here are some things that are good about this film:
The protagonists are charming and believable. (With the
exception of the obligatory love-interest male teacher
who was allegedly from Texas yet had a NY accent. Not
The story centers around two mothers who are both in
challenging situations and who are willing to risk it
all to help their children have a better life. I get
that. I understood the characters’ motivations and I
rooted for them to succeed.
Maggie Gyllenhaal is her usual adorable, dimply-cheeked
self as the working-class single mom with the heart of
gold. She fights the good fight to help her dyslexic
daughter. Maggie is scrappy and charming and the
character is apparently so poor that she can’t afford
shirts big enough to cover her cute little belly button.
She also manages to keep her clothes on for the entire
movie–which probably falls more into the category of
things that are less good about this film now that I
think about it.
Viola Davis portrays a depressed public school teacher
and a parent facing her own demons. She is terrific in
this role, and I enjoyed seeing the grace and dignity
that we have come to expect from this talented actor.
She delivers an earnest scoop of hope to a bummer public
school, and, yes, she also corners the market on the
whole heart-of-gold thing.
Holly Hunter is a jaded union leader. Did I mention that
under her tough exterior she has a heart of gold?
I love the actors. I love the acting. (Minus the dude
who couldn’t fake a Texas accent to save his life.) This
is your typical feel-good, uplifting story about a
plucky band of misfits who work their asses off and make
positive changes in the lives of children.
Now, (deep breath), here are some things that are not
good about this film:
The plucky band of misfits inflict their positive change
by invoking the “Parent Trigger Law,” which allows
parents to take over failing public schools and turn
them into charter schools. They essentially bust up the
teachers union and corporatize a public institution. The
film hits you in the face (and slaps you on the back of
the head and punches you in the gut and kicks you in the
ass really, really hard with a boot) with vehement anti-
public school propaganda.
As a public school advocate and self-avowed annoying PTA
lady, I had to pause several times during the film to
pick my jaw up off the ground in disbelief. I saw this
film the evening before helping to launch a major
fundraising campaign at my children’s PUBLIC school. I
saw this film after spending a day emailing and tweeting
around with other PUBLIC school volunteers about ways to
get California parents to vote in favor of PUBLIC
education this November.
I saw this film with an open mind and what I saw shocked
The political agenda of Won’t Back Down is as naked and
laid-out as Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary: Public
schools are terrible. The only way to make them better
is to take them over and turn them into charter schools.
Oh and teachers unions are evil, greedy, spawn-of-
Voldemort’s-demon-seed bastards. The end.
I watched scene after scene of tacky, cheating, cruel,
lying, selfish teachers in the union. I watched a rally
where the pro-charter school advocates wore green
(representing growth and hope in case you went to public
school and don’t get symbolism) and the pro-public
school advocates wore red (the color of blood and Satan,
I watched the school go from drab to fab, as grey and
brown clothing and classrooms magically transformed into
double-rainbows drenched in sunshine and Skittles. This
was only after the poor children were released from the
throat-crushing death grip of the Darth Vader teachers
My children’s PUBLIC school (which is awesome by the
way) was on the district closure list a few years ago.
And what did the parents do? Did they try to take over
the school and turn it into a charter school and force
out all the teachers who stayed with the union? No,
They wrote a grant and built a new playground. They
created a tutoring program. They started creative and
aggressive fundraising programs like DogFest to help
bridge the gap between public school funding and unmet
public school needs. They volunteered in classrooms and
on the playground and in the lunchroom. They went to PTA
meetings and School Site Council meetings. They started
a parent Coffee Klatch to create community. They were a
plucky band of misfits, by golly!
Some even went as far as forming legislative advocacy
organizations to make a difference in the lives of
children at the state and national level.
I’m not anti-charter school. I’m not anti-private
school. I’m not anti-anything. But this movie distilled
a complicated issue into simplistic, manipulative
platitudes to the point that the conspiracy theorist in
me wondered who the hell bankrolled the entire thing.
So….a friend of mine helped me do a little research and
we came up with some nifty insights. Such as the fact
that this film is funded by Walden Media, which is owned
by Philip Anschutz, a right wing leader whose
foundation has campaigned against such things as same-
sex marriage and single parents. He is also part of the
conservative movement that promotes school “choice” and
privatization and corporatization of public schools.
This film is also produced by Rupert Murdoch of Fox News
Ah hah! The plucky band of misfits has quite the
I’m not saying don’t see this movie. Go right ahead. But
be ready to have an informed conversation after the
credits roll. And try to focus on Maggie’s dimples if
you get too angry. They are just adorable!
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