Teacher steers Freedom Writers to Holocaust

We could spend hours debating which is the more effective cinematic approach to educating young people about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, the collar-grabbing melodrama of “Schindler’s List” or a feel-good documentary like “Paper Clips.”

Writer-director Richard LaGravenese offers a third route in “Freedom Writers,” a surprisingly intelligent Hollywood drama based on the true story of a white rookie English teacher at a Long Beach high school and her tough-as-nails class of underrated, undervalued minority students.

The teacher, Erin Gruwell, is portrayed by fresh-faced Hilary Swank as a blend of naïve idealism and can-do gumption. She is the obvious point of identification for middle-class moviegoers, and a lesser film would be all about her rocky road through sacrifice and disappointment to triumph and redemption.

There’s plenty of that here, of course — we’re talking about Hollywood — but LaGravenese wisely works in the voices of the students. At a crucial juncture in the battle for their attention during her first semester, Gruwell assigns them the project of keeping a daily journal. The students read selected entries in voice-over throughout the film, a device that conveys their home (and interior) lives and also gives their point of view the same weight as Gruwell’s.

This simple structure — assisted by their blunt descriptions of their harsh adolescence — has the large side benefit of erasing the whiff of condescension that inevitably creeps into a “message” movie. That proves especially important when Gruwell (who’s not Jewish) brings up the Holocaust in response to a racist cartoon circulated one day in class.

The kids know nothing about the genocide or the Nazis, so Gruwell organizes a field trip to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. This sequence takes a good five minutes of the film — including a dinner after the tour where the students are joined by Holocaust survivors — but it’s a landmark in American movies.

First of all, it’s not a hurried montage, designed to serve as shorthand or shock value. Nor is it a dogmatic, stop-the-movie lecture to the theater audience. We experience the museum and the survivors through the eyes of the teenage students, which couldn’t be more perfect since that’s the target audience of “Freedom Writers.”

But there’s more. Gruwell assigns “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which provokes powerful reactions among several of the students. Given the writing assignment of composing letters to Miep Gies, Otto Frank’s secretary who helped conceal the family, the students not only complete the task but also demand that the letters be sent to her in Holland.

Not satisfied to stop there, they bring her to their school — raising the money through picnics and dances — to honor her in person. But Gies (played by Pat Carroll) explains that she wasn’t a hero but an ordinary person. The greater lesson, which resonates with the students, is that anyone who takes a stand or makes a moral choice in the face of hostility and the threat of violence is a hero.

All of this takes place somewhere in the middle of “Freedom Writers” and frankly, by the end of the movie it’s been supplanted in the viewer’s memory by succeeding events. But LaGravenese is to be congratulated for devising a nimble, intelligent and accessible entreé to the Holocaust that undoubtedly will inspire some kids to pick up Anne Frank’s diary or read about the Nazis.

Of course, if the movie was hokey or boring, teenagers would avoid it and the director’s admirable intentions wouldn’t much matter. So perhaps the real story is that “Freedom Writers” is a good film that also happens to include some terrifically welcome and respectful references to the Holocaust.

“Freedom Writers” is now playing throughout the Bay Area.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.