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Teachers union speaks out against fall film 'Won't Back Down'

August 28, 2012|By Nicole Sperling
  • "Won't Back Down" stars Maggie Gyllenhaal, left, Viola Davis and Rosie Perez with director Daniel Barnz at the New York screening of the film.
"Won't Back Down" stars Maggie Gyllenhaal, left, Viola… (Marion Curtis )

The Viola Davis-Maggie Gyllenhaal film "Won't Back Down" won't arrive in theaters until the end of September, but the American Federation of Teachers is already raising objections to the movie, which centers on a mother and a teacher taking over a troubled public school.

AFT President Randi Weingarten fired off a letter Tuesday morning to "interested parties" denouncing the film. Weingarten slammed the movie for "using the most blatant stereotypes and caricatures I have ever seen" and "affixing blame on the wrong culprit: America's teachers unions."

The letter came the same day that the film's distributor Twentieth Century Fox screened the PG-rated movie at the Republican National Convention, along with a Q&A session moderated by newscaster Campbell Brown. The film's director, Daniel Barnz, and producer Mark Johnson participated in the post-screening discussion along with former Florida Gov.  Jeb Bush, who is now chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education; Michelle Rhee, the former D.C. schools chancellor and founder of Students First; and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. 

The filmmakers also plan to show the picture at the Democratic National Convention next week in Charlotte, N.C.

Weingarten's main beef with the film centers on the tension between the teachers union and the local parents group headed by Gyllenhaal's character, a single mother with a drive to better her child's education in a public school.

Members of AFT saw the film a few weeks ago during a special screening set up by Fox in Washington, D.C.

"Instead of focusing on real parent empowerment and how communities can come together to help all children succeed, 'Won't Back Down' offers parents a false choice -- you're either for students or for teachers, you can either live with a low-performing school or take dramatic, disruptive action to shut a school down."

Johnson said he disagreed with Weingarten's take, and was particularly miffed by her statement that the film "advances the 'bad teacher' narrative through the character of Deborah." Deborah, played by Nancy Bach, is a teacher who uses her cellphone in class, refuses to stay past 3 p.m to help students, locks poorly behaving children in closets and won't let the students use the restroom.

Said Weingarten: "Let's be clear -- this teacher, or a teacher who engages in such deplorable actions against children, should be fired for this outrageous behavior."

"From her letter, she’s positioning a union that should be or wants to be but one that isn’t," said Johnson. "I don’t think the villain in our movie is one bad teacher. I think the villain is a system. Remember, it's a fictional movie based on actual events. Maggie Gyllenhaal's character is not a political animal. She is just advocating for her daughter, who needs help."

Barnz, the son of two public schoolteachers, said he was encouraged by the packed bipartisan audience at Tuesday's screening in Tampa but added that he was hurt that his movie was being attacked as anti-union. The filmmaker, who co-wrote the script, says he tried to be especially sensitive regarding the portrayal of the union, going so far as to create a sympathetic character, teacher Michael Raymond (played by Oscar Isaacs), who is a loyal union supporter.

“I think of this movie as a David and Goliath story and for me, it’s a multifaceted Goliath made up of many things that are represented in the film: parental apathy, an incompetent principal, a dispassionate teacher. Part of it is the teachers union,” said Barnz.

“In my mind, it’s an even-handed portrait. I think it’s hard in this education reform dialog to have a position that falls in the middle. Ving Rhames in the movie says, ‘You can support and criticize unions.’ That’s what I think the film does.”

ALSO:

L.A. teachers union urges members to ignore performance reviews

Reporter's notebook: 'Waiting for Superman' and American education reform

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