Why ‘Won’t Back Down’ matters

Won’t Back Down is a predictable movie that resemble an after-school special, writes Andrew Rotherham in Time. It’s no Citizen Kane. But a Hollywood movie on the parent trigger matters a great deal. The education debate will not be the same.

Despite its sugary Hallmark quality, Won’t Back Down is a serious film about a grim reality — parents and teachers stuck in a system that puts kids last. (Maggie) Gyllenhaal plays Jamie Fitzpatrick, a mom struggling to help her daughter while juggling all the other balls a single mom must keep in the air — work, life, flickering hope of romance. Her daughter’s dysfunctional school is a roadblock to a better future for her, and Fitzpatrick is determined to fix that. She enlists the help of a frustrated teacher (Viola Davis) to try to force the school board to improve the school under a district rule giving parents the ability to force action.

The film also has some nuance, unlike the blunt force trauma that tends to dominate education debates. A Teach For America teacher is portrayed not as a caricature of a noble savior or unwitting dupe but rather as a serious young person struggling to make sense of the conflicting values he encounters in a screwed-up urban school system. Played by Oscar Isaac, this teacher tries to reconcile his belief in unions as a tool of social justice with the jobs-and-adults-first reality he finds in his school district.

In the face of union opposition, the movie’s stars aren’t backing down, Rotherham writes.

On Monday’s Today Show, Oscar nominee Viola Davis made clear that she understands firsthand how important education is in breaking the cycle of poverty. She grew up poor and seems to have little patience for those resisting efforts to improve public school. “It’s a system that’s broken and needs to be fixed,” she said on the show.

The movie’s opponents — “teachers unions carping that the movie is unfair and activists claiming that giving parents more power is akin to privatization” — have turned Won’t Back Down “into a national conversation piece,” Rotherham writes. Even those who don’t believe parents can run schools are talking about what can be done when children are trapped in low-performing schools.

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  1. Won’t Back Down had one of the worst openings of the year:

    “In eighth place, Won’t Back Down debuted to an atrocious $921,000 from 2,515 locations. It will earn around $3 million this weekend, which will be one of the worst debuts ever for a movie in 2,500 or more theaters.”

    • …which is totally irrelevant to why ‘Won’t Back Down’ matters.

      • If a tree falls and no one is around to see it, does it matter? No, because it will have little effect elsewhere. The only major effect of this movie will be to deter studios from tackling social policy issues for a while.

    • You figure that means something in the debate about the how reform of the public education system will proceed? If you do, be so good as to explain.

  2. Haven’t seen the movie yet, not even sure if I will. But from what I’ve read, it seems that teachers and unions are getting a bad rap for a situation that they can’t realistically be expected to fix. We ask too much when we expect that simply by diminishing the power of the unions, better schools will result. Or that parents can improve on what professional educators have been able to accomplish. I teach in one of the few non-union districts, and we are proud of the fact that teachers and administrators can still legally talk to each other. So I’m not a fan of the union. There are a host of socio-economic and cultural barriers that make it nearly impossible for inner city schools that aren’t charters or magnet school to succeed. I can understand the frustration parents feel, but there are plenty of other options for leveraging that frustration into better schools that will have a better chance of success.

    • The unions can certainly be saddled with blame for defending the status quo since that’s what they do at every turn. It is, after all, a status quo that’s yielded great benefits for the membership and the leadership so what’s not to defend, right?

      If that status quo doesn’t work for the parents and the kids, so what? That’s not the concern of the unions a response which is widely, and properly, seen as a selfish point of view. The movie builds on that fact and unions, for political reasons, have to obscure that fact.

      And whether you’re right that there are “plenty of other options for leveraging that frustration into better schools” the patience of the public for the appearance of those other options appears to have come to an end. Thus the growing momentum to remove authority over a child’s education from officialdom and return it to parents.

      • The union issue really needs to differentiate between local and state/federal unions. Locally, our union has been great with striking a balance between short and long-term gain for the teachers (ie not killing the district with ridiculous raises and work rules). NYSUT and AFT/NEA, though, have done more than their share of mucking up education with their lobbying and policy advocation.

  3. GEORGE LARSON says:

    Another reason to be critical of school unions and administrators is that when given the extra resources they say they need, like money, computers, training and time, they still fail.

  4. The movie actually discredits the parent trigger. First, anyone with two shreds of common sense can see that it’s magical thinking that the overwhelmed single mom of a dyslexic child — a mom with two jobs — can fit the petition drive and the detailed plan for the new school into her daily schedule. Second, the characters are so cartoonish that the critics are ridiculing the “teachers’ unions spawn of satan/privatized school sent by divine forces” message.

    It may be lucky for the reformers that no one will see the movie. One wag is calling it “Won’t Be Back Next Week.”

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      I think we know this movie will play in an endless loop first on HBO and Showtime then on Netflicks and Hulu.

      The movie business is in the crapper nationally, but, good news, they make more money and are more widely seen after they’re released in the mass market.

      As to the cartoonish claim: all movement movies use simple stereotypes. That doesn’t make them less effective in changing the public’s perception.

  5. Almost all the reviews have emphatically stated that the cartoonish stereotypes discredit the movie’s message. Presumably, film critics nationwide weren’t previously following the details of the education reform debate, so they aren’t like to share my context or viewpoint. But the overwhelming consensus of the nation’s film critics are that the movie is ham-handed, crude propaganda, and that it’s laughably unsuccessful because of the cartoonish stereotypes. The fact that the movie was the flop of the weekend also reduces its effectiveness in changing the public’s perception, as few viewers saw it.

    This reminds me of the Edison Schools fiasco of 11-plus years ago. Then high-flying for-profit Edison Schools decided to build a PR campaign around the effort of my school district, San Francisco Unified, to sever its contract with Edison. The local, regional, state and national (even international) press obligingly, unquestioningly reported the story exactly as directed by Edison for a time. But eventually, given that Edison’s supposed success was based on a web of fabrications and misrepresentations, the spotlight wound up illuminating the truth. I predict the same eventual fizzle for the similarly flimflam-ridden parent trigger, with the movie shooting down its propaganda rather than bolstering it.

  6. Actually, Caroline, far from stereotyping anyone, the movie is far too nice to the status quo forces of the union and the school board.

    In real life, union operatives went around in high-poverty neighborhoods in California threatening to have immigrant parents deported unless they took back their parent trigger signatures.

    In real life, the Compton district tried to demand that parents present photo IDs and have a personal interview before signing the petition, which caused a Los Angeles state judge to hold that the district was violating parents’ First Amendment rights. Funny, liberals are supposedly against photo ID requirements, but apparently that’s the case only when people are showing up to vote for a Democrat, not when they’re voting for something that liberals dislike.

    And in real life, one of the Adelanto school board members openly defied a court order with the following words: “I brought my own handcuffs.Take me away today. I don’t care anymore.”

    Real life is far worse than the movie. You seem to be implicitly defending measures that would be denounced far and wide if it were Republicans doing it at the voting booth.

  7. From March 2011: “In a ruling Wednesday Judge Anthony Mohr issued an injunction prohibiting the district from requiring McKinley Elementary School parents who signed the parent trigger petition from showing up in person to verify their signatures and to prove their identities with a photo ID.”


  8. From Adelanto:

    One board member, Jermaine Wright, was prepared to be held in contempt of court. “I brought my own handcuffs,” he boasted. “Take me away today. I don’t care anymore.”

    There is some precedent for this type of defiance, but it’s a precedent that the Adelanto board might think twice about. In 1957, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus defied a court order directing Little Rock to proceed with its integration plan for Central High School. President Eisenhower tried to talk to Faubus, but when the governor stalled and equivocated — and flirted with a contempt citation — Eisenhower dispatched the 101st Airborne Division. Little Rock Central High was integrated at the point of bayonets.

    Last week, lawyers for the parents at Desert Trails filed another motion with the court, this one urging it to force the school board to comply with Malone’s order. “Such open defiance of this court’s … powers should not be permitted,” the motion concludes.

    The Adelanto school board can continue this fight. It can spend limited resources to litigate. It can stall and snicker, evade and defy. But eventually it will discover what Faubus did: Our society depends on obedience to the law, and those who defy it usually pay a stiff price, as they should.

    My advice to the board members: Keep those handcuffs handy.


  9. Wow, CarolineSF sure cleared out in a hurry there.

  10. JDE:

    I’ll be happy to stand in for Caroline.

    As reported by the L.A. Weekly, hundreds of parents
    showed up at the Compton School Board meeting
    to claim that they were lied to and misled into
    signing the Parent Trigger. Paid signature gatherers from
    outside Compton falsely claiming to be Compton residents
    and McKinley parents went around telling whatever
    lie they had to tell, whenever they wanted to tell it… in
    order to trick these parents into signing. (Mind you,
    the L.A. Weekly was and is unabashedly pro-parent trigger,
    pro-parent revolution… having just put out a gushing
    cover story about them… so you can’t say this was
    some left-wing rag)

    The phony paid signature gatherers said stuff like, “This
    is to beautify the campus… sign here.

    “This is for new computers for the kids.. sign here.. ”

    and on and on…

    Now, here’s the proof that the whole Compton
    Parent trigger was a fiasco.

    Celerity, the same corporate charter chain, that
    would have taken over McKinley had the
    Parent Revolution vermin succeeded… actually
    did get a charter school approved, and it opened
    in an abandoned Catholic school just a block

    So to those folks out there who really believe that
    there was this incredible demand among McKinley
    parents for a charter to replace McKinley… try this on
    for size…

    Only 15% of the current McKinley parents moved
    over to the new Celerity charter. 85% now remain
    and McKinley, and the kids are doing just fine.


  11. Jack — even if that’s true, it in no way disproves the racist and unconstitutional tactics used by the school board and unions.

    • You want to talk about racism?

      Celerity, the charter company set to seize millions of dollars of
      Compton Unified School District public property… plus millions
      annually in perpetuity of the McKinley’s yearly school budget…
      has a history of racism itself.

      Two teachers at a Celerity school were going to read a
      poem dedicated to Emmit Till.

      HISTORY: He was an African-American boy from
      Chicago visiting relatives in the South in the 1950’s. Well, h
      e was accused of whistling at a white girl (this may or may
      not have happened). However, a bunch of redneck
      crackers believed that it DID happen. So they
      kidnapped him, and beat him to death.
      His open casket funeral was one of the main catalysts of the
      Civil Rights Movement.

      The poem to be read was written by a famous female
      National Poet Laureate.

      Well, the principal did not want such a “downer”
      story included in the African-American History
      Month show, so she cancelled it. She thought
      it best for the African-American kids to focus
      on “dressing for success” than whining about
      “ancient history.”

      On their own, the kids started a petition to
      reverse this. The Poet Laureate even called
      the Charter CEO Vielka McFarland to voice
      her opinions on the matter.

      Even though the two teachers had nothing to
      do with either the kids’ petition or the call
      from the Poet Laureate, McFarland fired
      the teachers… and thanks to this being a non-union
      school—and the fact that charter schools, unlike
      public schools, do not allow for parents to have any
      decision making power or input whatsoever—neither
      the teachers nor anyone else had no recourse to
      challenge this outrage.

      To top it off, the principal of the school then
      told the kids in the class, “Emmitt Till was
      a sexual harraser, so he actually got what
      was coming to him.”

      She later denied saying it, but two dozen kids
      emphatically insisted that she did.

      Now, is that the kind of school, and the kind
      of school leadership that Compton’s majority
      African-American residents want in on of their

      • Sorry Jack, you’re wrong. A Black woman made the call, according to Huffpost. If you read an unbiased account, you’ll find that the story is about political correctness, not race. Those two ideologies were bound to clash at some point, weren’t they?

        “Stephen Weathers, the president of the school’s parent organization [I couldn’t find his race, but given the school’s population, I’ll bet the president of the school’s PTA is Black], told the LA Times that there isn’t any “celebration in the Emmett Till story.” He continued by saying, “He was beaten for whistling at a white woman, and I don’t want my daughter to know that in the fourth grade. I don’t think a celebration of Black History Month is a forum for that story. It’s important, but that wasn’t the stage for it.”


        • Those teachers should not have
          lost their jobs, and that principal that fired
          that teacher and told black children that
          “Emmett Till was a sexual harasser who
          actually got what was coming to him” SHOULD
          FOR LIFE.


          THE END

          • Sorry Jack, your original premise was that this was racism. It clearly was not. Your SHOUTING does not make it so. Your attempt to end the discussion does not make it so. I agree with you on most of your points, but your ideology makes you blind, which then makes you mistake your target, which then makes people discount what you say.

            I believe you meant to say that those Black administrators should not have told their Black students that “Emmett Till was a sexual harasser.” Political correctness drove this train. As I said before, the two ideologies were bound to clash at some point, weren’t they? You’re so angry because you can’t reconcile the two, but here’s the basic feminist view of sexual harassment, and guess what? The administration was right:


          • Roger,

            Please re-read what I said. (i.e. the word

            I said the aftermath of the Emmitt Till murder
            “helped”, or was JUST ONE of the major catalysts
            that put the Civil Rights Movement in motion.

          • I was shouting because I was angry.
            I’d do the same thing in response to
            an administrator or educator who got
            up and said, “The Holocaust wasn’t
            so bad… in fact, the Jews actually got
            was coming to them.”

            If you expect me or most people to be
            civil when responding to comments containing
            monstrous evil… well, you shouldn’t…

          • Again, Jack, you mistook your target. And there’s no monstrous evil here, though I appreciate your need to escalate into melodrama.

        • And this Weathers guy is an idiot.
          The celebration is not of Till’s murder;
          it’s the Civil Rights Movement that
          it helped “trigger” (excuse the pun).

          • I concur. You’ve de-escalated your original comments from “racist” to “idiot,” and now we’re in agreement:-)

          • By the way, why did you feel you had to qualify your use of the word “trigger”?

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            It is questionable whether the Civil Rights Movement had any one specific easily-identifiable trigger, let alone that it was the murder of Emmett Till.

            Kind of like asking what was the “trigger” for the Occupy Movement or the Tea Party.

  12. Have not seen movie but have a comment on student success.

    I taught in a school district for many years – high school. I now sub in the district.

    There are many excellent teachers and the district treats students and teachers with respect. The problem I see now is the disrespect for education by many, not all, of the students. They have no respect for what is being taught, no respect for the teachers and the administration. Teachers have tried to get parents involved and they won’t have anything to do with the schools. A large per cent of students are performing well below their grade level and staff has bent over backwards to help these students.
    I hope the movie has addressed this issue. Staff and unions should not be blamed for everything that goes wrong with education. I believe we should start with the family structure and build from there.