School Choice & Charters Opinion

Director of “Won’t Back Down” Tries to Explain, but Questions Remain

By Anthony Cody — September 28, 2012 1 min read
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The recently released film, “Won’t Back Down” has presented education activists with something teachers long for: a teachable moment. The movie’s director, Daniel Barnz, has his homework assignment - begin to understand the mess you have landed in.

A little less than two years ago Davis Guggenheim, director of “Waiting For Superman,” asked teachers to send him feedback on his movie. He got an earful, as I described here. This week, Daniel Barnz, the director of “Won’t Back Down,” also headed to the Huffington Post to try to explain himself. His essay suggests that he is not opposed to unions, and that he simply wanted to tell an inspirational story.

He writes:

My sense is that people are growing tired of the divisive and adult-centric education debate. They're frustrated by the endless scapegoating and finger pointing. They want to feel that there is a way we can help our kids, and when they see the film, they understand that it's an inspirational celebration of the way parents and teachers can come together to create change for our children.
Like Viola Davis's character says: "... it's the kids, just the kids -- that's who I'm trying to think about now."

If anything, the reader responses this time are even sharper than those that were posted to Davis Guggenheim in 2010. It will be fascinating to see how Mr. Barnz responds.

Here are some of the comments thus far:

Prof W writes:

You think you have empowered parents? In the real world, parents do not get to choose who will be getting the school next or how it will be run. Many charters implement a draconian militaristic boot camp approach that I would never want a child of mine to attend, so there is no guarantee the charter school will be a better fit for their children than the neighborhood school was.
If parents don't like how things turn out at the charter school, that's it. Parents will not get to vote again to take the school back. Privately run programs are not democracies where each constituent gets a vote. Take a look at the boards of charter schools like KIPP. They are often stacked with representatives of corporations and their foundations, not parents. You have only empowered parents to give up their rights.
Instead of giving away a public school to an unknown entity, which could very well be a for-profit corporation whose bottom line is revenue, not children, parents, teachers and communities need to hold onto their neighborhood schools, form alliances and work together to make improvements.

A reader named swift wrote:

Walden Media funded both this movie and the other anti-public education, anti-union movie "Waiting for Superman".
I would like Mr. Barnz to answer one question. Did his film start with characters and a story, or did it start with funding from Walden? Because the corporations that are looking to make big bucks taking over schools aren't going to look like predators when they come knocking. They're going to look like your neighbors and put things like "It's about the children" in italics to show that they really mean it and totally aren't lying.

Someone calling him or herself “whale all right” wrote:

it was like asking an Erin Brockovich audience how it felt about the representation of corporations -- it's just not what the movie is ultimately about"
This comment is revealing. Did this guy actual watch the same "Erin Brockovich" that I did? -- Because that film is very much about the mendacity and indifference of corporations who have polluted a town at the expense of the health of its residents. One imagines this guy has read too many screenwriting manuals that reduce every story into some vague, meaningless, "universal" idea of "personal triumph" or "growth."
Such banalities are what permit this writer-director to avoid critical thinking and imagine that his film is just a transparent depiction of reality rather than the visualization of a corporate education reform fantasy. The fact that neither he nor the film's star, Maggie Gyllenhaal, can really seem to understand why the film has engendered a real controversy is testament to how uncurious they are. A simple Google search of "parent trigger" will turn up many opinions on the subject; but they can't be troubled to look beyond the corporate-reform talking points inscribed into their film.
This is one reason why Hollywood has a bad name.

Someone named Interested01 asks:

Did you have creative control on the film? If not, what aspects of the negative portrayal of teachers and unions were yours, and which came from production executives? For example, who invented the bogus work rule that said teachers weren't allowed to work after a certain time of day? Does that exist in the real world? Would you write a movie about the Screenwriters Guild that grossly misrepresented work rules and the conduct of its officials? ALEC says their school "reform" bills, such as the "parent trigger," are "for the kids." (I don't think they are--do you?) Did you research this, beyond accepting their conventional talking points? Do you think Walden Media's Waiting for Superman is a good movie? If so, here's some reading for you.
Your article avoids such questions. As more than one reviewer has pointed out, the idea that adults who work in schools don't care about children, as they go about their jobs and try to bargain for better conditions... Well, it's false. The vast majority care deeply. You may not know that a big majority of Chicago Public School parents supported the recent teacher strike. They knew the strike WAS for the kids. Teachers and parents joined together to petition for libraries, textbooks, counselors, and arts programs in community schools that are under-resourced and in danger disappearing. And that wasn't a fantasy. It was real life.

And finally, pondoora writes:

Mr. Barnz's big mistake, as far as I can tell, was to take advice from the Center for Education Reform, something CER President Jeannie Allen revealed in her e-newsletter today: "It's been a long road since CER first started talking to and advising the filmmakers of this important and inspiring film..."
According to what Mr. Barnz told the NY Times last February, he decided to include the parent trigger mechanism when he took charge of the re-write of Brin Hill's original screenplay. I'd bet money that CER had some involvement with that.
CER was the worst possible adviser. Did not Mr. Barnz do his research enough to know that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a shadowy, extremist conservative, right wing, anti-union, pro-privatization organization, based its Parent Trigger and charter school model legislation on CER's recommendation?
If anything good comes out of this mess, it will be the increased exposure of just how sneaky the entities are which have been very busy privatizing this country's system of public education -- right under the noses of all but the most vigilant. Now that would make a good story for a dramatic movie!
Everyone, including Mr. Barnz, needs to watch this new report about ALEC by the legendary Bill Moyers.

These comments show once again how far we have come since 2010. Wealthy people and corporations are still able to sponsor propaganda vehicles like “Won’t Back Down,” but the audience has become a lot more savvy about what is happening, and the peril our schools face.

The blog Mother Crusader features a powerful post entitled “Hey Daniel Barnz, I know Exactly Why I am Protesting Your Movie,” responding to Barnz’ comments that suggested protesters were misinformed.

Update 2:
From the blog “Yinzercation,” comes a report on a screening of “Won’t Back Down” before an audience in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Hosted by A+Schools along with the Pittsburgh Public School district and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, the film screening played to a packed theater of parents, teachers, and community members. Perhaps sensing the mood of the audience, we were told not to boo during opening remarks by Randy Testa (Vice President of Education at Walden Media which produced the film) who was inexplicably invited to this event. Despite essentially having a two-hour infomercial to tell his story, complete with Hollywood stars and a tear-jerking soundtrack, Testa was also infuriatingly given the majority of microphone time.
We were also told not to boo during the movie or panel discussion: presumably sniffling during the correct dramatic moments or cheering would have been acceptable. But this audience was not cheering. And at several points when characters spouted particularly egregious misinformation, there was loud groaning and a few shouts of "liars!" when folks could not contain their anger any longer. Yet our voices were silenced again when the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN) moderated the panel "discussion" by selecting only a few written questions solicited from the audience.

Update 3: A+ Schools has shared their explanation for why they hosted the event, and the way it was presented here.

What do you think? Do we have a teachable moment here? Might we be able to use this discussion to deepen understanding of education reform issues?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.