“Won’t Back Down” draws controversy

The soon-to-be-released film “Won’t Back Down” is already drawing criticism from teacher and public school advocates.

“Won’t Back Down,” starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, seems to be following in the footsteps of “Waiting for Superman,” a 2010 documentary which was strongly criticized as blaming teachers for students’ and schools’ problems. It sparked a critical website, Not Waiting for Superman,

“Won’t Back Down” is fiction, but, its producers say, is based on real-life situations.

David Weil, CEO of the Anschutz Film Group whose Walden Media subsidiary produced the movie, told Education Week that the story is “‘not tied to ‘any one law or event,’ and that the film depicts a number of parents and teachers collaborating in making changes to a school, not doing battle. Several key characters, he said, ‘are teachers and are central heroes to the story.’

“‘We believe that teachers are the unsung heroes of our society and they represent our hope for the future as a nation,’ Weil said.”

However American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten called the movie “divisive,” saying it “uses blatant stereotypes and caricatures to blame teachers and their unions for all of the problems facing our schools. These stereotypes and caricatures are even worse than those in ‘Waiting for ‘Superman.'”

“One can’t help but be moved by the characters and story portrayed,” she said in a detailed Washington Post commentary, but “I don’t recognize the teachers portrayed in this movie, and I don’t recognize that union.”    

The film “could have been a great opportunity to bring parents and teachers together to launch a national movement focused on real teacher and parent collaboration to help all children,” Weingarten said. “Instead, this fictional portrayal … is divisive and demoralizes millions of great teachers.”

“Won’t Back Down” is a story of parents and teachers using a “parent empowerment” law, better known as “parent trigger” legislation, to take over a bad school. But Leonie Haimson, a longtime public school parent activist in New York, says actual efforts to use parent trigger laws “have been driven by billionaire-funded supporters of privatization, and have sparked acrimony and division. None of these efforts has actually improved a school.” Haimson is a leader of Parents Across America, along with other public school activists.

Parent trigger laws have been promoted by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), she notes.

“Won’t Back Down” is reportedly being screened this week at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, and at next week’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.

Michelle Rhee’s anti-teacher-union “StudentsFirst” group, which cloaks its agenda in pro-student language, is promoting the film.

The Anschutz Film Group and Walden Media are subsidiaries of the Anschutz Company, whose chair and CEO is billionaire Philip Anschutz. Anschutz funds right-wing groups and ballot initiatives. According to a New Yorker profile, he is a frequent contributor to the anti-union National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, and is close to the far-right Koch brothers. He is tied in with Big Oil, having served on the boards of the American Petroleum Institute and the National Petroleum Council.

An Aug. 14 “Teachers Rock” celebrity concert in Los Angeles, presented as simply a tribute to teachers, was part of the films publicity campaign leading up to its Sept. 28 opening. The concert was sponsored by “Won’t Back Down” and Walmart. Walmart’s Walton family owners, through the Walton Family Foundation, handed out $159 million last year for charter schools and vouchers. The concert was headlined by Garth Brooks, Carrie Underwood, Morgan Freeman and Josh Groban among others. A CBS broadcast of the event also featured Meryl Streep.

Education advocate Diane Ravitch has called the film a “sneaky push for privatization” and said, “It’s sad to see Viola Davis involved … I remember when she won the Academy Award in 2010 and announced that she was proud to be a graduate of Central Falls High School, right at the time that all the corporate reformers were gloating about the threat to shut it down.”

Photo: People’s World




Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more.