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Parsing Fact From Fiction In 'Won't Back Down'

Nona Alberts (Viola Davis) and Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) share a triumphant moment with Nona's son Cody (Dante Brown) and Jamie's daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind). (20th Century Fox )

Won't Back Down opens with a little girl's anguished face. It fills the entire screen. The camera hovers as she struggles to read a simple sentence on the blackboard out loud.

She's dyslexic. Not that anyone at Adams Elementary cares — least of all her second-grade teacher, who is berating or slapping kids around when she's not shopping for shoes online.

But if it was your kid who was struggling and nobody at school cared, what would you do? What could you do? That's how director Daniel Barnz hooks you.

"Have you heard about those mothers that lift 1-ton trucks off their babies? They're nothing compared to me," says the little girl's mother, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal.

She works two jobs, selling used cars and tending bar. Stressed out and dyslexic herself, she realizes that Adams Elementary — not her kid — is an academic basket case.

So she embarks on a campaign to turn Adams into a charter school and enlists a burned-out teacher at the school — played by Academy Award nominee Viola Davis — to help her do it.

You wonder though: If the school is so awful, why hasn't anybody said anything until now? Still, for some, the movie rings true.

"The notion that you should be stuck in an underperforming school and have no one respond to you is a bit un-American," says Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. "When you deal with an intransigent bureaucracy that's just not responsive year after year, there comes a point when parents have to have some kind of remedy."

Broy says that's why the movie is effective: It's a story about parents who realize they have the right and the power to do something about the quality of their kids' education. Although not everybody sees it that way.

"It's a fine movie. It's fairly entertaining. There are some weird and absurd things in it," says Julie Woestehoff, executive director of the education advocacy group Parents United for Responsible Education.

Woestehoff says the way the movie portrays the school takeover issue was just one of many things that weren't believable.

"Such as a mom who has two jobs who's able to somehow write a 400-page application to start a new school. And it does grab people emotionally. The problem is the packaging of this movie as part of a whole propaganda campaign promoting charter schools and going after teachers unions," Woestehoff says.

These were the central themes behind that other recent film that eviscerated teachers unions and also championed charter schools, the 2010 documentary Waiting For Superman. In fact, both films share the same producers and portray union leaders as scheming and ruthless.

In Won't Back Down, union leaders care more about their collective bargaining rights than about kids

This was fresh in people's minds as they walked out of a screening in Chicago, literally a day after the teachers' strike there ended.

Mary Thompson Powell and her husband, Daryl, have two children in a charter school. They were turned off by the way the movie treated teachers and unions.

"You know, I think some of the portrayal of the teachers at Adams ... it disturbed me," Mary says.

"I thought they did some things with the union that was a little bit like, 'Did you really need to go there?' " Daryl says.

So is Won't Back Down an accurate portrayal of teachers, unions, failing schools or parents? Maybe not, Broy says. Hollywood, after all, is known to manipulate rather than inform audiences.

"But if you look at the past decade and think about school reform movies or documentaries, not many of them had a broad reach," Broy says. "So I want to see more stories like this get out to foment the debate that can lead us to a better place."

For that, we'll have to wait for the sequel.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Hey, there's a new movie out today about struggling inner-city public schools. It's called "Won't Back Down," and it tells a powerful story that champions charter schools, vilifies teachers unions, and lionizes parents who organize to take over a bad school. Politically provocative subject, which raises the question in some people's minds of how much of the movie is accurate and how much is fiction. NPR's Claudio Sanchez has seen the movie and brings us this report.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: "Won't Back Down" opens with a little girl's anguished face. It fills the entire screen. The camera hovers as she struggles to read a simple sentence on the blackboard out loud.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WON'T BACK DOWN")

EMILY ALYN LIND: (as character) The...

(LAUGHTER)

NANCY BACH: (as character) Try it again.

LIND: (as character) I can't.

SANCHEZ: She's dyslexic. Not that anyone at Adams Elementary cares, least of all her second-grade teacher, who is berating or slapping kids around when she's not shopping for shoes online. But if it was your kid who was struggling and nobody at school cared, what would you do? What could you do? That's how director Daniel Barnz hooks you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "WON'T BACK DOWN")

MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL: (as Jamie Fitzpatrick) Have you heard about those mothers that lift one-ton trucks off their babies? They're nothing compared to me.

SANCHEZ: That's the little girl's mom, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. She works two jobs, selling used cars and tending bar. Stressed-out and dyslexic herself, she realizes that Adams Elementary, not her kid, is an academic basket case. So she embarks on a campaign to turn Adams into a charter school and enlists a burned-out teacher at the school, Academy Award nominee Viola Davis, to help her do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WON'T BACK DOWN")

GYLLENHAAL: (as Jamie Fitzpatrick) Do you want to take over the school with me? You think that's dumb.

VIOLA DAVIS: (as Nona Roberts) I think it's a knockout.

SANCHEZ: You wonder, though - if the school is so awful, why hasn't anybody said anything until now? Still, for some the movie rings true.

ANDREW BROY: The notion that you should be stuck in an underperforming school and then have no one respond to you is a bit un-American.

SANCHEZ: Andrew Broy is president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools.

BROY: When you deal with an intransigent bureaucracy that's just not responsive year after year, there comes a point when parents have to have some kind of remedy.

SANCHEZ: Broy says that's why the movie's effective. It's a story about parents who realize they have the right and the power to do something about the quality of their kids' education. Although not everybody sees it that way.

JULIE WOESTEHOFF: It's a fine movie. It's fairly entertaining. There are some weird and absurd things in it.

SANCHEZ: Julie Woestehoff is with Parents United for Responsible Education, a public education advocacy group. She says the way the movie portrays the whole school takeover issue was just one of many things that weren't believable.

WOESTEHOFF: Such as a mom who has two jobs who's able to somehow write a 400-page application to start a new school. And it does grab people emotionally. The problem is the packaging of this movie as part of a whole propaganda campaign promoting charter schools and going after teachers unions.

SANCHEZ: These were the central themes behind that other recent film that eviscerated teachers unions and also championed charter schools, the 2011 documentary "Waiting for Superman." In fact, both films share the same producers and portray union leaders as scheming and ruthless.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WON'T BACK DOWN")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: All-out war is how we've got to look at it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Under attack, we attack.

SANCHEZ: In "Won't Back Down," union leaders care more about their collective bargaining rights than about kids. This was fresh in people's minds as they walked out of a screening in Chicago, literally a day after the teachers' strike there ended. Mary Thompson Powell and her husband, Daryl, have two children in a charter school, but they were turned off by how the movie treated teachers and unions.

MARY THOMPSON POWELL: You know, I think some of the portrayal of the teachers at Adams, it disturbed me.

DARRYL POWELL: I thought they did some things with the union that was a little bit like, man, did you really need to go there?

SANCHEZ: So is "Won't Back Down" an accurate portrayal of teachers, failing schools, or parents? Maybe not, says Andrew Broy of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. Hollywood, after all, is known to manipulate rather than inform audiences.

BROY: But if you look at the past decade and think about school reform movies or documentaries, you know, not many of them had a very broad reach. So I want to see more stories like this get out to foment the debate that can lead us to a better place.

SANCHEZ: For that we'll have to wait for the sequel. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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