Although opinions about the proper remedies differ wildly, nearly everyone agrees that the public education system in America is broken and failing to meet the needs of the children it’s tasked with serving. So great are the needs and so vast are the problems that the debate must become a multifocused national priority. And if Won’t Back Down can help spur that discussion I wish the inspirational film all the best in the world. If its can-do spirit rubs off on the parents and teachers who view the film, it serves a public good as a galvanizing agent. However, Won’t Back Down, which is said to be based on a true incident, has an agenda to push: the privatization of the public school system, a process that involves performance-based accountability and the erosion of the teachers’ unions. The film argues for parents and teachers to eradicate underperforming public schools by taking them out of commission and creating charter schools in their place. And by telling a victorious story about two women’s charge to overturn a Pittsburgh public school in such a manner, Won’t Back Down advances the argument for solving the educational quagmire on a case-by-case basis and avoids addressing the national responsibility to provide a quality education to all the public’s children, not just the ones whose parents shout the loudest.
Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the disgruntled mother, Jamie Fitzpatrick, the hardworking mother of a dyslexic child who is withering educationally and socially in the public school she attends since money ran out for her continued enrollment in private school. And Jamie is everything you want in an inspirational heroine: a spunky and grass-roots political virgin, who, like Norma Rae, gets swept up by her cause and becomes an unlikely rabble-rouser and figurehead. Her partner in stirring things up is Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), a once-honored teacher who has lately become a semi-lackadaisical cog in the system due to the nonpedagogical demands of her job and problems in her family life.
These two women start a movement that, one by one, enlists parents and teachers to evict the school’s current management and install their own. A process that generally takes years and miles of paperwork is condensed into an unrealistic two-month process of winning hearts, minds, and the permission of the board of education. The film jumps from scenes of doors being slammed in the women’s faces to a rally attended by 100 or more frustrated citizens. A romance Jamie conducts with one of the teachers is a distraction, even if it is PG-appropriate (and sidesteps how Jamie’s young daughter might feel when she sees Mommy kissing one of the teachers at her school). Likewise, Nona’s problems with her marriage and underperforming son lead to a melodramatic confession that seems out of place within the film’s overall mood of uplift. Furthermore, the film casts the teachers’ union in the role of the story’s villain, an option that’s far too simplistic and unfair.
The rescuing of our public schools is a national necessity. I just don’t know that we are aiding that cause by sending out oversimplified and dogmatic messages about not backing down.