Won’t Back Down is an extraordinarily manipulative, insidious and consciously misleading film and perhaps the closest thing to naked propaganda made for a general audience since World War II.
Produced by Walden Films, the same people who created the scene -staging anti teacher “documentary”, Waiting for Superman, Won’t Back Down is a multi-million dollar, star studded commercial for something called the Parent Trigger legislation. The Parent Trigger is a mechanism created ostensibly to empower parents by making it preposterously easy for them to turn a public school into a charter school. (Once a charter school, it is currently impossible to revert back to a public school regardless of how poorly the school performs.)
But, as one of the major obstacles to parents actually pulling the Parent Trigger are teacher unions, Won’t Back Down is a full-length attack on teacher unions that is nothing less than mendacious and slanderous. In point of fact, Won’t Back Down is nothing less than a public relations equivalent of a bullet to the union’s brain.
Despite the presence of first-rate actors, the movie as movie is insulting and offensive on every conceivable level. But that does not mean it will not be effective. Won’t Back Down is a tearjerker in which the jerked tears are meant not to allow the audience to get in touch with their inner Oprah but to inform political opinions and inspire political actions of a decidedly undemocratic strain. It is designed to turn parents against teachers by tricking them into believing that the sole reason their child is struggling is because he or she has a “bad teacher “; deceive them into thinking that their only hope for their children’s future is aligning themselves with union busting privatizing billionaires. Won’t Back Down is also meant to turn teachers against themselves.
Won’t Back Down is a morality play pitting a fiery but good working class parent against her daughter’s lousy or even evil teachers and their oppressive union which seems somehow to dictate a deadening curriculum, cast a melancholy cloud over everything and, most egregiously, forbids teachers from working with their students after school. The plot runs as follows: Jamie Fitzgerald (Maggie Gyllenhaal) a feisty Pittsburg single mom with two jobs, rightfully disgusted by the horrific education her dyslectic daughter is receiving in the nightmarish Adams Elementary School, stumbles upon a little used and littler known parent empowerment law strikingly similar to the Parent Trigger. Desperate to get her daughter the education she deserves, Jamie attempts to enlist both parents and teachers in signing the petition to create a new if utterly undefined school where parents “get a say in what gets taught and how.” The only certainty is that the school would be non-union. At first, scornfully rebuked by both parties, especially the self absorbed and frightfully unlikable teachers ( save one ), she is also contemptuously dismissed by the honchos of the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Jamie won’t back down. She gains a confederate among the teaching staff in Nona Alberts ( Viola Davis) and soldiers on. In time – very little time, actually – she somehow convinces not only the previously reluctant parent body, but, after a night of drinking and Texas Two Stepping, the previously hostile teachers who are magically transformed and as happy as dolphins to surrender all rights and benefits for a school “for teachers who want to teach” and “is about the kids.” Who could argue with that ? In a final absurdity, after the Pennsylvania school board, because of a single faulty mathematical equation, turns down Jamie’s petition, Jamie convinces the board to reconsider by revealing that the equation was wrong because, she, like her daughter, is also dyslexic. Somehow this disclosure moves the board to hold a second and public vote. (Don’t ask.) In the end ‘because something must be done” the board approves Jamie’s ‘ new school, and there is much rock and roll and weeping for joy in Pittsburgh. The final scene shows Jamie’s dyslexic daughter Mylia who was struggling to read in the film’s grim opening scene, miraculously reading fluently in a bright beautiful class room filed with happy and well mannered children.
All this is absurd, of course, but we would do well to acknowledge that in a nation where the government and the media, serving a steady diet of insinuations, distortions and outright lies, were able to convince 70 % of the U.S. population that Saddam Hussein was personally responsible for the attacks of 9/11, absurdity is hardly a liability.
Propaganda, effectively produced and disseminated – and Won’t Back Down is nothing is if not skillful propaganda — is a formidable weapon against any population and that much the more against a frightened, confused and ill served people, which would pretty much sum up most of America at this point. And it is important to realize that Won’t Back Down is simply the latest volley, an expensive drop in a poisonous sea, in what has to be the most sustained, relentless and well financed public relations campaign against a once honorable profession – teaching – in the history of this nation. This campaign — let’s call it the Corporate Reform Industrial Complex – has been led and bankrolled by the richest and most reactionary forces and individuals in the country – Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton family, the Koch brothers and others — in league with the leaders of both political parties up to and including Barack Obama. The Complex has been broadcasting its agenda and bulldozing its pernicious whims and notions (standardized tests, value added teacher evaluations and the like) into policy for years now, resulting in no discernable improvement in student achievement even as they have achieved phenomenal success in dumbing down students, demoralizing teachers, destabilizing communities and helping to line the pockets of corporate test making companies from coast to coast. Naturally, the Complex has received enormous and wholly uncritical assistance from Time Magazine, Fox News, CNBC, PBS and virtually every other corporate media outfit. Indeed, as Won’t Back Down, is its second full-length anti teacher production, Walden Films can rightfully be called the motion picture division of the Corporate Reform Industrial Complex.
Like all effective propaganda Won’t back Down deals in broad strokes, traffics in heros and villains and aims to bypass rational argument, truth, and nuance, and appeals straight to the emotions. Writer Brian Hill and director Daniel Barnz know how to do this kind of thing, are good at it and leave nothing to chance. At no point in Won’t Back Down does one hear the words “charter school” or “privatization” or “billionaire” or “ALEC” or “union busting.” There is not hint of the effects of Obama’s insidious and deliberately destabilizing and astoundingly undemocratic Race to the Top, no mention of ballooning class sizes or idiotic, degrading effects on education systems based increasingly on standardized tests. You will listen in vain for any reference to the various Captain Ahab’s – Gates, Broad, DFER and Co, — who have been allowed to hijack the public school Pequot and sail it in almost any damn direction they please for years now, unbeknownst to the public at large, unaccountable to any one.
What one does hear, again and again are recitations from the catechism of the corporate reformers. For a special kick in the pants, they often come from the mouths of teachers.
Hence, as if channeling Mike Bloomberg, one hears teacher Breena Harper (Rosie Perez) plaintively inquire, “ What other profession guarantees a job for life after two years? “ (Answer: none, including the teaching profession.) Echoing one of the holy writs of Teach For America, Jamie dismisses the horrific and myriad realties of poverty with a single pithy and solipsistic declaration: “ I don’t need 10,000 studies about poverty. I know poverty sucks and my kid can’t read. “ At another moment Jamie dismisses any option other than the trigger by declaring, “The whole system is broken. It’s dead!” Even child actors are enlisted in the game: ”Hurry, ” says Jamie to her daughter as they rush through the morning streets of Pittsburgh, ” we’ll be late for school.” ”The school doesn’t care,” replies the little girl in a line that is meant to enrage every working mother in the audience.
Character after character speak as if they are but ventriloquists for the hidden masters behind the curtain.
All one needs to know about what is wrong with the American public school system and unionized teachers can be easily discerned from the opening scene in which Malia, Jamie’s pretty dyslexic daughter, stands in the center of a bleak , depressing classroom (all classrooms are bleak and depressing ) trying and failing to sound out a word on a filthy blackboard (all blackboards are filthy.) While her classmates openly ridicule the child, her overweight, miserable excuse for a teacher plays with her cell phone, too lazy and indifferent to even raise her eyes and look at the poor girl.
And it gets worse. Much worse. In short order we learn from a fellow teacher (Perez again ) that despite having the lowest test scores in Adam’s Elementary, the union contract demands that Ms. Cellphone is the school’s highest paid teacher. Hill and Barnz are not finished with Ms. Cellphone, however. Before the film is over this monster will lock little Malia in a disgusting broom closet – a vicious, cruel and criminal act for which any teacher in this country would and should lose their job – for needing to use the bathroom. Malia is only freed from her captivity by the unexpected arrival of Jamie. Does this act lead to Ms. Cellphone being arrested, led out of school in handcuffs and pictured on the 6:00 news ? Hardly. No one other than Jamie even seems to notice. There are no consequences. Such is life in Hollywood’s version of our public school system. By the films end, long after her colleagues have incomprehensively jettisoned their union in favor of a building a new school that favors the radical ideas of reading Shakespeare and having field trips
( what on earth were they doing in that school before hand ? ) , the cruel, criminal Ms. Cellphone remains gainfully employed if the only teacher from Adams Elementary to stick with the union. Get the connection? If not, you are not paying attention.
As the slanderous treatment of teacher unions is not merely central to the political agenda of this preposterous film but to the success of the corporate campaign to hijack and privatize public education, it is impossible to believe that they are the results of lazy research or poor writing or poetic license. Won’t Back Down is a work that is consciously dishonest, never more so than in its depiction of teacher unions. Consider the fact that character after character, teachers included, bemoan the ridicules contractual agreement cited again and again in the film that forbids teachers to stay after school and work with kids. Consider the fact the union’s reaction to Jamie’s increasingly successful campaign to remake the school is to try and bribe her by paying her child’s tuition to a spectacularly beautiful private school. Consider how the whole defeated, miserable filthy atmosphere of Adam’s Elementary is somehow the result of the union and its “600 page contract, ”: a contract that which puts the interests of teachers ahead of the interests of students, refusing in the sloganeering drone of Mike Bloomberg and Michelle Rhee and so many other corporate reformers, to “put kids first. Always.”
In works of fiction, such conceits fall under the rubric of poetic license. In politics they are called plausible deniability. Won’t Back Down is politics masquerading as poetry.
For a movie ostensibly about education and teachers, other than the grotesque behavior of Ms. Cell Phone, there is precious little teaching depicted. This is because, like all corporate reformer shills and the corporate reformers themselves, neither Hill nor Barnz has any idea of what they are talking about, any idea of what makes schools function, or any idea of what teaching is. Thus you get this kind of stuff: A re-energized Ms. Alberts (Viola Davis ) uses the time honored Socratic method to have her students examine a quote from John Adams, after whom the school is named. The kids respond enthusiastically. For some reason this routine exercise so impresses the formally cynical school board official that the official is moved to change her mind about the parent takeover project and then and there decides to back it. In another scene Jamie (who seems to wander the school as if she is already running it)
comes across a ukulele strumming younger male teacher who thinks it’s a good idea to have his students, perhaps third graders, two step across the room while reciting snippets from JFK’s bellicose inaugural address. Jamie agrees with this style of teaching and responds to this idiocy — a stunt that would land a New York City teacher in the Rubber Room – by declaring Mr. Ukulele “a good teacher.”
So much for pedagogy.
The Parent Trigger legislature as depicted in the film bears as close a relationship to truth as does Won’t Back Downs treatment of unions: That is to say, none. Like all of the corporate reform mechanisms, the Parent Trigger is the brainchild of a third party with vested interests in privatizing schools and plugged by a phony grassroots organization funded by billionaires. Unlike the mythology its cynical creators have manufactured, the Trigger is the labor, not of a handful of grassroots parents rising up to demand better schools for their kids but rather the brainchild of one Ben Austin, a policy consultant for a charter school organization in Los Angeles.
The Trigger mandates that a school be closed, its staff fired and the building turned over to a charter school corporation if 51% of parents can be persuaded to sign a petition. It is a reckless, wildly undemocratic and foolish idea and one that would have died on the vine if it were truly the fruit of the grass roots movement its adherents claim it to be. It is right wing fomented mob rule posturing as the essence of direct democracy. The trigger would have been strangled to death if it actually led to anything vaguely approximating parental empowerment in schools which is among the last things Corporate Education Industrial Complex wants or would ever allow.
Austin went on to form the organization Parent Revolution whose sole reason for existence is to promote the Parent Trigger, across the USA of A.
Parent Revolution, ostensibly an organization built to empower parents, is another in a seemingly endless line of billionaire backed phony grass roots front groups that help do the dirty work — especially the dividing and conquering — necessary for the absolute triumph of the Corporate Reform Industrial Complex. The parent revolutionaries of Parent Revolution are bankrolled by some of the most reactionary entities in America, including the Walton Family Foundation, the Heartland Institute and the extremely secretive American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that is always busy helping corporate America propose and draft legislation for states across the country, all of them salivating over the privatization of the public school system.
As yet the Trigger has only been implemented twice, both times in California, both times leading to very negative results: bad schools, divided communities, nothing delivered. But no matter. Such realities are meaningless in the rarified world of the Corporate Reform Industrial Complex where, after almost a decade of complete dominance over schools from coast to coast, they are still whining about the “ status quo ” as if it were someone other than themselves.
Won’t Back Down may well be a seminal product in American history as it is a popular film that exists solely as a vehicle for a political agenda. Its purpose is to put a union busting privatizing law on the map, make inroads into the American psyche, further undermine confidence in our school system, and further demonize unions and teachers. And this explains the almost presidential style public relations campaign the film ‘s promoters have led for the past month or so from coast to coast including events at both the Democratic and Republican conventions. There may be others, but I, for one, know of no other film that so nakedly and shamelessly served a political agenda. That the film is a commercial for the Trigger is not even disguised. Consider the following from Michelle Rhee’s StudentfirstNewyork.org, she who publicly vowed to raise a billion dollars to destroy teacher unions.
“For too long, parents of students in failing schools have been stuck without options. Not any more. A new reform called “parent trigger” is giving parents a tool to take charge of persistently failing schools and turn them around. Under parent trigger, a majority of parents can petition for real, transformative changes for their school. Seven states already have some form of parent trigger laws on the books, and more than 70% voters say they support them. These reforms haven’t come to New York – yet – but they have made it to the big screen. A new film, Won’t Back Down, opening Friday highlights a parent and a teacher – played by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis – who team up to turn around their failing school. Won’t Back Down tells an invigorating story of parents, teachers and concerned citizens working together for the good of the students. We’re trying to make that happen in New York – we need your help, and we need you to see this movie to see the possibilities.”
Last week, StudentsFirstNY hosted a screening of the new film Won’t Back Down. There was a lot of clapping, cheering and crying. But mostly, there was a lot of energy in the theater. Parents from across New York were inspired and motivated, ready to demand transformative education reforms for their children. After the movie, I met a single mother from Crown Heights, Brooklyn. She was so excited that there was finally a neighborhood organizing effort that gave her a voice. This was a mother who was engaged – a mother who works late nights and who wants a better education for her son than the one she received. She wants choice. She wants a good school with great teachers. She wants what I want for my own daughter – what we all want as parents. We’re working for that mom, and for the moms and dads across New York who want a great education for their children
The real purpose of Won’t Back Down is to utterly malign if not destroy the reputation of the single institution standing in the way of a complete corporate takeover of public education: teacher unions. Just as the Philip Morris Company once admitted in a confidential memo that cigarettes were nothing more than “ nicotine delivery systems, “even as the head of the company swore under oath that nicotine contributes to the pleasure of smoking, Won’t Back Down was created as a kind of “corporate education delivery system “, even as its publicists babble on about empowering parents, freedom parents and school choice.
Its toxins, lies, distortions, and simplistic solutions to the complex and deeply human problems of educating our nation’s children depicted in Won’t Back Down are meant to enter into the blood stream of every American who sees it without them even knowing it. Images are powerful weapons, that much the more in an increasingly a-literate, image- based society. It is not unreasonable to assume that for millions of Americans the perception of schools, teachers and unions will be to some degree formed by this film. That, in any case, is the purpose of the work.
The fusion of corporate culture and corporate agendas that Won’t Back Down epitomizes is deeply disturbing.
I fear that at the level it is practiced in this film it is something new in the American experience.
Let us hope that many see it for what it is. Let us work to make sure they do.
Addendum: Happily, as yet, this vile piece of junk has failed to catch on with the American public. This is cause for a bit of hope. Nonetheless, one of the advantages of have virtually limitless wealth combined a limitless desire to impose your will upon a nation is that such failures hardly need even slow you up. Consider the failures of standardized tests, charter schools, VAM and other corporate reform schemes to in any meaningful way improve anything concerning American education. This has hardly slowed the process of their metastasizing. Quite the contrary. With the tests, the implementation of the Common Core assures more students tests than ever before seen on the planet. Rest assured, these people will be back and that there is already another Won’t Back Down in the works.