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

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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 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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