Friday, September 28, 2012

Hey Daniel Barnz, I Know EXACTLY Why I'm Protesting Your Movie!

I just cross posted a piece I wrote for WHYY's NewsWorks about last Sunday's less than empowering Parent Advocacy panel at Education Nation, which was followed by the NYC premiere of the film Won't Back Down, which was met with a protest across the street.

Since then I have read countless scathing reviews of the film (see them aggregated at Rotten Tomatoes) as well as amazing accounts of the day from others I shared the experience with, including the intrepid Leonie Haimson and student activist Stephanie Rivera.

What grabbed my attention today however was the seemingly disingenuous plea of the film's director, Daniel Barnz on the Huffington Post.  This guy is taking a beating for this movie, and I can only imagine he feels like he is trying to paint himself out the corner he now finds himself in.  But if you are paying attention, he's not really making much sense.   From the Huff Po piece:
In conceiving the film, I was inspired by the parental activism at the heart of the parent trigger laws, and I believe that parents should play a decisive role in the education of their children. But Won't Back Down does not tell the story of a parent trigger law. Instead, it tells the story of parents who must come together with the teachers to transform the failing public school. (Bold emphasis mine, underlined emphasis NOT MINE, it's Barnz's!)
Barnz seems to want it both ways.  He wants to be able to say that the movie is based on actual events, because as he says above, he was "inspired by the activism at the heart of the parent trigger laws" but also wants to separate himself from the Parent Trigger Law because in his pretend version of the legislation, 50% of the teachers in the school also need to buy in.

While this is indeed a difference between the real and fictional legislation, it does not excuse him discounting the protestors at the NYC premiere, who he said didn't know what they were protesting.  Check it out:
This is a movie that is all about the importance of making your voice heard.  These people out here, that's what the're doing tonight and I applaud them for doing it.  I just wish they were protesting what the movie is actually about because I know that they are protesting something that they think the movie is about, when in fact, it is not.
As someone in the midst of that protest everyone there was damn clear about what we were protesting. Barnz can't have it both ways.  The film can't be promoted as based on actual events, and Barnz can't say he was inspired by the Parent Trigger Law, and then turn around and say that when protesters show up to his movie protesting the very same Parent Trigger Law that we don't know what we're talking about.   As a parent, and parent advocate that works to improve the system from within, not tear it apart, here is what I found so deplorable about the movie.  

There were scenes involving both of the main characters that were so heavy handed, so contrived to make viewers hate the public school system and the teachers union, that they became excruciatingly painful to watch.   

For example, Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) runs into the school (she spends a lot of time running frantically from place to place in this movie...) to get her daughter out of a closet she had been locked in because her checked-out, compassionless teacher refused to let her use the bathroom and then locked her in the closet as punishment when she wet herself.  After Jamie rescues her daughter, the little girl unleashes her anger and frustration on her mother, screaming at her that she is poor, stupid, and uneducated and it's all her fault. 

Reformers continually discount the effects of poverty on our educational system, and in Won't Back Down this is brushed aside in one concise quote from Jamie.
I can't wait with 10,000 studies about how being poor effects education, I can tell you that being poor sucks and my kid can't read.
In the film, Jamie's daughter is dyslexic.  Perhaps the lack of services for her dyslexia is the reason she can't read, but instead of exploring those issues the audience is clobbered over the head with caricatures of bad teachers and callous union leaders.   

The parents and educators that protested this film do not discount the day to day struggle some parents face in the current education system.  One of the many issues we were protesting in conjunction with this film is the myth that closing a school and converting it to a privately operated charter has a significant chance of bringing about the change parents may seek, particularly if they have children with special needs.   

In fact, I was honored to protest beside Katherine Sprowal, whose son Matthew was "counseled out" of Eva Moskowitz's Harlem Success Academy because of his Attention Deficit issues.  Since her story was profiled by Michael Winerip in the New York Times, she has become a passionate parent advocate.  Why don't 20th Century Fox's Rupert Murdoch and Walden Media's Phillip Anschutz pony up for a story about Katherine and her son Matthew, done wrong by a famous charter chain and well served by a public school? 

That'll never happen, I know, so back to the film they DID bankroll... 

Nona Alberts (Viola Davis) struggles with her son who has trouble doing his work and seems to have a learning disability or developmental delay of some kind.  We also see the incredible love she has for her child; her desire to protect him and keep him safe is palpable.  His learning issues are clearly a tremendous source of strife not only for her as a parent, but as an educator, and it is implied in the film that somehow the child's learning issues are the reason for the troubles in her marriage.   

In an attempt to thwart Nona's crusade to take over the school, union leaders produce a flyer with a title something like "Why Nona Alberts shouldn't run a school."  We see the flyer on the desk of union leader Evelyn Riske (Holly Hunter) as she struggles with whether to use the flyer.  She decides not to use it just as she finds out that her boss has already sent it out.    

Cut to Nona kneeling at her son's bedside (in her ex husband's house, because we have already been through another heavy handed plot twist where Nona takes her son to live at his father's new home so that he can attend a better school) to explain to him that people may be saying mean things about him and his mommy, so she needs him to understand what happened.   

Nona begins to tell her son that when he was a baby he had colic, and she didn't handle it well.  She urgently explains to him that one night he was particularly colicky, so she drove him around in the car to lull him to sleep.  We are then forced to watch as she confesses that she had been drinking and neglected to properly strap him in, had an accident, and he was thrown from his seat and hit his head.  Through her tears she tells him that this may be why he is "slow." This is what the union produced flyer exposed.  The union exposed the most guarded secret of a mother who had "failed" to protect her child when he was young and was now suffering as a result.  

This was then compounded by the tender moment when the child tells Nona that he isn't "slow" (even though every scene the kid was in revolved around his frustration that he is "slow" and his struggle to learn) and he kisses her in the same protective, loving way Nona kissed him goodnight earlier in the film. We have been told by the reformers for years that the union is out to protect the rights of teachers, children be damned.  But to portray the union as actively hurting a family to protect their interests, which in this case is supposedly to continue allowing a failing school to fail while doing nothing to improve it, is deplorable.  The scene literally made me nauseous.    

After the premiere was over the woman behind me in line for the ladies room said to her friend, "I wish there had been a 'where are they now' at the end of the movie!" Being the bigmouth that I am I couldn't help but whip around and inform this poor soul that this was NOT a true story, that those were NOT depictions of real people, and that this HAS NOT happened anywhere in the country.

To which the confused movie-goer replied, "But it says it is based on actual events?!?"  

My reply?

"Yeah, they lied."

Note to Daniel Barnz: I know EXACTLY what I am protesting.  

Before the movie I was protesting the Parent Trigger Law, the influence billionaires like Murdoch and Anschutz have on public education, and the misperception that charters are the answers to the problems in public education.  

Now that I have seen your movie I am protesting the fact that you lied to your audience and made them think this is a true story and your twisted portrayal of parent empowerment.


  1. I don't believe the hype that he didn't have a clue what the reaction would be....he is sticking to the talking points and he is lying, great post Darcie. I check in regularly.

  2. He knows. He is lying and sticking to the talking points given to him by Phil and Rupert. Obey your masters, Daniel.

  3. I just came across your blog after following a link from an EdWeek article. As a veteran teacher of 19 years, thank you for your advocacy and your willingness to stand up for what you believe is right.

  4. It is interesting to note the director, Daniel Barnz, ne Bernstein did not even graduate from a public school. From at least 7th through 12th grade, he attended one of the most prestigous private schools in the country outside of Philadelphia, Friends' Central School. I should know, I was in his class from 7th through 12th grade. He also lived in an extremely affluent suburb outside of Philadelphia and his father was a professor of philosophy at Haveford College, having earned his Ph.D. at Yale. Mr. Barnz also attended Yale under pressure from his father; his first choice was Columbia. So I take all his activism, advocacy and poor-mouthism with a boulder of salt.

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  6. The ONLY place a special needs child will get all the services he/she needs is in a public school. How many charters employ OTs, PTs, or teachers with specialized training? The uninformed public is being duped every day, by those with money and access to media. Charter schools suck money from public schools. They were supposed to unleash the free market on education and show that public schools were inferior to charter schools. After 20 years of promises from charter operators, it's easy to see it's all snake oil.