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Riding the Trojan Horse: Erin Gruwell and Maria Reyes on ‘Freedom Writers’

Hilary Swank and Erin Gruwell on the set.
by Dan Lybarger

It has been a privilege to write for for two and a half years, but occasionally the title of our site has offered a challenge in trying to land interviews. I once met a feminist filmmaker whose short subject astonished me and asked her if I could do an article on her and her powerful film. When I told her the name of the site, she politely, and understandably, refused.

I worried that something similar might happen when I met Erin Gruwell and Maria Reyes, two women whose real-life stories inspired writer-director Richard LaGravenese’s new movie Freedom Writers, which opens today. Two-time Oscar-winner Hilary Swank plays Gruwell, and April Lee Hernandez plays Eva, a character modeled after Reyes.

In the fall of 1994, Gruwell began teaching English at Wilson High School in Long Beach, Calif. Her students, who included Reyes, lived in a city that was racially divided, and her classroom reflected those divisions. Gruwell’s classroom, Room 203, had been a type of dumping ground for students with academic and disciplinary problems. In short, they were all children who were left behind.

Her students knew the cost of gang violence and other social ills first hand, and Gruwell was able to reach them by finding literature that her students could relate to. Books like Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo showed her students that other youngsters had grown up in war zones and had faced similar prejudices. Her pupils, despite the system’s low expectations for them, eventually made it to college.

Gruwell and her students later teamed up to write The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them, which chronicles their lives in vivid, thoughtful and engrossing detail.

Gruwell has also founded and currently serves as president of the Freedom Writers Foundation, which enables other schools to replicate the Freedom Writers’ successes. She also has a new memoir, Teach With Your Heart.

Like Gruwell, my mother used to teach students that the rest of the education system had ignored. Naturally, having two former educators for parents, I found the accomplishments of the Freedom Writers inspiring. Nonetheless, I was nervous about approaching Gruwell and Reyes because they were in Kansas City not only to plug the film but to raise money for the DeLaSalle Education Center.

The theater was full of catered food and people dressed to the nines. I seriously wondered how two people who helped overcome some lethal prejudices would react to the provocative name of my outlet.

To my surprise, the two not only laughed but even used the name in the answers to some of my questions.

It was intriguing to notice that the closeness between Gruwell and her former student depicted in the film was quite real. Gruwell and Reyes augmented each other’s responses, and Reyes still calls her mentor, “Ms. G.”

Both have strong opinions about what must be done to improve education and don’t need prompting to give detailed answers. Reyes quips, “We tell stories; we can’t just give you a sound bite.” Thank goodness there aren’t arbitrary space limits for web articles.

Dan Lybarger: The web site I write for has two names: I’m going to tell you the offensive name first so you’re not shocked:

Erin Gruwell and Maria Reyes: Oh, wow! (laughing)

DL: I didn’t want you rudely surprised.

EG: We love it.

DL: When I first saw the film, I thought it was appalling that the students (in your class) were treated like a by-product.

EG: It should be appalling. But I think what happens in our country is that our schools, I feel, are more segregated than they’ve ever been. Maria and I have traveled to about 45 states since our book came out.

Idealistically, when people go to college and they plan to be educators, we learn about Brown vs. (Topeka) Board of Education. Separate is never equal. And I think what we found in reality is our schools are oftentimes more segregated now under fancier labels.

So whether they go to a parochial school, a private school or even the code word “vouchers,” you see schools are very segregated. So what happened at Wilson was a very large district, that is public, that tried to integrate all the different races and economics. If it’s a passive integration, you have a self-segregation in the campus, and that’s what ended up happening.

On paper, Wilson was this microcosm of America, with rich kids and poor kids and every ethnicity. But because the integration process was very passive, when the kids got there, they segregated themselves and because the academic system trapped them. Since they were in elementary and middle school, kids were separated racially, with honor and ethnicity and the at-risk kids being the other.

It’s appalling, but I think that so many people fail to realize is that’s the reality of so many places today.

We were in DeLaSalle, where we were doing the charity even today. Overwhelmingly, there’s a disproportionate number of African-Americans to Caucasians. When we went to the detention center, once again when it comes to the continuation of schools’ programs in juvenile halls, there’s a direct correlation with their education.

What we’ve found is that when we’ve visited alternative programs or kids who have been incarcerated, a lot of those kids have learning disabilities, a lot of them have parents who were not educated themselves. So that cycle is repeated. As a country we spend so much money to incarcerate people, but we don’t put all that emphasis on educating them.

DL: Or something that could prevent detention.

EG: Or be proactive. I think it’s always better to be preventative or proactive. We’re very reactionary. I think that what we try to do in the film, which the screenwriter (Richard LaGravenese, The Fisher King and The Bridges of Madison County) did brilliantly, is to make this a film that makes people think about social inequality.

When we saw Schindler’s List when you leave the theater and there are these moments where there’s this little girl in a red coat. And this little girl becomes an icon for so many kids who’ve lost their innocence, whether it be the Holocaust or other genocides.

We were hoping that this film would be a snapshot of schools across this country and the universality of this issue. (It’s) taking place not just in Long Beach and in Wilson High School. But it’s happening in Kansas City and across this country where kids are separated along educational lines.

MR: I also think that the movie works on so many levels along side our book. It really
takes the reader, or the viewer when they watch the movie, to why kids are the way they are.

And I think that’s the most important thing is a lot of times we don’t understand why they behave a certain way. Or why when you do want to give them a second chance, like a lot of the kids that we saw in juvenile hall at DeLaSalle, and they don’t take it, and they’re stuck in juvenile hall.

I think a lot of the people that want to help haven’t experienced some of the things that young people have experienced in their lives. I think the movie does a great job of taking you to that place in understanding the way the students are the way they are, and especially with the schools.

Getting back to your original question, we knew that there was a difference between us and the honor kids. All we had to do was look at the room to know that it was better. They had better books, and they were treated better. We knew that we were the “step children,” and they didn’t want us there.

We got the crappy stuff, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure that out. We knew were different because we were made to feel different.

DL: (To Gruwell) It was really striking about the sacrifices you had to make just to get the materials for your classes. The film shows you working two additional jobs.

EG: I think all educators make sacrifices of some sort. In my estimation, it’s one of the most noble professions, but I don’t think people realize you can’t turn it off once the kids leave, that there’s so much involved with being an educator.

If you’re passionate, you take your job home with you. And when you lack those resources, for me and for other educators, you want the kids to know what it’s like to hold a book.

And what the film did so beautifully when I first purchased books for my students, I remember them smelling them. We take that for granted, but for a lot of kids that Maria and I have met, they’ve never had a book before.

They’ve never owned a book. They’ve don’t have libraries in their homes. One of the greatest joys for us is to give a person The Freedom Writers Diary and to be told “This is the first book I’ve ever owned” or “The first book I’ve ever read from cover-to-cover.”

MR: And they’re so surprised when you personalize it to them because it gives them a sense that this belongs to me, and this book is just for me. And they always get shocked, “It’s for me. I don’t have to share it.”

Because that’s what they have to do in (some) schools because there’s no money. They have to share. Or you have to leave it in the class room. It’s a really great validation.

EG: We went to the detention center this morning and in trying to validate the kids we said. “Stand up and tell us your name and when you’re getting out of here.” This one kid, his name is David, and he’s getting out tomorrow. I said, “That’s so great; that’s exciting. If you each write us a letter, we would like to personalize a book for each and every one of you.” And he said, “I’ll do that tomorrow.”

One of the women who worked at the detention center deliberately came this evening brought us the letter, and she’s taking the book, and when he gets his walking papers tomorrow, he’s going to get his book from us. That’s the kind of stuff to me as an educator—yes, I’ve worked multiple jobs, but you can’t put a price tag on the way it feels when kids get to go on a field trip for the first time or gets to meet a Holocaust survivor for the first time or gets to hold a book for the first time and knows “this is my book.”

And there’s things I did this morning that the movie touched on, like the Toast for Change, which is one of my favorite moments. Well, we replicated that today with the DeLaSalle kids. Maria and I stood at the door as they were all leaving.

There were so many great moments about being here in Kansas, but one of my favorites this afternoon was this girl was leaving, and she had her plastic champagne glass. So many of my students kept those plastic champagne glasses because it was symbolic of that toast.

Seeing that plastic champagne glass in your room is so much larger than the amount of money it took for me to buy sparkling apple cider and plastic champagne glasses.

To me that’s worthy of working those extra jobs and making a lot of personal sacrifices in my own life because that’s why I chose this profession in the first place. I’m glad that the movie captured that, but I also want to honor the other teachers who do that because they don’t have movies made about them or have books.

Teachers by their nature are givers, and they will sacrifice everything. I think if I could go back, I’d like to go back and pay homage to all those teachers who just do those simple things. For me as an educator and for Maria as a student, we now have the opportunity to validate teachers and students and humanity because we have been given this incredible platform, and we never want to take it for granted.

And we never want to lose sight of the bigger picture that it’s really not about us at the end of the day. I think we can say that because we’ve been so honored to be able to meet Holocaust survivors. For us when we met them, they represented something we will never understand. We weren’t there in the 40s, and we weren’t in Amsterdam in the attic or at Auschwitz.

And every Holocaust survivor we’ve ever met has always said, “This is bigger than me. I’m telling my story for the 12 million people who no longer have the opportunity to tell that story.” For both of us, we feel that if we can speak for teachers and speak for students and specifically speak for people who don’t have a voice and in giving them a voice, giving them a chance to validate who they are and their experience.

DL: From what I’ve read so far from the book, a lot of the events in the film were ripped right off the page.

EG: Deliberately so. Maria and I as well as the other Freedom Writers were used as consultants. In order for us to do this film, and we’ve actually been propositioned by several studios, multiple directors and multiple actresses, most of it all came down to the written word.

The gentleman who wrote the screenplay, Richard LaGravenese, is also the director. And we had this very candid conversation that if you’re going to do the story. It has to be the students’ words. You have to give homage to them and the diaries. Everything that happened (in the film) was either through an interview or through the diaries or direct interaction with the Freedom Writers to build that literary arc.

MR: It was a six-year relationship that we had with him. We met him back in 2000. I think in the beginning, he didn’t understand why we were so, “This can be another cheesy movie.”

We don’t want another—no disrespect to the woman who did that thing Dangerous Minds and no disrespect to any of them, but we knew our stories. We knew it was going to be different, and we wanted it to be real.

And we wanted kids to go look at this film and know that it was honest and that it was going to be as real as a Hollywood movie’s going to get. Because we were young, and we would have been like, “I’m not going to learn with people throwing candy at me.” I would have thrown it back at them.

We just wanted to make sure that people go to the movie and say, “That’s my story. I’ve been there. I’ve experienced that.”

And I think the fact that he was with us for six years and had this great relationship with us, he was able to honor our words and say, “This is their story. And I love their little thing (the tagline on the one-sheet poster), “Their story. Their words.” Because I really think he paid homage to us, the Freedom Writers, and I think we feel completely honored that he did that.

DL: How did you feel when you saw the Eva (April Lee Hernandez) character because she’s modeled after you?

MR: I thought she was great. I couldn’t picture anybody else doing that role
because people always ask me, “But she hasn’t done a lot of things.”

But I’m so proud of her performance. They could have given me any big name, but I still would have chosen her because she gets it.

EG: You see them together. They spent a lot of time together. You can’t decipher between the two of them: they look alike; they talk alike. They are the Bobsey Twins. It’s uncanny.

I respect all of the Freedom writers, but for Maria, she was in a vulnerable position because she was the most exposed.

That’s a really difficult thing to know your story, and I think because he so genuinely loves her and honors her that the casting process was the most difficult for Maria’s character. Because he thought, “I have to nail it because little Maria is a force to be reckoned with.”

I think it was serendipity when April Hernandez was cast because she is the epitome of Maria’s spirit, and her attitude is so unassuming even after the film has been made.

For her, this is larger, and as a Latina in an industry that has been known to stereotype, her attitude is now I’m going to make sure I get good roles, and I’m going to respect my culture, and I’m going to respect being a woman.

And she’s never going to sell out, and Maria’s never going to sell out. So I think there’s a symbiotic relationship if you were ever to meet her. It’s spectacular.

MR: It’s great because we don’t believe in coincidence. We know that everything happens for a reason. April and I had this great conversation about great stories that need to be told. There’s not a lot of great stories about people that look like us or that speak like us, even great successful black people that come the bottom and somehow make it up.

She’s like, yeah, I’m so determined to do stories that I want to tell through my acting. I think it affected her in every way outside of the movie the same way it affected us in the classroom.

DL: Ms. Swank is credited as an executive producer. How active was she in the production?

EG: I have to tell you that when I met Richard LaGravenese, it was June of 2000. And she was my first choice, and consistently for six years, I never wavered. What really struck me was that she had read the screenplay and really wanted it and voraciously fought for it.

In Hollywood, it’s a difficult thing to be a Latina; it’s a difficult thing to be a woman. Generally, women can’t open a film, and so there’s the “it” status. And there’s very few actresses who can carry a film and have opening box office weekend. Initially the filmmakers were coming off the success of Erin Brockovich, the Julia Roberts movie. She can open a film, so who’s the next Julia Roberts?

So initially this became the “it” movie for all Hollywood actresses. Though over the six years, every actress approached us: Cameron Diaz, Reese Witherspoon, Saundra Bullock, Ashley Judd, Kate Hudson, every one.

And unwaveringly I said, “No. I want Hilary Swank.” When she was given this role, it was such an emotional thing for her because she did not graduate from high school. She has her GED. And when she does a film, she so emerses herself in the film, whether it’s Boys Don’t Cry or Million Dollar Baby. And the same thing with us.

She has this duality where she trained as a teacher but had the sentimentality of a student who dropped out and the sentimentality of a student who came from poverty, came from a trailer park, came from dysfunctional parents and a divisive home. The time that we spent together has just been amazing because I think she truly gets it, and I think she’ll continue to get it.

And I think she’s going to be a great spokesperson long after the film comes out because like April Hernandez who played Maria, she sees the bigger picture. This is bigger than just a film, and I so honor her for saying “I don’t care about the money.” She took a very sizable pay cut to do this film, really voraciously fought to get this made and really honored the choice that we made.

She said, “I want to look like her; I want to dress like her. And I want to film it where they grew up.” So she really did everything in her power to make this as honest and gritty as well.

DL: Was this actually shot at Wilson?

EG: This was not shot at Wilson.

What they did that I thought was really incredible, is they recreated our classroom on a soundstage to the T. The school has since gotten a grant, and my room changed dramatically. So the film crew replicated my room down to the desks. The first time we walked onto the set all of us started crying. It was so emotional to see the heaters on the wall and the blinds that were broken.

I think that meticulous paying attention to detail was amazing. I use a purple pen; Hilary used a purple pen. The clothes that she wore were the clothes that I wore. Her mannerisms were the same. I think part of that was her going in saying if I’m going to have my name on it as a producer let me do what I do best, and that’s tell stories that are accurate.

DL: What are the conditions like in Long Beach now because it’s been almost a generation since the events depicted in the film?

MR: They’ve gotten better absolutely. We were coming right off the Rodney King riots and O.J. Simpson trial. There was a lot of racial divide. It was more like on your face, and you couldn’t really turn away from it.

I think that it’s a little more under, but it’s still there. People still live in the same neighborhoods that they did when I was growing up there. I think for the most part schools haven’t changed. It happens all across the country. It’s not just a Long Beach issue.

Even at DeLaSalle today, the Latinos all sat together, and the blacks sat all together, and we’ve seen that in every high school and juvenile hall that we’ve ever been to. I just think that depending on what you want to cover as the media and what teachers want to see and not see. That’s what people talk about. And unfortunately, they don’t want to tell that story.

It’s not a story that people want to hear. It’s not a happy story, but it’s still going on. And I think it’s what drives Ms. G. and I and 149 other Freedom Writers is that we know what happened in our city is going on across the country. Our story is still happening to so many young people in our country that education is not working for them, that education is failing them. And if education can work for us, it can work for every kid across the country.

EG: And maybe to piggyback and make it more contextual for you, we did this line game at DeLaSalle where we asked them to stand. And I think that one of the most poignant parts of the film is when they’re talking about how many people have lost loved ones, and several dozen students stood with five or more deaths, and this is here in Kansas City.

It was a very poignant moment for Maria and I a decade ago, but it’s here in Kansas City. It’s in the heartland of our country; it’s in the Midwest. And I think it really resonated with students. I think they wanted that moment of silence and to be recognized and to have those same kind of acknowledgements of that happened in the film but happened in room 203.

But to me it was very telling to have these kids come up to us as they were leaving the theater and say that’s my story. That’s how they feel, and when you can get teenage boys to admit they cried, that they now want to read a book for the first time. That’s a really chilling thing because teenage boys, they don’t have to like anything. I think that’s the toughest audience. When they do like something, that’s, “eureka!” You’ve got to bottle that.

MR: They all want to read the book; they all want to read The Diary of Anne Frank. They want to read everything that we read. I think that it tells the story of them relating to something and saying, ‘I can do that, too.’ And I think if anything that’s what we want to do: revolutionize education to not teach to a test and to a kid. Because when you teach to a test, you will never get this, ever.

EG: I think that maybe even going back to, I know this is the last question, your web site, Hollywood Bitchslap. I think that for us this was the truest way for us to be a Trojan horse because we infiltrated a system that has portrayed stereotypes and has made generalizations about race and economics and professions.

And for us, it was a chance to say, “We’re going to bitchslap you, but we’re going to do it on your own playground.” And we’ve infiltrated. You’ve given us a microphone, and we’re going to do your shows, and we’re going to do media.

But we’re going to let people know that the audience wants intellectual films. They don’t want it to be watered down. They don’t want to be spoon fed. And I think because Maria and I were so integrally involved in the creation of the film, and we kept saying, click it up.

The audience, they’re smart enough, and they’re going to get it. Don’t take the easy way out. Don’t make it something that they’ve seen before. Every time we pushed them to take a risk and we pushed them to take it to that level, and they did. I think people really crave that now.

I’m hoping that this film is the best way to do that “Hollywood Bitchslap.” Because I agree with you, there are so many ways as a viewer that for me are an insult to my intelligence. And I think who are making these films, and why are they making them? And how could they spend 200 million dollars to create this?

Here was a smaller budget film with great actors and very intellectual people and said, ‘OK, you’re right. We’re going to push the envelope. We’re going to make this gritty and give it an art house independent feel. And maybe it can be a blockbuster.

If this all works and the stars align, maybe this could be a good thing for our country.

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originally posted: 01/05/07 12:03:12
last updated: 01/05/07 15:08:41
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