Freedom Writers is based on the real-life story of a teacher, Erin Gruwell (portrayed by Hilary Swank) and her at-risk students. Set in 1994, two years after the Rodney King verdict was handed down and riots ensued in Los Angeles and the surrounding areas, 23-year-old Gruwell starts teaching freshman English at Wilson High School in Long Beach, California. Since the riots, Long Beach was relegated to a veritable war zone, with the area's inner-city schools housing many of the war’s soldiers.
Gruwell's class, made up of African Americans, Latinos, and Cambodians, with the exception of one white boy, all are street smart and wise well beyond their years, having witnessed poverty and violence first hand. While Gruwell tries in vain to capture their attention, it is only when she takes them to task for circulating a drawing filled with bigotry that she finds a crack in their stoic facades and a way in to teach them a thing or two.
While nearly every one of her students has been shot at and knows someone who’s died at the hand of gang violence, they know nothing of world history, including such events as the Holocaust.
Gruwell has them start journaling, and she takes them on class trips to such places at the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance, as well as fancy restaurants for dinner. They read The Diary of Anne Frank and raise funds to sponsor a visit from Miep Gies, the Dutch woman who helped Anne Frank and her family elude the Nazis.
While Gruwell faces battles in the classroom, she meets a different kind of resistance from her husband, played by Patrick Dempsey, who starts off supportive but in the end becomes self-centered. Granted, she does take on a second and, eventually, third job to pay for things for her students. But since Gruwell is facing racism in the classroom and among her own teaching peers, you’d think he would have stepped up and helped her out a bit.
In contrast, Gruwell’s father, played by Scott Glen, sees the good his daughter is doing and helps her however he can. As he tells her, she’s been “blessed with a burden” and he realizes she can’t just turn it on and off when it comes to these kids. She’s in it for the long haul.
Writer-director Richard LaGravenese leads this mostly young cast (with several acting newcomers portraying students), as well as two-time Oscar winner Swank, and is able to provoke excellent acting and touching scenes.
The film is rated PG13 and is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and 2.0 surround sound. An audio track is available in French, with subtitles available in English.
Extras include commentary with LaGravenese and Swank, which provides background of the film, as well as two featurettes, "Freedom Writers Family" (19:20) and "Freedom Writers: The Story Behind the Story" (10:03), both of which include interviews with cast and crew. There are also 11 deleted scenes. "Making 'A Dream'" (5:24) covers the production of "A Dream," which samples Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech and is a collaboration of Common and will.i.am. Rounding out the extras are a theatrical trailer of Freedom Writers, a photo gallery, and previews for Dreamgirls and Norbit.
On the whole, Freedom Writers is inspirational, hopeful, and entertaining, much like Gruwell herself.