Controversial Education Reform Movie Hits Silver Screens Friday

Published September 25, 2012

This Friday, school reform drama hits 2,500 theaters across the country: Won’t Back Down, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, presents parents and teachers united against the usual suspects to take over a failing school.

Producer Chip Flaherty hopes the film gets ordinary folks off their couches and into schools.

“A lot of people say this is an anti-union movie, and I disagree,” he said Tuesday. “I think it’s anti-complacency, anti-status quo, and it’s pro-parent. Right now, parents don’t have a seat at the table. They’re in a folding chair in a corridor outside the room. They can’t even see the table. Parents really need a voice and a saber to rattle to make sure they’re listened to.”

Unions Attack, Stars Defend
Flaherty may not think the movie is anti-union, but unions seem to feel attacked. The “parenttrigger” hashtag is filled with constant venom, and movie screenings have been beset with protesters.

The film uses “the most blatant stereotypes and caricatures I have ever seen,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest union. She also said the film “is divisive and demoralizes millions of great teachers” and accused the fictional film of perpetuating “falsehoods.”

When asked about the controversy on the Today show, starring actress Viola Davis, who plays a teacher who becomes her students’ hero, had two things to say.

“I welcome protests, I welcome discourse…It spearheads change,” Davis said. “We saw that in the 60s. That’s why we enjoy some of the privileges we do today. And you know what, in this movie the teacher, at the end of the day, is the hero. It’s the system that’s broken, and needs to be fixed.”

‘Most Important Issue of Our Time’
Where decades of bureaucrat-driven reform have failed, Won’t Back Down‘s producers and crew hope to succeed in generating the individual will necessary to transform failing schools by giving more power to the people.

“What we’re trying to do is get the folks on the couch who haven’t really thought about education—even though it’s the most important issue of our time—get them thinking about it,” Flaherty said.

The film tests the entertainment industry’s ability to generate social action. Flaherty noted that his company, Walden Media LLC, started out with films of classic children’s books, in hopes kids would be drawn to read the book after viewing the movie. Walden then began telling stories of “great lives well-lived.” But Won’t Back Down is different, he said:

“For once it’s not William Wilberforce, who is a hero to the movement, but it’s the common person… That’s the best story because it’s a celebration of free will and the importance of each individual, not only to their family, but in the community.”

Won’t Back Down opens nationwide September 28.

Read our movie review: “‘Won’t Back Down’ Celebrates Parent Activism.”