The movie is set in the early 1990's in Los Angeles just after the Rodney King riots. An idealistic young white woman goes to teach at an inner-city school with big dreams to change lives. She finds herself in a freshman English class with students who couldn't care less about their time in the classroom. She finally gets through to them by challenging their own racism and violence teaching them that it's just history repeating itself. She connects their story to the Holocaust, takes them to a Holocaust museum, has them read the Diary of Anne Frank, and they even get Miep Gies, the woman who hid Anne Frank's family, to come and speak to their class. The kids are inspired, and they write their own stories, and they grow and evolve as they go along on a new journey together. It's an incredible TRUE story, and beyond the sappy movie I thought it would be.
Most of our youth had seen the movie before, but it was STRIKING to watch it with them. They are LIVING the struggles the actors are playing on the screen. As the kids in the movie begin to write, they share their stories of pain and abuse.
One girl named 'Brandy' writes, " In every war, there is an enemy. I watched my mother being hlaf-beaten to death, and watched as bloodand tears streamed down her face. I felt useless and scared, and furious at the same time. I can still feel the sting of the belt on my back and my legs. One time he couldn't pay the rent. That night he stopped us on the street and pointed to the concrete. He said, "pick a spot."
And this is an exhange between the teacher and one of the students named 'Eva,'
Eva: White people wanting respect like they deserve it for free.
Erin Gruwell: I'm a teacher, it doesn't matter what color I am.
Eva: It's all about color, it's about people deciding what you deserve, about people wanting what they don't deserve. About whites thinking they own this world no matter what, you see, I hate white people.
Erin Gruwell: You hate me? You don't even know me.
Eva: I know what you can do. I saw white cops shoot my friend in the back for reaching into his pocket, his pocket! I saw white cops come into my house and take my father away for no REASON except they feel like it! Except because they can! And they can, because they're white. So I HATE white people on sight!
This is a CHARGED movie, and it was wonderful to watch it with our youth. It ends with inspiration and hope. Just the ending I want to see with our Ocean View youth. It reminds me that these kids do have incredible stories to tell, and they are courageous and choosing to come to church, even though it's the last thing most of their peers would do. They are my heros already.
Miep Gies says to the students, "but even an ordinary secretary or a housewife or a teenager can, within their own small ways, turn on a small light in a dark room."
It's so true and so possible. I am thankful for more hope.
Hillary Swank with the REAL Freedom Writers