Won’t Back Down is a crude work of art.
Each character in the new film, about Pittsburgh parents and teachers who band together to take over a struggling school, is crafted less as a believable human being than as a talking point. First there are the students of F-rated Adams Elementary, a tapestry of white, black, Latino and Asian children. But racial diversity is not typical of failing schools; of the seven shut down in Pittsburgh this year because of low performance, two are more than 95 percent African-American, and the rest more than two-thirds black.
Then there is the seedy union boss who couldn’t care less about children and who has politicians in his pocket; and the best teacher at Adams Elementary, who happens to be a young, white, male Teach for America alum named Michael, who grows more troubled each day by the excesses of organized labor—despite his liberal inclinations. While many Hollywood education melodramas feature a white teacher saving a school of poor children of color (think Dangerous Minds), Won’t Back Down strives for some modicum of political correctness. Here the reform spark is lit by a white, working-class single mom, Jamie Gallagher, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal with almost noxious levels of wide-eyed, girlish spunk. Frustrated by failed efforts to get her dyslexic daughter placed in the classroom of an effective teacher, Jamie convinces a veteran black educator, Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), to join her in enacting a “trigger” takeover of the school—that is, a majority of parents and teachers can sign petitions to oust a school’s management and reconstitute it as a nonunionized charter-type school. In this effort, Jamie and Nona are opposed every step of the way by a cartoonish teachers union, which bribes Jamie to give up her fight by offering her free private school admission for her daughter, and publishes a flier attacking Nona as a bad mother.
The idea of a parent takeover is based on laws recently passed in seven states, the most high-profile of which, in California, does not require any teacher buy-in at all—though it does offer the option of schools remaining unionized post-trigger. It could be years before any school fully completes the parent trigger process; the furthest along is Desert Trails Elementary, a predominantly Latino school in Adelanto, California. School choice activists there have been opposed by teachers unions and have received support from Parent Revolution, a nonprofit funded by Walden Media and the Gates and Wasserman foundations.
Though Won’t Back Down is hackneyed and sentimental, Davis’s restrained emotionalism breathes life into Nona, a middle-class divorcée who had idealistically followed her mother into teaching, only to become burned out after years of battling bureaucracy. I found the character of Jamie much more improbable. Although she works days at a used-car dealership and nights at a bar, she never seems sleep-deprived or sick or worried about health insurance. Jamie always has the energy to grab a stack of petitions and rally parents to her cause with a smile; somehow she also has time to begin a romance with Mr. Teach for America. And though Jamie’s boss is constantly yelling at her for spending more time on activism than on work, she miraculously never gets fired.