Hilary Swank is bright-eyed, idealistic teacher in a recently-integrated LA public high school. Her class of freshmen is divided into at least four ethnic groups. Each group (except of course the honky — but no matter, there’s only one of him anyhow) has a strong sense of tribal loyalty; this fact is exemplified by turf wars in their respective neighborhoods. The first day of class brings the ongoing war into the school, with fights (among the boys) and some serious glaring (among the girls). Hilary is overwhelmed. Her second problem is the department head, who has basically thrown in the towel trying to accomplish something with any of the kids except honors students. But Hilary digs in with tenacious pluck. She learns how to relate to the kids and by the end of two years, the class is orderly, they have learned readin’ ‘n ritin’ (‘rithmatic is not mentioned), and they beg Hilary to stay for their junior year.
How did she do it? By (1) teaching them about the Holocaust, and (2) convincing them that they are important, that their voices are worth listening to, but only if they try harder. We can analyze the movie under the headings of these two themes.
1. The Holocaust theme was supposed to bring home that the logical consequence of tribal solidarity is hatred of every other tribe, with murderous consequences when carried to its logical extreme.
There are several problems with this thesis, however,
First, various historical distortions are made in the demonizing of the N’s (National Socialists, or Nazis). It presents them as pursuing a rhetoric against “Jews and blacks,” but actually the Negro was scarcely on the radar screen. And the desire to expel the judaic influence from Germany was based on concrete grievances. Let those grievances be valid or invalid: the point is, it was not simply race simpliciter. And the urge to expel was not particularly unique — cities and nations both Christian and pagan have resolved to expel the Jew hundreds of times in the last two thousand years. At some point, we hope that the N-word will be invoked in terms of a discussion that is intelligent, factual, fair, and relevant.
Second, it conveniently ignores the fact that the most bloody regime of the twentieth century was the Bolshevik Soviet Union, which advocated solidarity around an ideology of equality; its murderous policy was carried out without (much) regard to race, creed, or national origin. Yet, with a straight face, people still put forth the mantra, “tribal solidarity bad, ideology of equality good.” By changing the thesis to its opposite, “ideology of equality bad, racial solidarity good” and using the Soviet Union as the whipping-boy, a movie could be made with the exact opposite message of this one, with equal or greater plausibility.
Indeed, given the starting presuppositions of the tribes in Hilary’s class, it is not clear why they wouldn’t draw the opposite conclusion when learning about the N’s — namely, to take that movement as an heroic one. Given their presuppositions, the only reason would be that the N’s lost. But, as the father of Hispanic schoolgirl Eva explains to her, you have to lose many times before you win. So, Miss Gruwell’s gambit produced the “right” answer this time, but the logic is not compelling, and there is no guarantee it would work the next time.
Third, there is a bit of an analogy between the desire of the National Socialists for tribal solidarity and the ethnic turf rivalry in urban America. But this is a situation that has been exemplified continuously in the history of mankind since Noah’s ark landed. It is not going to go away by getting everyone to hold hands and sing Kumbayah.
2. The self-esteem theme has several defects.
It was only brought about by intense mothering by the teacher, that incidentally cost her her marriage. The question of the superintendent (Imelda Staunton) — yes, you did it once, but “what about new students that come in next year?” — is ridiculed, but it is actually a fair question. After two years, the class wasn’t ready to move on into new pastures. It was, in fact, an instance of growing some flowers by labor-intensive cultivation in a green-house in a manner that could not be repeated the 100,000 times that it would need to be repeated in order to really turn the culture around.
Second, the turn-around in the attitude of the kids was brought about by the triumph of just one of the represented cultures, namely, the Negro one. This is shown repeatedly by the one thing that gets them excited and motivated: rap music and extreme dancing. So, even the “cultural diversity” proves to be a lie. Peace arrives by the triumph of a single culture — it’s just different than the Anglo-Saxon one. The kids don’t learn to sit in hushed and dignified silence. There is no evidence that self-discipline and real academic accomplishment was actually achieved.
Just thinking “I’m really important,” writing books full of expressions of your inner impulses, and dancing wildly is no real solution to the current failure of education, culture, and peace in the American city.
See it once, and be amazed.