WASHINGTON -- The most controversial thing to happen at the Democratic National Convention this week may end up being a movie screening.
On Monday afternoon, a Hollywood film called "Won't Back Down" -- which opens in theaters nationwide on Sept. 28 -- will be shown to a select crowd of convention-goers in Charlotte, N.C., just as it was one week prior at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.
But unlike Tampa, where the promoters had little concern about making waves with the party establishment and had no trouble when they ran the idea past the Republican National Committee, the request for a Charlotte screening went to the highest levels of the Obama administration, which passed the decision off to the Democratic National Committee, according to a source with knowledge of the chain of events. According to this source, Valerie Jarrett, Obama's close personal adviser, and David Plouffe, his top political adviser, both saw the request but eventually handed the decision over to the DNC's political director, Patrick Gaspard, who raised no objections.
In Tampa, the movie received an overwhelmingly positive response. During one pivotal scene involving Viola Davis' character and her son, people could be heard crying throughout the theater.
In Charlotte, the film's promoters are expecting protests outside the theater, and possibly some inside as well.
Why all the fuss?
"Won't Back Down" stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as a single mother determined to get her daughter out of their failing public elementary school and Davis as a teacher at the school who joins with her to gather parent and teacher signatures behind a proposal to take over the school.
It's a movie about the push for school choice, a movement that has been gaining momentum around the country for the past several years. It is also a film about teachers' unions, who are one of the Democratic Party's biggest and most loyal sources of political contributions.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation's second largest teachers' union, blasted the film in an open letter this past week, calling it "divisive" and saying it "resorts to falsehoods and anti-union stereotypes."
"The film contains several egregiously misleading scenes with the sole purpose of undermining people's confidence in public education, public school teachers and teachers unions," Weingarten wrote.
The movie's director, Daniel Barnz, said in an interview Saturday that he was "disappointed" by Weingarten's letter.
"I think that people are a bit tired of the finger-pointing and scapegoating within this world. I think they just want to see a way in which our schools can improve. That's the spirit of the film," said Barnz, who described himself as a "liberal Democrat" from a family of educators.
"I think this film is an absolute celebration of teaching. It is pro-teacher and celebrates all the incredible things that teachers do," Barnz said.
There is no mistaking who the villain of the piece is, however. It's the teachers' union, which fights the reformer parents, trying to buy off Gyllenhaal's character and then smearing Davis' character.
Barnz insisted that "the film is not anti-anything. It's pro-children."
"The film is not an anti-union movie," he said. "It is possible to support and criticize unions. And that, I have discovered, is not a very popular thing to say."
Unions aren't the only ones raising objections to the movie. Pam Grundy, an activist from Charlotte who founded a local education group, called the film "a Hollywood fantasy" and said she and others from her group would be outside the theater handing out literature to "set the record straight."
"Don't try this at home. It's an inspiring story of two women coming together to make things better for their kids, but the direction they go in, in taking over their school and turning it into a parent-teacher charter school, is not a realistic way to really improve schools," said Grundy, who is also a founder of the national advocacy group Parents Across America.
"The idea that a charter school is going to magically change everything and just make things better for the kids is just not based in fact," she said. "Charter schools are every so often better than comparable schools, but they're more often worse."
Grundy said her local organization is also opposed to ending tenure for public school teachers and to giving teachers merit pay.
Ultimately, "Won't Back Down" doesn't confine its message to education. It is a call for each person, whatever their profession or political persuasion, to do a little better, try a little harder.
Barnz doesn't want his work to be perceived as an issue movie. "Its primary purpose is to entertain and inspire," he said.
But the film is critical of unions for resisting reforms like greater teacher accountability and more school choice. It hits on some of the same themes as "Waiting for Superman," a documentary by Davis Guggenheim (who also made the 17-minute pro-Obama film "The Road We've Traveled" and Al Gore's global warming film, "An Inconvenient Truth").
While "Waiting for Superman" was a well-done and well-received documentary, it packed nothing like the emotional wallop of "Won't Back Down." Even Weingarten said that "one can't help but be moved by the characters and story."
"Waiting for Superman" did not make a broad cultural impact, although many of those who saw and were influenced by it were undoubtedly among the political and media classes. Now, "Won't Back Down" is poised to land on multiplex screens across the country. It won't be just journalists, activists and highly involved parents seeing it. It will be teens and 20-somethings, adults of all ages and social and economic strata, many of whom have given little thought to education policy.
Frank Bruni of The New York Times reported in mid-August that Weingarten was shown the film and quoted her indicating she thought the labor movement had brought some criticism on itself.
"We bear a lot of responsibility for this," Weingarten told Bruni. "We were focused -- as unions are -- on fairness and not as much on quality."
Ten days later, however, Weingarten released her letter slamming the movie and targeting the film's studio, Walden Media (which also produced "Waiting for Superman"), and its owner, Philip Anschutz, who she said has "invested millions in anti-gay and extreme religious-right organizations."
But it is hard to paint the school reform movement as a right-wing conspiracy. Support for taking on teachers' unions is growing in Democratic and liberal circles. The best example of this might be Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a former organizer with United Teachers Los Angeles who is in favor of greater school choice and teacher accountability.
Villaraigosa is the current president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and in June, with the support of several high-profile Democratic mayors, that group included support for "parent trigger" legislation in its platform. Such laws allow parents to take over a failing school if they meet certain requirements, usually having to do with acquiring a sufficient number of signatures from other parents. In a majority-Latino community outside Los Angeles, a fight between the school board and parents, who are trying to use California's parent trigger legislation to overhaul their local public school, has become a national story.
Villaraigosa also happens to be chairman of the Democratic convention this year. After "Won't Back Down" is shown Monday in Charlotte, he is scheduled to speak on a panel at the theater, joined by Michelle Rhee of StudentsFirst, Ben Austin of Parent Revolution, and Sacramento, Calif., Mayor Kevin Johnson. Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker will also speak at the event.
So though little drama is expected inside the convention hall this week as Obama accepts his party's nomination for a second term, one of the most dramatic and contentious splits within the Democratic Party will be unfolding in a movie theater a few blocks away.
CORRECTION: This article originally stated that the American Federation of Teachers is the country's largest teachers union. It is the second largest.
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