As the geeky guy who cried at Rudy, I'm a sucker for David and Goliath stories. I love movies about people who feel powerless, see a need for change in their world -- and go out and fight for it. That was half the reason I was drawn to co-write and direct Won't Back Down; the other half stemmed from my family's attachment to education -- my parents, grandmother, sister-in-law and mother-in-law are all teachers.
In recent weeks there has been heated discussion about the nature of the Goliath in Won't Back Down, but for me much of this debate tragically misses the point -- both of the film and of the issue itself:
It's not about us. It's about our kids.
When I set out to make the film, I began where filmmakers always begin -- with characters and story. I had two women living inside my head, whispering all their hopes and dreams and needs and fears to me. These women kept me up at night, insisting that they were reaching a breaking point, that something was gravely wrong, something they had to fix, right now -- because their children's futures were at stake.
When I started to put them to page, they set out to right that wrong, and in so doing, stepped into the complex politics of education reform. But they were never conceived of or thought of themselves as politicians or activists. They were just parents fighting on behalf of their children. The character played by Maggie Gyllenhaal is poor and lives in a neighborhood with a failing public school. She can't afford to move or send her daughter somewhere else, which means like many Americans, her daughter is doomed, educationally-speaking. That's fundamentally unfair -- as in civil rights unfair.
When she teams up with the teacher played by Viola Davis to transform the school, they find themselves in a confusing morass of conflicting agendas -- just as is starting to happen with the film itself -- especially in regard to parent trigger laws and teachers unions.
In conceiving the film, I was inspired by the parental activism at the heart of the parent trigger laws, and I believe that parents should play a decisive role in the education of their children. But Won't Back Down does not tell the story of a parent trigger law. Instead, it tells the story of parents who must come together with the teachers to transform the failing public school. I've always found that the best public schools are the ones driven by visionary and passionate educators -- schools like New York's Center School, founded by my mother-in-law.
My grandmother taught public school in the 1930s, and she is precisely the kind of person for whom teachers unions were created and bolstered -- so that she couldn't be fired for wearing galoshes (as women teachers could in the early part of the century). Since I'm pro-union and a proud member of two unions myself, the film details and pays tribute to the critical importance of teachers unions, but it also asks whether in protecting teachers they can simultaneously always protect the interests of the children. As Ving Rhames says in the film, "It's possible to criticize and support teachers unions."
When we did our first test screening, we asked the audience how the movie made them feel. We heard reactions ranging from "I felt empowered" to "I want to go fight for change" to "It made me want to become a teacher." During this discussion (and only because I requested it), the moderator asked the audience how they felt about the representation of the fictional teachers union.
The audience was actually taken aback by the question -- because it was so completely removed from their experience of the film. They were swept up in a hopeful, euphoric sense of forward-moving optimism. They understood that this was a movie about the possibility of creating change, not a referendum on the multiple obstacles depicted in the film -- parental apathy, bureaucracy, poverty, one dispassionate teacher, an obstructionist principal and yes, a single misguided leader in the teachers union. If anything, they saw the Goliath in the film as "the system" -- but regardless, it was like asking an Erin Brockovich audience how it felt about the representation of corporations -- it's just not what the movie is ultimately about. This audience -- like all the others I've observed since -- didn't leave Won't Back Down thinking, "Who can I go out and blame?" -- they left thinking, "What can I go out and do?"
My sense is that people are growing tired of the divisive and adult-centric education debate. They're frustrated by the endless scapegoating and finger pointing. They want to feel that there is a way we can help our kids, and when they see the film, they understand that it's an inspirational celebration of the way parents and teachers can come together to create change for our children.
Like Viola Davis's character says: "... it's the kids, just the kids -- that's who I'm trying to think about now."