Controversy swarms around ‘Won’t Back Down’ premiere

Amid calls for education reform during NBC’s 2012 Education Nation Summit, the Sunday night premiere of the film Won’t Back Down drew a crowd of protesters, voicing their objections to the movie‘s pro-’school-choice’ message.

The film, directed by Daniel Barnz and set to appear in theaters this Friday, has sparked controversy in the last few weeks over a storyline some teacher unions and education groups are calling unrealistic.

The project features two-time Oscar nominee Viola Davis, a teacher who works with a mother, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, to overtake and transform their children’s failing public school despite the challenges they face from the school and teacher unions.

What sounds like a feel-good movie has been blasted by critics for perpetuating myths about public education reform.

In an open letter, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote, “Using the most blatant stereotypes and caricatures I have ever seen – even worse than those in Waiting for ‘Superman’ – the film affixes blame on the wrong culprit: America’s teachers unions.”

Others have also said the film’s promotion of parent trigger laws as a successful way to transform schools is not accurate.

The highly-debated law was first passed in California in 2010 and has since been adopted in six other states. Parent trigger policy allows parents with children in under-performing schools to take a number of actions if they gather enough signatures in a petition. These actions include firing administration and staff, turning the school into a charter school, or even shutting down the school completely.

The law has already been seen in use by an Adelanto, California elementary school, where opponents have campaigned heavily against it and some parents have attempted to withdraw their signatures.

Weingarten wrote that the film deceptively promotes this policy, which “in reality limits teacher and parent voices.”

She also said that Won’t Back Down “offers parents a false choice.”

“You’re either for students or for teachers,” she wrote. “You can either live with a low-performing school or take dramatic, disruptive action to shut a school down.”

Michael Flaherty, executive producer of the film and co-founder and president of Walden Media, which produced the film, told The Grio the purpose of the film isn’t to divide parents and teachers.

“Our primary purpose was to entertain and to inspire. And as artists, we like to provoke and ask the big questions,” he said. “Our whole film is about teachers and parents being frustrated because the education establishment does not give them the voice and the authority they deserve.”

“I’ve yet to hear anyone address the basic question the movie asks. Which is, what would you do if you knew your child was trapped in an awful situation at her school?” Flaherty added. “And further, how far would a mother go to fight for her child?”

Walden Media is also the production company behind the highly praised and highly criticized film Waiting for ‘Superman,’ which follows several students as they attempt to enroll in charter schools.

“Parents don’t have more time,” Flaherty said. “Why can’t we get a better situation now for kids? Why can’t we agree that it’s unacceptable for some kids to be trapped in substandard situations?”

Viola Davis, who has claimed education as an issue close to her heart, told The Today Show in an interview yesterday, “I welcome protest. I welcome discourse. I think discourse is a good thing. I think it spearheads change.”

“And you know what?” she said. “In this movie, the teacher at the end of the day is the hero. They save the day.”

Later on the show, Gyllenhaal told Kathie Lee and Hoda that the protesters at the premiere were a “surprise” to her.

“I am a total union supporter,” Gyllenhaal said. “You can absolutely support unions fundamentally with your mind and your heart and you can also find some faults within them. If we don’t criticize even the things we believe in most, then they’ll stop serving us.”

When asked if he is worried the protests may affect the movie’s release Friday, Flaherty said, “I hope the protests continue. I hope that people see the film. The one thing we’re missing in this education debate is good, clean anger.”

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