Race, Class, and Gender in Freedom Writers Movie

8 August 2016

Media, which serves as an information and entertainment outlet, also helps to illuminate the different classifications of people such as race, class, and gender. The movie Freedom Writers, directed by Richard LaGravenese in 2007, is a great example of a movie that is filled to the brim with insight and different perceptions of these barriers between people. We follow the story of a teacher, Erin Gruwell, as she begins her new teaching career in a school that has been introduced to an integration program.

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The students that occupy the desks in room 203, who are disinclined to learn from Gruwell, share their stories and how these social constructions shape their lives. Class plays a significant role in every individual’s life. LaGravenese focuses primarily on the lower class in this movie and shows how much of an impact it can have. Most of the students are portrayed as poor and uneducated, qualities generally consisting of lower class members. In the game that Gruwell plays with the students called ‘the line game,’ she asks students how many of them live in the projects.

Incredibly, almost the entire class comes to stand on the line. This game is to show the students that they have more in common than they think and to show how they begin to bond, (Jung-Ah, 246). It also shows the audience what each individual has experienced and to give some background into each person. Learning that the majority of the class lives in the projects and everything they encounter on a daily basis, the audience gains a sense of sympathy and sorrow for them.

This is what the director is trying to depict in this movie; that the lower class students’ needs compassion and understanding to help them change from their violent ways into the educated and tolerant youths we know they can be. Throughout the film there are many examples of what the lower class consists of in the eyes of society. It shows poor girls and boys wearing clothes from last year, working on the streets to provide rent money to their family, being homeless, going to juvenile hall at a young age, selling drugs, and most of all, becoming part of gangs.

These are all kinds of people we think the lower class is made up of, and it is because we see them as lower class that others, such as the teachers at this high school, assume they are unwilling to change and make progress like all the other students. The head of the department at Woodrow Wilson High School consistently tells Gruwell that the students are not worth all the effort she is putting in, saying they don’t deserve the good books because they can’t read and will destroy them.

She is saying that because they are lower class, they don’t warrant the same attention and resources as those of higher classes. Erin Gruwell is the only other person’s class rank that we are presented. She is middle class but she does not look down upon the students as being inferior to her in any way. The other teachers however, start seeing Gruwell as being lower than them because she sides with the students. It is when “Gruwell is realized to be a ‘‘traitor’’ to her middle-class origins, that they behave in a manner that is vile and sanctimonious,” (Saltmarsh, 128).

There is a significant part in the movie where one young Latino girl, Eva, finishes the book Anne Frank; she’s distraught due to the fact that Anne dies in the end. She yells at Gruwell saying if Anne doesn’t make it, what does that say about me? There is a correlation between Anne Frank and the students of the lower class, particularly the gang affiliated ones. Anne Frank was trapped, afraid, and unsure of whether she would survive each day. This is very much how each of the students feel by being in the lower class; they feel trapped, saying the only way they can make something of themselves is by playing a sport or rapping.

They, too, are afraid that someone will take their lives; they are paralyzed in a state of uncertainty, not knowing if the next day will be their last. This is exactly why the book hits each student so hard. Class is not only a way for society to separate people, but it’s a way to make others feel inferior and keep the hierarchy intact. Gender, whilst being a biological separation, also separates people farther into superior and inferior roles. LaGravenese did not focus on the negative aspects of gender when he directed this movie; however, it presents itself in various forms such as Erin Gruwell’s husband.

He is a failed architect that works a job he isn’t necessarily happy with, and when Gruwell falls in love with her job, he is spiteful to her because of it. He gets more and more upset with her as she spends an increasing amount of time at school helping her students and less time with him. It is a mold that men fit into as soon as they start growing up, they need to be the men of the house and should be the ones ‘bringing home the bacon. ’ It is when the roles are reversed and it is the woman in the relationship that is successful in the workplace that he gets distressed and irritated.

When they begin to fight about her job and how she never spends time at home, he says their relationship is not working because he can’t be her wife. The connotations that are suppressed in this sentence are ludicrous. He uses the word wife as if it’s a terrible part to play in the relationship. He insinuates that it’s the subordinate role and he refuses to succumb to it, although he does not see it as a problem when she’s the wife in the relationship. Gender is not just about two different sexes, it deals with the social roles that each of these genders take on.

Race is one of the main focuses of this film and LaGravenese makes sure the viewer knows it. Race is seen everywhere, whether we acknowledge it right away or not. The opening scene shows how gang violence has destroyed cities, and we hear the haunting words of Eva saying she had to be a part of a gang, “…to fight for her people, as papi and his father fought, against those who say we are less than they are, who say we are not equal in beauty and in blessings,” (Eva Benitez) The film opens showing the hatred that different races have for each other.

Eva plays a prominent role in Freedom Writers; she is full of anger and loathing towards other races particularly Caucasians due to her traumatic childhood when her father is arrested unlawfully by white police officers. She expresses to Gruwell that she hates her and all other white people because she says, “white people always want their respect like they deserve it for free,” (Eva Benitez). She’s correct, white privilege is real and white people do expect to be treated better because of the color of their skin.

While the Latinos, African Americans, and various other races are put into ‘dumb’ classes, the white students get the better resources and respect from the teachers. The one exception to this is the lone white boy, Ben, who is utterly afraid to be in the same class as the other students of different races. Towards the end, he refers to himself as courageous for staying in the class, as if he has faced a monster and defeated it. I particularly hate his choice of words because it shows how ignorant white people are when faced with a racial challenge.

It is typical for Caucasians to fear those of other races and it is socially accepted, however, when the roles are reversed and it’s Latinos that fear white people, it’s seen as preposterous because whites are safe while the other races are the ones that are scary and vicious. Outside of the classroom, the groups are severely separated, it’s not by friend’s cliques or who likes each other, it’s separated by race and the people you’ve learned to trust because you’re in a gang with them. They’re separated by skin color, which is what race-ethnicity is all about (Amott, Matthaei, 281).

Inside the classroom is no different when they begin; fights break out, nasty notes are passed to each other, and harsh words are exchanged. The teachers only build onto this separation and feeling of subordination by giving them terrible quality books and not putting quality time into teaching them. The teachers in Woodrow Wilson High School in fact blame these students and the integration program for ruining their high scholastic records. Even when an extremely bright African American woman tries to get into advanced classes the school tells her it might be better if she stayed with her own kind.

This shows precisely how white people think this is a white country and how other races don’t deserve the same treatment as whites (Rubin, 201). It is people like Erin Gruwell that make this world the kind of place it should be. She looks past students colors to teach them and create a safe haven for them to come into and feel safe. She teaches them about the Holocaust and shows them the effects of mass killing, the devastation, and the pain that come along with it; relating it to their lives of killing other races to protect their race pride and respect.

Gruwell takes race out of the equation in her classroom; she shows the students that they have ties with each other, common bonds between them. Although race is a huge factor in everyday life, if we begin to treat others like the students in classroom 203 did, we could move past the color boundaries that put us into superior and inferior positions in society. The movie Freedom Writers is an inspirational and educational film that focuses on the social constructions that make up the society we live in. Race class and gender are all classifications that keep us bound in a hierarchy that keeps subordinates as inferior and dominates as superior.

Overcoming diversity is a hard task when our world has been built around separating people into different categories. If we were to teach everyone that whether you have dark skin or light skin, if you’re lower class or upper class, and if you have masculine qualities or feminine qualities, that were all just people trying to make the best of what we are given, maybe we can stop the hatred and anger towards one another; but for now we stay in our boxed in ideas of who should be on top, and who should be stuck on bottom of society.

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