Why Are Public School Advocates Boycotting Viola Davis’ New Film?

August 21, 2012  |  

Viola Davis is no stranger to playing controversial roles.

While it was her role as Aibileen Clark in The Help that garnered her an Oscar nomination, her role, as well as the film in general, caused quite a stir in the black community for its Disney like portrayal of race relations in the 1960s, particularly that belonging to black maids and their white employers. Now, Davis now finds herself under scrutiny again for a her role in a new film called Won’t Back Down, which also stars Maggie Gyllenhaal, Holly Hunter and Ving Rhames.

In the film, which has a release date of September 28th, Davis stars as school teacher/single mom, who teams up with a bartender/single mom, to tackle the monumental challenges of fixing a crumbling inner city school. In the trailer for the film, we see Gyllenhaal angrily pontificating over the need for change after her daughter, who we learn can’t read, is seen crying in the school’s broom closet after being punched in the face by a teacher. Not sure what Viola’s plot points are, as the trailer doesn’t focus much on her grievances, other than being sidekick to a feisty, motivated white woman.  But this film is said to have been inspired by a true events and we get to watch as these two lead the charge against an entrenched bureaucracy to takeover a school through a fictionalized version of a parent trigger law. These laws, passed in 2010, give parents the option to petition to overhaul the staff in an underperforming public school and turn it into a charter school.

The film has the same sort of David versus Goliath feel good education stories we come to be fond of over the years. Movies like Lean on Me, Stand and Deliver and Dangerous Minds largely appeal to us because it gives us hope that the answer to poverty and rampant violence in some of our poorest urban communities comes solely in the form of high educational standards and tough as nails, overly-devoted teachers, who are not only willing to buck the system but stand in as absentee parents to these wayward children as well. As such, it should be hit. However, despite the feel good nature, the film is also being heavily criticized for allegedly pushing an anti-union, pro-charter school agenda.

Some critics have complained that the film is a cloak its anti-teacher, anti-union slate, particularly highlight the films focus on “parent trigger” laws, which has been used to replaced unionized teachers with non-union charter schools. Such laws have been passed in several states, including California, Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana with more states considering their adoption.   Moreover, the film itself is produced through partnership between 20th Century Fox and Walden Media, a subsidiary of Anschutz Entertainment Group, which in turn is a subsidiary of the Anschutz Company.  The Anschutz company is owned by Philip Anschutz, an oil-and-gas billionaire, who has donated money to Americans for Prosperity, a right wing, anti- union, anti-environment regulations, anti-Obamacare (among other things), political advocacy group founded by the Koch Brothers. Besides Won’t Back Down, Anschutz is also behind the 2010 film Waiting for ‘Superman,’ a documentary called by many educators as inaccurate propaganda meant to push a pro-charter school agenda.

According to Parents Across America, a pro-public school education group, these parent trigger legislations are part of a larger pro-school privatization model legislation, written and promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). For those unaware, ALEC is federalist and conservative lobbying group, which pairs corporations with legislators for the creation of model bills. Portions, if not all, of these model bills have found themselves the basis of actual state and federal laws including various school privatization acts, voter ID laws and Stand Your Ground/Castle Doctrine laws, which were hotly debated in the Trayvon Martin killing.

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