Directed by Richard LaGravenese (‘Living Out Loud’), ‘Freedom Writers’ is a 2007 film that revolves around English teacher Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) and her at-risk students at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California. Young and idealistic, Erin devotes herself completely to her students’ education and helping them rise above the prejudice and crime they experience every day. She distributes composition books among her students so they can use them as journals. Because of her unorthodox approach to teaching, she receives much criticism from her colleagues, especially from her departmental chair. If the film’s candid depiction of racial tension and gang violence has made you wonder whether true events inspired it, this is what you need to know.
Is Freedom Writers Based on a True Story?
Yes, ‘Freedom Writers’ is based on a true story. LaGravenese developed the script for the film from the 1999 book ‘The Freedom Writers Diary,’ a compiled version of the journal entries by the real Erin Gruwell and her students. In 1994, Gruwell joined Woodrow Wilson High as a student-teacher. The students that she was assigned to were reportedly regarded as “unteachable” by school administrators. As a result, the students came to believe that the system had betrayed them.
When Gruwell started teaching, her optimism and tenacity were met with skepticism from the students. After she came across a note depicting a racist caricature of one of their classmates, she spoke to them about how racist drawings like that were indirectly connected to horrifying events in world history such as the Holocaust. Much to her surprise, most of her students didn’t know about one of the bleakest chapters of human history. She then arranged for them to watch ‘Schindler’s List’ and purchased books with her own money. She also convinced distinguished personalities to come and speak to her students.
She taught the same group of students in their sophomore year. Just like in the film, the students started keeping journals following her instruction, and that habit brought them closer to each other than ever before. They realized that they had more things that they thought in common beyond racial differences and community violence. The students came to be known as the Freedom Writers, the name of which serves as a tribute to the 1960s multiracial civil rights group Freedom Riders.
Gruwell encouraged her students to read books like ‘Night’ by Elie Wiesel, ‘Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo’ by Zlata Filipović, and Anne Frank’s ‘The Diary of a Young Girl.’ The last one, in particular, had a remarkable effect on several of her students, including a girl named Maria Reyes, who is reportedly the inspiration for the character Eva Benitez (April Lee Hernández) in the film.
Eventually, all 150 of Gruwell’s students graduated from high school, and quite a few of them went on to attend college. After Gruwell established the non-profit organization Freedom Writers Foundation in 1997 with the Kingston Technology Company co-founder John Tu acting as the benefactor, some of her former students started working under her.
Asked in an interview about how she connected with her students, Gruwell stated that “as a new teacher, I just wanted my students to put down their fists and pick up a pen and embrace that cliché that the pen is mightier than the sword. And I just had to understand why they were resistant to reading and writing in school.” She actively sought to uncover their stories, and by doing that, she helped them become storytellers. This led to the publication of the New York Times best-selling book and the critically acclaimed film. Evidently, ‘Freedom Writers’ is based on an amazing true story.
Read More: Best Teacher Movies