Freedom Writers and Sweet Land
Both are about people struggling to survive in a hostile environment. Both are about people who start out very awkwardly, but slowly learn to care for each other. Both are about experiencing racial discrimination, both overtly and covertly. Both are about learning to succeed in small but important ways, like relying on hard work, and refusing to be beaten down, and withstanding the criticism and rejection of others. Both are about taking pride in one's own story, one's own struggle, one's own life. Both are about gaining respect by maintaining dignity, integrity, and self-reliance. Oh, and getting by with a little help from your friends.
Freedom Writers is based on the true story of Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank), who in the 90's was a young high school teacher in Long Beach, California. She was assigned Freshman English, and immediately assumed that her bright smile and positive attitude would win the hearts of her truculent charges. She quickly learned that Homer's Odyssey had no relevance for these inner-city kids, whose lives were filled with guns, violence, broken families, gangs, and the constant anxiety of merely surviving. They were hopelessly divided along racial lines, with palpable antipathy for each other. They considered her to be irrelevant at best, but more likely just another clueless white teacher bringing condescension, and a surefire formula for their academic failure.
What follows is truly an inspiration for all teachers everywhere. Ms. Gruwell starts listening to her students, really listening. It's obvious that she wants to care about them. She begins to alter her subject material, first looking seriously at rap music as poetry, studying the internal structure, then encouraging them all to keep a diary and being willing to read them if they wanted her to (and they did). Then, to demonstrate to them that they weren't the first people to face cultural repression and racial discrimination, she had them all read The Diary Of Anne Frank. Except that she had to work extra jobs to pay for the material herself, because the administration had become so jaded that they no longer allowed books to be issued to students, figuring that they would be trashed. So unused books sat uselessly in a storage room while Ms.Gruwell used her extra money to also pay for field trips (to the local Holocaust museum) and even taking her class out to eat at a nice restaurant (the hotel where she was a part-time concierge). Many of these teenagers had never been outside their own "hood". Many of them had never had an adult outside their own family show any interest in them. And they responded. They created a classroom environment where they could leave the gang stuff outside and just be themselves. They fought (the administration again) to stay together through all four years of high school, and many became the first in their families to go to college. And together they raised enough money, through group fund-raisers, to bring over from Switzerland the lady who had sheltered Anne Frank, and they were inspired by her. And when they finally graduated from Ms. Gruwell's class, they knew something about what it means to grow up. And to make a difference.
In Sweet Land, Inga (Elizabeth Reaser) is a German mail-order bride in 1920 Minnesota. Her intended, Olaf (Tim Guinee), is a reticent resident farmer who is so shy he can barely speak to her. They have some trouble with Minister Sorrensen (John Heard), who, representing the values of the community, isn't eager to accept her because she's German (World War I animosities still raging), she doesn't speak the language (Rev. Sorrensen will only allow English to be spoken inside his church), and they are living in the same house (though in separate rooms). Therefore, the opinion leader preacher won't make the necessary application papers to the judge, and when the pastor finally relents, the judge is even more stubborn. Yes, racial prejudice can extend to people of the same color (just ask Anne Frank). And the Church can be terribly complicit in perpetuating prejudice (just ask Dietrich Bonhoeffer). But Olaf and Inga, through hard work, determination, and generosity (helping needy neighbors), overcome both the community's reluctance and their own, and in the process they, too, learn something about growing up, and making a difference. Oh, and getting by with a little help from their friends.
Questions For Discussion:
1) Have you made a difference in the life of a child?
2) Have you ever been discriminated against?
3) Have you ever detected prejudice within yourself?
4) When is the Church its own worst enemy in being the harbinger of moral values?
When is it properly being the Church?
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Terrell, Texas