The Truth Behind ‘Won't Back Down,’ a So-Called Anti-Teachers Union Film

The director and education reformers are speaking up about the film’s message, and the criticism it is getting from America’s teachers union.
Director Daniel Barnz and Maggie Gyllenhaal at a screening of 'Won't Back Down.' (Photo: Getty Images)
Sep 17, 2012
Jenny Inglee is a Los Angeles-based journalist and the Education Editor at TakePart.

In the new Maggie Gyllenhaal/Viola Davis film Won't Back Down, two mothers, one a teacher, weave through the maze of education bureaucracy to take over a failing inner-city school in Pittsburgh, Penn.

"Change a school, change a neighborhood," Viola Davis' character Nona says in the film.

Gyllehaal and Davis' characters bring their community together to transform the school in much the same way parents enacted the "parent-trigger law" in July 2012 at Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, Calif.

More: Parent Trigger Laws: Our Mayors Back Them, Do You?

While education reformers like Michelle Rhee stand by the film, other figures in the education space aren't as keen on the subject matter—specifically how the teachers union is portrayed.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the film uses "the most blatant stereotypes and caricatures," thereby affixing "blame on the wrong culprit: America's teachers unions."

She added:

This movie could have been a great opportunity to bring parents and teachers together to launch a national movement focused on real teacher and parent collaboration to help all children. Instead, this fictional portrayal, which makes the unions the culprit for all of the problems facing our schools, is divisive and demoralizes millions of great teachers.

On Friday evening, Michelle Rhee's organization StudentsFirst put on a screening of the film, which was followed by a panel discussion. The panel, comprising Rhee, the film's director, Daniel Barnz, and leading parent advocates Julie Collier and Gabriel Medel, inadvertently addressed some of the criticisms.

I don't think the problem is that the unions exist, the problem is that we don't have a national group advocating on behalf of children.

Director Daniel Barnz, who comes from a family of teachers, noted that the film is a "fictional story" with a "fictional law." "It's a story about parents and teachers coming together to put students first," he said.

Barnz told the Los Angeles Times that "it's an even-handed portrait. I think it's hard in this education reform dialog to have a position that falls in the middle. Ving Rhames in the movie says, 'You can support and criticize unions.' That's what I think the film does."

During the discussion, Michelle Rhee was asked how she views teachers unions. After a pause, she said, "There are a lot of people that want to blame the unions [for America's failing education system], but I don't agree...I don't think the problem is that the unions exist, the problem is that we don't have a national group advocating on behalf of children."

Gabriel Medel did not speak much on the panel, yet when he did, he exuded a deep passion for fair education. He is the founder of Parents for Unity, which organizes and empowers low-income and immigrant families to gain the knowledge and tools they need to change the current education conditions in their communities.

It is essential, he said tearing up, that parents "understand what's going on in the classroom." He hopes the film  will help "parents open their ears and be champions for their children."

If you are interested in seeing the film, it opens in theaters on September 28, 2012. In the meantime, if you want to reach out and help students in low-income schools, you can make a big difference through TakePart's Great Back-to-School Challenge. Here's a classroom that needs your support!

Jenny is the Education Editor at TakePart. She has been writing for TakePart since 2009 and previously worked in film and television development. She has taught English in Vietnam and tutors homeless children in Los Angeles. Email Jenny | @jennyinglee |

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