Won’t Back Down


There's no cause so great that matching t-shirts won't solve.

There’s no cause so great that matching t-shirts won’t solve.

(2012) True Life Drama (20th Century Fox) Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Oscar Isaac, Holly Hunter, Rosie Perez, Emily Alyn Lind, Dante Brown, Lance Reddick, Ving Rhames, Bill Nunn, Ned Eisenberg, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Lisa Colon-Zayas, Nancy Bach, Keith Flippen, Robert Haley, Lucia Forte, Sarab Kamoo, Teri Clark Linden, Joe Coyle, Jennifer Massey. Directed by Daniel Barnz

When it comes to our kids, we are all agreed on one thing; a good education is important. Sadly, not all kids receive one. Areas which are economically under-advantaged tend to receive shoddy educations in crumbling facilities from disinterested teachers.

But some parents won’t take that situation lying down. Jamie Fitzpatrick (Gyllenhaal) works at a car dealership and tends bar at night to make ends meet. Her daughter Malia (Lind) is dyslexic and gets bullied at her Pittsburgh school, all under the eyes of teachers who don’t care and a principal (Nunn) hamstrung by union regulations and a venal school board. Fed up, Jamie tries to get her daughter into a charter school, but her number isn’t picked in the lottery.

There’s another parent there that Jamie is surprised to see – Nona Alberts (Davis), a teacher at Jamie’s school. Why doesn’t Nona try to make things better at her own school for her own daughter? Of course she’s tried to, but has hit stone wall after stone wall from the Union and the Board and she’s tired of fighting.

&But there’s a ray of hope; there’s a law on the books that will allow parents to take over a school that is underachieving (as Malia’s school is) but parents so inclined have to jump through an awful lot of hoops in order to do it. That doesn’t dissuade Nona and Jamie as they take on the Union, who try to intimidate the teachers with potential job loss (which is a very real possibility) and the School Board, who don’t want to cede control of one of their schools to parents lest it spark a district-wide revolt.

In the midst of this, single Jamie finds a boyfriend in math teacher Michael Perry (Isaac) who gets a bit miffed whenever Jamie expresses her frustration with the Union but he ends up being a staunch ally and Jamie and Nona slowly begin to win the parents to their side, giving them all matching T-shirts for a rally (was there ever a cause that didn’t benefit from matching t-shirts?) that will take on those who stand against their kids having a fighting chance at a future.

If this sounds a bit strident and political, it’s because it is. I won’t say that the film is outright anti-Union, but it does paint the Union as villainous, more concerned about protecting bad teachers than about educating the children of their communities. The School Board doesn’t come off much better, painted as a group that plays politics when it comes to funding and personnel. I suppose your reaction to the film is going to depend on your point of view; those who are very much pro-Union are going to have issues with it, those who think that privatizing education is the way to go will love it.

That set aside let’s look at the filmmaking itself. Technically, the film is decent – nothing to write home about on the one hand but on the other competently done. It’s hard to make the less prosperous end of Pittsburgh look glamorous but Barnz at least makes it look like a nice community to live in for the most part.

The cast is terrific, with five Oscar nominees (past and future) and/or winners (Hunter, who plays the smug Union head here, won for The Piano in 1987). Gyllenhaal is marvelous and for Davis who was just beginning to cement her reputation as a talented actress when this was made also is memorable as the teacher who goes from zombie to ace during the course of the movie. Isaac, essentially an unknown when he made this, also is fine as the love interest.

While I don’t necessary agree with the filmmakers’ point of view – the Teachers Union isn’t the sole reason for problems with American education; one has to also look at the decline of parental involvement, poverty, the rise of distractions like videogames and the Internet and also the high cost of higher education for the reason why education has fallen so drastically. Adding new charter schools, vouchers and other solutions advanced from the right aren’t necessarily the only things needed but don’t address other conditions that are obstacles to every child receiving a proper education.

This is a complicated issue and while I think that the hearts of the cast and crew are in the right place, the execution takes a kind of Hollywood “happy ending in 90 minutes guaranteed” point of view. Nevertheless I don’t necessarily think that it’s a bad thing to call attention to issues that affect all of us – and the education of our children certainly does. Innovation has to come from somewhere and if our population is lagging behind the rest of the world in know-how and let’s face it, desire to innovate, we could find ourselves a third world nation sooner than we think.

WHY RENT THIS: Attempts to tackle real issues facing modern education. Fine performances by Gyllenhaal and Davis.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little smug and simplistic. Pro-union viewers will be outraged.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild profanity and thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Loosely based (very loosely based) on actual events in Sunland-Tujunga, California in 2010.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are a couple of featurettes here, The Importance of Education and the somewhat disingenuous Tribute to Teachers considering how much teacher-bashing the film does.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.3M on a $19M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Waiting for “Superman”
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Time That Remains

The Garden


The Garden

An urban oasis.

(2008) Documentary (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Rufina Juarez, Tezozomoc, Josefina Medina, Eddie Luvianos Rumbos, Deacon Alexander, Miguel Perez, Jan Perry, Juanita Tate, Doris Bloch, Dan Stormer, Ralph Horowitz, Danny Glover, Darryl Hannah, Antonio Villaraigosa, Joan Baez, Dennis Kucinich. Directed by Scott Hamilton Kennedy

 

The land is the important thing. It is what nurtures us, gives us sustenance. There are those who identify with the land as surely as they identify with their selves. It is more to them than a plot of dirt, or a bit of grass. It is everything.

After the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, a 14 acre plot of land in South Central Los Angeles that was intended for use as a trash incinerator until neighborhood activists put a stop to it was given by the city for use as an urban garden. It would be the largest of its kind in the United States.

The garden at East 41st and South Alameda was primarily tended to by primarily Hispanic farmers, many of whom had been farmers or were descended from farmers in Mexico. They grew vegetables and fruits almost all native to the region that encompasses Mexico and the Southwestern United States known as the Mega-Mexico Vavilov Center (sounds like a discount store doesn’t it) some of which are considered weeds (like dwarf nettle and seepweed) but were used for herbal and medicinal uses by the farmers, while others were vegetables and fruits not commonly available at supermarkets.

The farmers used these vegetables and fruits to supplement the diet of their families; the excess they would sell to other families in order to buy new seeds and whatever else they needed to tend their garden.

Of course prime real estate in Los Angeles has a habit of finding different uses. While the city owned the land, they had acquired it through eminent domain, paying what was considered a fair market value for the property. Part of the agreement for that eminent domain was that if the land was sold for non-public or non-housing purposes, the original owners had a right to repurchase ten years after the property had originally been condemned.

Ralph Horowitz, one of the partners in the investment firm that was the largest of the nine owners of the property, sued the city for breach of contract. While the city denied his claim, eventually in a closed door negotiation the suit was settled and Horowitz was allowed to repurchase the land for slightly more than the city had paid for it, which was substantially under the market value at the time.

A few months later Horowitz notified the farmers that he was terminating the use of the property as an urban garden and that all the farmers would be evicted as of February 29, 2004. The farmers, who formed a collective known as South Central Farmers Feeding Families, immediately obtained legal counsel from Hadsell and Stormer Inc as well as Kaye, McIane and Bednarski LLP and a lawsuit was filed seeking to invalidate the sale. The litigants were able to obtain an injunction staying the termination date while the legal matter was settled.

The farmers lost the lawsuit and attempted to negotiate with Horowitz to buy the land themselves. Horowitz demanded $16.3M  for the property, more than three times what he’d paid for it less than two years earlier. The farmers eventually raised the funds with the help of the Annenberg Foundation, but Horowitz didn’t respond to the offer because it came after his eviction deadline.

The case had become a cause célèbre in Los Angeles, with celebrity activists such as Baez and Hannah actively protesting the eviction (Hannah would be arrested for tree-sitting in a walnut tree on the property and refusing to leave when the police ordered her out) and on June 13, 2006 at 3am in the morning, the police surrounded the property, evicted the protesting farmers and allowed Horowitz’ contractors to bulldoze the Garden.

This is what most of us saw. What we didn’t see was the political chicanery going on behind the scenes. Of promises made and broken. Of politicians showing support for the Garden but doing nothing to save it, and of community activists whose agenda was less for the community and more for their own profit.

The sympathies of the film lie clearly with the farmers. The main spokespeople, Juarez and Tezozomoc come off very well, speaking passionately and in Tezozomoc’s case quite eruditely on the controversy. Coming off less well are Horowitz, community activist Juanita Tate and U.S. Representative Maxine Waters, both of whom are portrayed as corrupt and politically savvy.

This was an Oscar nominee for Best Documentary feature and with good reason. The strength of the farmers, nearly all of whom were from the poorest segment of society, is inspiring as they took on the political powers-that-be in the City of Angels as well as the wealthy segments of society. While it is certainly one-sided, it did capture the facts nicely as well as some of the background as well.

While the story doesn’t end happily for the farmers, it does at least bring to light some of the injustice that took place and made accountable those who gave lip service to serving the people but were in reality serving themselves. That is, unfortunately, all too common a situation today.

WHY RENT THIS: A moving account of underdogs standing up to City Hall and developers.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Little of the criticism leveled against the activists is explored or even mentioned..

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words used here and there but not so many as to be distressing to parents.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As of June 2011, the site remains a vacant lot with the proposed warehouse and distribution center still unbuilt.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on the history of the Garden, as well as a look at celebrities who visited it during the protest. There is also a film festival Q&A with director Kennedy and film critic David Poland.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26,931 on an unreported production budget; I’m pretty sure the movie was unprofitable from a box office standpoint.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Fair Game