Did 'Writers' get it wrong?

Times Staff Writer

Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach is one of the school district's jewels. Situated near million-dollar homes, it's considered a "learning academy" where uniformed students study classics and others vie to make its waiting list.

But in the new Hilary Swank film "Freedom Writers," that same school is portrayed as a beaten-down inner-city nightmare, run by bitter burned-out teachers and populated with well-armed students.

"Anybody who knows Long Beach knows the high school is nothing like that," said Long Beach Unified School District Supt. Chris Steinhauser.

Despite that, Steinhauser considered the film uplifting. But other Long Beach residents -- like the subjects of other true-life stories -- are appalled at the Hollywood version. They aren't happy with its portrayal of the true story of Long Beach teacher Erin Gruwell and her at-risk students, saying it offers an oversimplified, insulting narrative about the community: poor racial minorities triumph over lazy, jealous teachers and The Man.

The Freedom Writers -- Gruwell's 150 students who named themselves for the civil rights group -- included Caucasian and middle-class students, the critics point out. One was the popular football quarterback. Wilson High's students also came from affluent Eastside neighborhoods with waterfront mansions, and plenty of teachers at the high school helped Gruwell and her cause.

Gruwell and writer-director Richard LaGravenese stand by the film, which opened Friday to a modest $9.7 million. They spent six years crafting the screenplay, with Gruwell and her students guiding LaGravenese's drafts. Much of it was taken directly from "The Freedom Writers Diaries," a collection of excerpts from the students' journals that offers an often wrenching account of their home lives.

Gruwell and LaGravenese stress that the movie takes place from 1993 to 1998, when Long Beach and Wilson High were much tougher than they are today. Gruwell says her classes were as they appear in the film: predominantly made up of African Americans, Latinos and Asians. The white, middle-class students, Gruwell says, only joined after word spread of her teaching methods. As for the gritty look of the film, Gruwell says that the classroom in the movie is an exact replica and that filming couldn't take place at Wilson because the school district demanded too high a location fee from Paramount Pictures. Two L.A. schools -- Hamilton and University high schools in West Los Angeles -- were used instead. (Paramount declined to comment.)

"People who are making comments don't know the true story," Gruwell said. "When you take a subject matter of intolerance, we had to look at every single angle of a story to bring it to life. When it comes to complexities of race, people need to talk about the fact that this is an enormous city that has been compartmentalized."

The controversy comes at a particularly sensitive time for locals. Long Beach is one of the most diverse cities in America, with the third largest school district in the state and a community of both great wealth and extreme poverty. Ten African American teenagers are now on trial for the brutal Halloween night attack in affluent Bixby Knolls of three white women, an incident police are calling a hate crime.

The city has worked hard to distance itself from the image popularized in the songs of rap artist Snoop Dogg, such as the gang-banging, drug-infested "LBC." "Freedom Writers," they say, will only recast the community as dangerous.

"We're not in Wyoming," said Wilson High School parent and alum Ben Goldberg. "But we're not in Watts, either."

"Judging from the film, you'd think that no teacher had ever tried this," wrote Long Beach Press-Telegram film critic Glenn Whipp on Friday. "Worse, you'd guess that apart from the noble Gruwell, no other teacher cares.... Gruwell's work is noteworthy, but it is by no means unusual, despite the film's cartoon-like portrayals of her bitter, envious and, in one case, racist colleagues."

Whatever qualms Long Beach residents may have about the movie, they turned out en masse to see it last weekend, giving the city the largest turnout in the country. At a local showing that Gruwell and some of her Freedom Writers attended, Gruwell said that audience members asked for autographs from her students. The website for her nonprofit, FreedomWriters Foundation.org, meanwhile, got 29,000 hits after the film's release, a significant increase.

"Freedom Writers" details the well-publicized success of Gruwell, who as a student teacher inspired her racially diverse classes to bond as a family, commit themselves to their education and, most famously, publish their diary excerpts, which they did, to wide acclaim.

Though many of Gruwell's students came from supportive homes, others survived homelessness, domestic violence, gang killings and sexual abuse, and still graduated from high school (only one earned a GED). About half graduated from college, and a dozen or more are pursuing teaching degrees. "The Freedom Writers Diaries" was published by Doubleday in 1999 and is now in its 22nd printing.

Longtime Gruwell supporter Fran Sawdei lashed back at those who have accused Gruwell of spending too much time teaching her kids tolerance or guiding them on life skills and neglecting to give them the basics. It was a charge that surfaced indirectly during a recent interview to promote the film.

"I know Barbara Walters on 'The View' kept saying, 'Did you teach them math? And did you teach them English?' All this harping on the academics," said Sawdei, of Huntington Beach, whose son attended Wilson with the Freedom Writers and who has worked with Gruwell since then.

"[But] she gave those kids manners, she gave them etiquette, she gave them connections," said Sawdei. "She really taught them skills for life."

In a Sunday article in the Long Beach Press-Telegram, Wilson High teacher Brad Rudy called Gruwell self-promoting, talking more about her own achievements than those of her students. In response, Gruwell said she has "never taken one penny" from the Freedom Writers and, in fact, has spent much of her income to support them.

"I think my students' success speaks for itself," she said. "There's always going to be naysayers who are opposed to change. I am truly an advocate for change."

Ultimately, no one can deny Gruwell's achievements. And even those miffed over the liberties the film takes say the true story is uplifting.

"Nobody wants to see their city or their school district portrayed in any kind of negative light, particularly something that's more than a decade old," said Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster. "But you've got to take this in stride. The people that live here know what the city's about."

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gina.piccalo@latimes.com

Times staff writer Nancy Wride contributed to this report.

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