The film, Freedom Writers (2007) directed by Richard LaGravenese, is based on the actual diary entries written by the students of first-time teacher, Erin Gruwell, played by Hillary Swank. The racially mixed 9th grade English class students at Woodrow Wilson High School in the city of Long Beach, were belligerent and disrespectful and deemed “unteachable” by the faculty. The classroom was divided by race and the hatred they had between the other races- the African-Americans, the Asians, and the Latinos. However, in the end, with perseverance and dedication, Ms. Gruwell was able to connect with her students and taught them tolerance and acceptance and helped them to seek a future outside of the gang life and inspired them to continue with education after high school.
Among the Latino students in Ms. Gruwell’s class, Eva Benitez was the toughest Latina gang member. She was “third-generation.” Having had trouble with the law, she was forced to wear an ankle bracelet and given a choice by her parole officer of attending school or going to boot camp. Eva’s father taught her how to fight when she was young, always spoke of loyalty and told her to always “Take care of your own.”
The Latinos in the film are depicted as belonging to a gang and being violent. They stick together and fight over territory and for respect. They are depicted as being angry and revengeful. Tensions run high in the city and the school. “One of the major ways Chicanos become visible in public discourse is as “social problems” (Fregoso, p. 29).
In one scene Eva sneaks out of class and opens up the campus gate for her gangster boyfriend Paco and his friends. Soon after a fight between Paco and Grant Rice, an African-American student ensues. Eva follows suit and starts fighting with another girl, soon the school campus becomes a melee.
Later in the film, Eva’s loyalty is tested when she witnesses her boyfriend Paco, shoot Rice, but misses and shoots an Asian teenager who was standing nearby instead. Paco and Eva fled the scene and Rice was apprehended and falsely charged for the murder.
Eva is depicted as a loyal Latina gang member. “The Latino gangster, in sum, performs a threatening ethos of wild and uncharted ‘minor’ groups running amok in an always vaguely defined US mainstream society” (Hernandez, p. 91). However, as the school year continues and she spends more time in Ms. Gruwell’s class, she slowly changes, softens, and becomes more open to relationships with her other classmates that she once hated.
She becomes the prime witness and is conflicted between her “loyalty” to her own people and “doing the right thing” when testifying in court. Eva hesitates and then says, “Paco did it. Paco killed the guy.” After, she was faced retaliation from her gang members because of her betrayal and was followed and threatened. She was told she was not killed because of who her father was, but that she was dead them (the gang) and that one day she would see what happens to traitors (Freedom Writers).
The film depicts the gang lives in a realistic way. Eva’s story is only one of many in the film that is part of the Freedom Writers Diaries that was published on September 1, 1999. All of the students of Ms. Gruwell’s class all graduated from high school and the majority went to on to attend college.
Freedom Writers. Directed by Richard LaGravenese, Performances by Hilary Swank, April Lee Hernandez, Patrick Dempsey, MTV Films, 2007.
Fregoso, R. L. (1993). The Bronze Screen: Chicana and Chicano Film Culture. Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press.
Hernández, A. (2016). Excess spaces: Movement and ethnospaces in Brian De Palma’s Scarface and Edward James Olmos’ American Me. Cultural Dynamics, 85-102.