viola-davis-web.jpgBy KIMBERLY GRANT
Special to South Florida Times

In Won’t Back Down, two mothers — Nona, a teacher (played by Viola Davis), and Jamie, a parent (Maggie Gyllenhaal) — attempt to change John Adams Elementary School.

The inner-city school is governed by an ancient bureaucracy that has failed its children for 19 years. As an F school, Adams, has quite a few issues. The principal “cooks the numbers.”

Teachers are content to allow students to run amok while said teachers send text messages. Other, frustrated teachers (read: good teachers) are forced to endure and make do with children who are passed along to them.

If only this story were not inspired by actual events.  Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, Calif., was ranked in the bottom 10 percent of the state’s school system and the lowest-ranked school in its district. In 2010 a bill called the parent Trigger Law was passed and used by district parents to organize and fight for the change that the school desperately needed. 


Two parents, Cynthia Ramirez and Doreen Diaz, formed a parent union and petitioned the school board, lobbying for the children of Desert Trails — and are still lobbying to this day. The consensus is that the parental involvement has not successfully changed a school.

Everyone knows that the public school system in many parts of the Land of the Free are failing. We all know that teachers’ unions, school boards and state and local governments share blame for this tragedy amongst America’s underserved youth.

We also know that parents cannot just count on teachers to educate their children; parents have to do some work as well. The unfortunate reality, meanwhile, is that many kids graduate from high school unable to properly read and write. 

Won’t Back Down isn’t a documentary on the events in California. It is a fictional account of what parents who take a stand against bad education could be up against in their fight for their children — with a fictional happy ending. 
Screenwriters Brin Hill and Daniel Barnz, with the latter directing, pull this underdog story together with an unflinching look at what it takes to give children the education they deserve. It’s important to note that Barnz is a child of two educators.


The film also addresses why even though parents complain, the same things are allowed to happen year after year. Unions in their quest to protect all teachers are defending teachers who should be fired, if you go by Won’t Back Down’s plot. 

Although the fictional teacher’s union uses smear campaigns and termination threats in their attempts to stop Nona and Jamie from bettering Adams, the film makes a case for the current climate of government attacking unions. It’s not clear whether Hill and Barnz are for or against unions, which like any other entity have good and bad points.

Davis and Gyllenhaal are stellar actresses and give their all to their roles. Davis as the recently separated teacher is magnificent, capturing the emotions a woman feels when she senses her child is in danger. She brings her fierce presence to a woman who at first comes off timid, but builds to a nice stride within her experiences.


Gyllenhaal disappears into Jamie and makes the character her own, as is Gyllenhaal’s nature as an actress. Seeing her performance in Won’t Back Down can make those familiar with Gyllenhaal’s previous work want to take a second look.

Other actors of note are Ving Rhames as Principal Thompson, who is in charge of the coveted Rosa Parks Charter School and the catalyst for Nona and Jamie’s quest to change Adams.

The Wire’s Lance Reddik brings a smooth calmness to Charles, Nona’s estranged husband. Rosie Perez as Breena tones down her sass to play a frustrated teacher on the brink of change. Marianne Jean-Baptist injects some comedy into a serious

Olivia, a school board member a week away from retirement.

Despite its happy ending, Won’t Back Down is bittersweet in that real life usually doesn’t have such endings.  And those who suffer the most are the children.