A dyslexic child looks into the camera at the end of Won’t Back Down and correctly pronounces a word she had previously stumbled over: “Hope.” Thank God for the smart-aleck in the audience who loudly responded: “Boo!”
Whether or not that raspberry came from a member of the teachers’ union—which has loudly objected to this film about a working-class Pittsburgh mother who fights the public school system to create a charter school for the benefit of her dyslexic daughter—I was just happy that someone didn’t fall for Won’t Back Down’s bald-faced emotional manipulation. It conveniently repeats cant from the last presidential election to depict the crisis of public education as a progressive cause rather than simply a human story.
Maggie Gyllenhaal portrays that mother in her patented slatternly-flirtatious mode—simultaneously heroizing and condescending to working-class single mothers everywhere. Viola Davis plays her partner in revolution, a demoralized teacher whose own son has learning disabilities. Gyllenhaal-Davis represent solidarity—it’s the black woman who is middle class, the white woman who is uneducated—but it comes off as phony.
The credits boast “Inspired by Actual Events” but Won’t Back Down is actually inspired by political moralizing—that least trustworthy of Hollywood motivations. This is no longer the era of Socially Conscious movies; social problems have become the stuff of TV exploitation (Reality-TV freak shows), and our feature documentaries have warped into partisan advocacy just like our news media. Filmmakers no longer know how to imaginatively present human experiences that reflect sociological crises.
Won’t Back Down is a condescending version of what the excellent action movie Never Back Down (with Djimon Hounsou) effectively portrayed as the issues of moral responsibility and personal effort. It made essential what this movie simplistically reduces to an easily surmountable social problem, looking past actual economic disparity and self-interest and how they become entwined.
Old pro John Avildsen mastered this “engaged” genre. His 1992 Lean on Me wasn’t just a problem picture but a rousing look at the personalities behind our educational system. In Won’t Back Down, the specific personalities of class warfare are oversimplified to the point that they lose the significance of political ideology. It becomes a spectacle of Hollywood’s own dishonesty and inequality.
The Mammification of Viola Davis is part of this problem. Doomed to be a sidekick to white female co-stars, Davis is the end result of white feminist sanctimony. She carries a new load of righteousness on her shoulders—bitterness toward black men and hollow dissatisfaction with patriarchy. Davis produces snot bubbles on cue to signal emotional sincerity in every victim she plays. Her backstory revelation is cheap in ways Avildsen would never dare. It’s good to see the big-screen return of Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Secrets and Lies) playing a Board of Education exec; a relief from Davis’ smugness. Jean-Baptiste still has the best smile in modern movies and delivers the film’s one good line: “I read Kafka to make myself feel better.”
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