|Freedom Writers (2007)
Starring Hilary Swank and Patrick Dempsey
based on the book "The Freedom Writers Diary"
July 30, 1974
Birthplace: Bellingham, Washington, USA
Birthplace: Glendora, California, USA
||April Lee Hernandez
January 31, 1980
Birthplace: The Bronx, New York, USA
Birthplace: Long Beach, California, USA
"I asked them, 'How many of you have been shot at?' and at that moment all the kids raise their hands. Whether or not it was true, they had this bonding moment where they were pulling up their shirts and showing where they'd been
knifed, and showing where they'd been hit." - Erin Gruwell, Be Heard YouTube Video Series, December 2006
Questioning the Story:
Was Erin Gruwell's husband in the film based on a real person?
In the movie Freedom Writers, Hilary Swank's character lives with her husband Scott, played by actor Patrick Dempsey (Grey's Anatomy). In the film, as Erin Gruwell becomes more devoted to her teaching, her husband Scott starts to feel neglected. Eventually, the two divorce with Scott telling her,
"I'm living a life I didn't agree to." This part of the movie is true. Erin Gruwell and her husband did divorce for reasons similar to those presented in the film (pluggedinonline).
Did the woman who hid Anne Frank play herself in the movie?
No. The woman who hid Anne Frank, Miep Gies, was played by veteran stage and screen actress Pat Carroll. However, the real Miep Gies is remarkably still alive today. She turned 98-years-old in February of 2007, just several weeks after the movie Freedom Writers was released in theaters.
As depicted in the film, the real Miep Gies did come to speak to Erin's students after they raised enough money to fly her from Amsterdam. Miep was 87 when she came to speak at Woodrow Wilson high school in Long Beach, California.
She came during the 1994/1995 school year. "People sometimes call me a hero," says Gies. "I don't like it .. I myself, I'm just a very common person. I simply had no choice. I could not save Anne's life."
Anne Frank Video Slideshow (3:16)
Did Erin Gruwell invite anyone else to speak to her students?
Yes. Erin also wrote to Zlata Filipovic, a Sarajevo girl who published diaries that dealt with the war in her homeland from September 1991 through October 1993. Erin and her students persuaded Zlata to fly to Long Beach, California to visit them at Woodrow Wilson High School. In reality, this is what prompted Erin to encourage the kids to write their own diaries,
which were eventually compiled into the book "The Freedom Writers Diary". Zlata Filipovic has been described as the new Anne Frank. When Zlata was only 11-years-old, she lived through constant bombings and snipers, not to mention severe food and water shortages. Like Anne Frank, Zlata spent her days couped up in a room (of an apartment), often never seeing daylight. Her book is titled Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Wartime Sarajevo.
Listen to a Zlata Filipovic Interview (22:03)
Did Erin really take her students to a Holocaust museum?
Yes. In real life, Erin took her students to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. As we see in the film, the museum focuses largely on helping visitors understand the true impact of the Holocaust. The museum also features exhibits on civil rights and contemporary human rights violations that exist in the world today. The actors in the film also visited the Museum of Tolerance. Hilary Swank commented on this experience in an interview, "When Erin took the kids to the Holocaust Museum,
it proved to be a huge bonding experience for them," explains Swank. "Similarly, when we were first getting to know each other during the first week of rehearsals, we went to the museum and it was the exact same experience for us. We bonded strongly over how those stories affected us. It was definitely life imitating art at that point." While at the museum, the actors met with some of the same Holocaust survivors who had met with the real Freedom Writers over a decade earlier.
Did any of the real Holocaust survivors appear in the film?
Yes. The Holocaust survivors in the movie, who eat dinner with the students at the Marriot, are the actual survivors who dined with the real Freedom Writers. These individuals include Renee Firestone, Eddie Ilam, Elisabeth Mann, and Gloria Ungar.
I heard that an actor in the movie Freedom Writers was killed in real life?
Yes. This is true. In 2006, actor Armand Jones, who plays the character Grant Rice in the movie Freedom Writers, was shot and killed outside a Denny's restaurant in Anaheim, California. In the movie, rival gang members point a gun at Armand's character as he exits a convenience store.
His character is later put on trial for the shooting that followed. In real life, Armand was much different than his onscreen character. Armand was active in the church and had worked as an intern for NBC. In high school, Armand played Grumio in
Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew". He had planned to take his teacher and his grandmother to the Freedom Writers movie premiere. Unfortunately, he passed away before the movie opened. His mother, grandmother, and 12-year-old sister Ahlia respectfully attended in his absence.
Watch an Armand Jones Tribute Video (10:26)
Did the caricature making fun of another student in class really happen?
Yes. The scene where the drawing is passed around the class in the film really did take place. In the movie, the caricature is of Jamal Hill (Deance Wyatt). The real life 1993 caricature was actually of Freedom Writer Sharaud Moore.
Before coming to Erin Gruwell's class at Woodrow Wilson High, Sharaud was kicked out of another Long Beach high school for bringing a gun to school. Sharaud beat the odds and he grew up to become a teacher at Poly High, the very same high school that had kicked him out when he was a teenager.
Did Erin Gruwell really work two part-time jobs so that she could buy her students books?
This is partially true. Erin actually started at Wilson High as a student teacher and was not paid. To make matters worse, as a student teacher Erin still had to pay tuition to the California State University at Long Beach. She initially took the two part-time jobs to help pay the semester's tuition. As depicted in the film, she worked part-time at a Nordstrom department store in the lingerie section and at a Marriot Hotel as a concierge. She did use some of this money to buy her students books, including copies of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.
Is the "Toast for Change" scene in the movie real?
Yes. The "Toast for Change" scene in the movie Freedom Writers really did happen. Like in the film, Erin Gruwell gave each of her students a plastic champagne glass filled with apple cider. During their toasts, they all agreed to give themselves the chance to start life over.
Are the diary entries read in the movie authentic?
Yes. The diary entries read in the movie were taken verbatim from the book, The Freedom Writers Diary, which is a compilation of the original diary entries written by Gruwell's students.
Read the real
How did Erin and her students come up with the name Freedom Writers?
The name is a pun on the term 'Freedom Riders', the title given to the mostly African American and white college students, who in 1961 rode interstate buses into the segregated southern United States to test newly formed civil rights laws. These new laws outlawed racial segregation in interstate transportation facilities, including bus stations and railroad terminals.
Was the movie shot at the real Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach?
No. A classroom identical to the '93 Wilson High School room was recreated on a soundstage. The actual classroom, Wilson's room 203, was renovated after the school received a grant, which significantly changed its appearance from what it was in 1993.
Was Erin's father really a former civil rights activist?
Yes. In an interview for the film, Erin Gruwell said the following, "I had an amazing father. My dad was a civil rights activist in the U.S. and as a kid we talked a lot about equality and fighting for the underdog. ...My dad always said you should judge a batter by his swing and not by the color of his skin." In the early sixties, Erin's father played minor league baseball for the Washington Senators. He experienced segregation up close as he traveled with fellow African American players who had to drink out of different water fountains
and eat in different sections of restaurants. He named his daughter Erin after the legendary African American baseball player Hank Aaron.
Was Erin's father really against her taking the job at Woodrow Wilson High School?
Yes. Erin refers to her father's position in her memoir "Teach with Your Heart". After her first day of class, a troubled student named Sharaud said, "I'm gonna make this lady cry in front of the whole class." Erin could hear her father in her head, "I told you so." Her father was primarily concerned for her happiness and safety. Long Beach, where Wilson High School was located, had more than 100 murders in 1993.
Does Erin still have a close relationship with her dad?
Erin's father, portrayed by actor Scott Glen in the film, died three years prior to the film's release. "He was my biggest supporter," she says.
Did Erin really wear pearls to class?
In the movie, we see Hilary Swank wearing valuable pearls into her classroom. She is advised to rethink this accessory to her wardrobe. In her book, "Teach with Your Heart", Erin Gruwell talks about how she fidgeted with the pearls on her first day as a student teacher.
Did Erin really get chalk dust on her backside on her first day?
Yes. In the film, Hilary Swank's character is made fun of for having chalk dust on her backside. In her book, Erin recalls this moment in which a student yelled from the back, "You got chalk on your ass." Another student remarked, "Daaamn, girl! Can I have some fries with that shake?"
Is it true that Erin originally wanted to be a lawyer?
Yes. Erin had originally planned to go to law school. She changed her mind while watching the coverage of the L.A. riots in the early 1990s. She believed that she could make more of a difference as a teacher.
What happened to the original Freedom Writers?
Every one of Erin's 150 students graduated from high school and most went on to college. A lot of them were able to obtain scholarships to help get themselves through school.
Some used their profits from "The Freedom Writers Diary" book sales to help pay for college. After college, they entered various professions, including the education system. (The student who is falsely accused of murder in the film became a high school teacher in real life.) Today, they are all part of The Freedom Writers Foundation. Several of them, including Maria Reyes, have traveled around the
country speaking about their story. Reyes's counterpart in the film is Eva (April L. Hernandez), one of the central characters who ends up testifying against members of her own gang. As a result of their dedication to the Foundation, they see a lot of each other and their former mentor. Some of them even work like Erin does to help train the teachers.
Who else auditioned for the role of teacher Erin Gruwell?
Erin originally met with director Richard LaGravenese in 2000 after he first saw a story about the book The Freedom Writers Diary on the TV news show "Primetime Live". "I then read the book of diaries written by the students," says LaGravenese, "and immediately called my producer, Stacey Sher, and told her that this was a project we had to do."
It took six years for the story to reach the screen. "...initially this became the 'it' movie for all Hollywood actresses," says Erin. "Though over the six years, every actress approached us: Cameron Diaz,
Reese Witherspoon, Sandra Bullock, Ashley Judd, Kate Hudson, everyone. And unwaveringly I said, 'No. I want Hilary Swank.' When she was given this role, it was such an emotional thing for her because she did not graduate from high school. She has her GED. ...I so honor her for saying, 'I don't care about the money.' She took a very sizable pay cut to do this film." Swank was also one of the movie's executive producers.
What does the real Erin Gruwell do today?
After teaching high school from 1993 to 1998 and earning her Master's Degree from California State University at Long Beach, Erin Gruwell became a professor at the same University, teaching in the Liberal Arts and Education Departments. Erin got a publishing deal with Main Street Books for all 150 of her former Wilson High students. Their diaries were compiled into a single book titled "The Freedom Writers Diary",
which was published in October of 1999. The book has sold a quarter of a million copies and counting. Erin and her Freedom Writers have gained national attention, appearing on Oprah, Primetime Live, Good Morning America, and the View. She founded the nonprofit organization The Freedom Writers Foundation, which functions to promote Erin's successful teaching methods. As a result of her dedication to her students and teaching,
Erin was given the Spirit of Anne Frank Award. In 2000, she ran for Congress in District 38, but did not win. In the time since, she has stopped teaching in order to devote all of her energy to The Freedom Writers Foundation. The original Freedom Writers also work with Erin and together they have given over 1,000 presentations across 45 states, talking both to teachers and to students. Erin recently completed her memoir "Teach with Your Heart:
Lessons I Learned from the Freedom Writers", which was published around the time of the film's release.
Did any of the original '93 Freedom Writers appear in the movie?
Yes. Some of the original Freedom Writers appeared as extras in the film.
Erin Gruwell Video Interviews:
The videos below come from YouTube's "Be Heard" video series, which was launched to help promote the release of the movie Freedom Writers. Watch several Erin Gruwell interviews, where she talks about her former students, their diaries, and her first year of teaching. Also, watch some of the actors from the film, including Mario and April Lee Hernandez, comment on the horrors of the Holocaust.