Viola Davis’ new film Won’t Back Down opened this past weekend to what has been described as “dismal” box office receipts. The take-in could have been weak because some had already seen the film. Free screenings occurred around the country in the month leading up to the opening. And maybe some didn’t bother to buy tickets because most critics haven’t recommended the film, saying it’s just a heavy-handed propaganda flick bent on leading a charge to dismantle teachers unions and to privatize public schools through the parent-trigger law.
But, political jockeying aside, “Won’t Back Down” is one of the best female buddy films to be released in years. Two women, one Black, one White, strike out, staking their futures on the strength of their mutual idea of a “dream school.” They’re willing to risk their careers and children’s future on their friendship and commitment to each other. Strong female relationships anchor this film and men largely play supporting roles.
This feminist social drama challenges racial stereotypes and showcases formidable Black acting ––not only from Viola Davis, who stars as Nona Alberts, a burnt-out school teacher at Adams Elementary in Pittsburgh, struggling to get her mojo back, but also Rosie Perez, who plays a fellow teacher, Afro-British actress Marianne Jean-Baptiste of the “Without a Trace” television series who plays the chairman of the school board, and Bill Nunn and Ving Rhames, both of whom play elementary school principals.
Davis’ character, Nona, recently separated from her husband (deftly played by Lance Riddick), begins a Thelma and Louise-style, friendship with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character, Jamie, a White working-class single mom who wears tight jeans everyday, sports tattoos on her chest and works two jobs as a receptionist and a bartender. “I can tell you being poor sucks,” Jamie says at one point, “and my kid can’t read.”
Jamie’s seven-year-old daughter is dyslexic. Tuition for the school she wants her daughter to attend is $23,000 ––– about what she makes in a year. Even middle-class Nona and her estranged husband can’t afford the private school they really want for their son, who’s been falling behind academically, and has been called “slow.”
“Wanna start a school with me?” Jamie asks Nona after neither of their kids makes it into a high-performing area charter school through the lottery. Problem is, starting their “dream school,” another charter, would mean that the teachers, including Nona, would have to be fired and re-hired as non-union. But hey, “It’s not like any of us actually wanted to teach, right?” Nona says sarcastically in her pitch meeting to her colleagues. Union or non-union, teachers should not become teachers for a good salary and job security, but because they love to teach, because there is nothing else that they would imagine themselves doing, and those who aren’t of that persuasion should get out of the classroom altogether, apparently. But teacher Breena Harper, played by Rosie Perez says in the middle of the meeting: “Many of the new schools are failing because no one has the first idea how to run them. Can you look me in the eye and tell me that’s not going to happen to Adams?”
Halfway through the movie we meet spunky union boss Evelyn Riske, played by Holly Hunter, who offers Jamie’s daughter a scholarship to the best private school in the city if Jamie would just stop the charge to take over Adams Elementary and the “pandemic of union-gutting.” But Jamie tells Riske no dice; she’ll take her chances with her new BFF Nona. “Because I believe in you,” Jamie pledges to Nona, who works out the details of their dream school in a proposal that they both present to the school board. The board accepts the duo’s proposal in the movie’s climactic scene.
It’s kinda hard to see what’s really changed at Adams Elementary in the movie’s denouement though. Jamie’s daughter still stumbles while reading an announcement in front of the school. She gets hung up on the word “hope,” which seems to be the ultimate takeaway of the film–––there’s hope in the public education system if the teachers, the parents and the school board can all pull together. If.