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"Won't Back Down" Presents a Ruling-Class Wet Dream: Teachers and Parents Working to Destroy Their Own Institutions

The movie celebrates parents rising up and taking control of their children’s education—in order to rid themselves of all representation.

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Despite scapegoating teachers’ unions, Won’t Back Down is not an anti-teacher movie. Most of the teacher characters—especially Nona, played by Viola Davis—are heroic. That’s because one of the film’s messages is that busting teachers’ unions is better for teachers. In one scene, a meeting to discuss the possible takeover, Nona argues that losing the union will be worth it, “because we’ll be able to teach the way we want.” (The movie is vague on Nona’s pedagogy and why the union prevents it. In real life, charter teachers certainly don’t have any more control over curriculum than public school teachers do.) It is a ruling-class wet dream: workers who are happy to help destroy their own institutions. By giving up the organization through which they wield power, the fictional teachers reason, they will gain more power.

We have wandered deep into the swamp of Upsidedownlandia. Yet the same paradox colors the film’s view of parent power. The movie celebrates parents rising up and taking control of their children’s education—in order to rid themselves of all representation. Though the film does not discuss such pesky governance matters, a “takeover,” in real life, usually means that the school is run by a private organization with limited accountability to the public. While the state does decide ultimately which charters to shut down, there is no oversight by the school board, nor the city government, and certainly not the parents.

Of course, democracy and its institutions are horribly flawed. But to conclude that, therefore, dictatorship would be empowering is just weird. It’s not the first time that idea has been presented in film. Daniel Barnz is no Leni Riefenstahl, of course—he’s not as skilled a filmmaker, and there’s nothing racist or hateful in this movie—but the emotional experience of Won’t Back Down is, for the viewer, not unlike that of the best propaganda. As we cheer for Jamie and Nona, we are rooting against ourselves, against our own capacity for self-governance.

Liza Featherstone is a New York City-based journalist. She is the author, most recently, of "Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers' Rights At Wal-Mart" (Basic).

 
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