‘Freedom Writers’ and the Economics of Race and Gender

The movie Freedom Writers is one of the most touching to have come out of Hollywood in recent years. Starring Hilary Swank in a lead role, the movie takes up a subject that is at the heart of American culture, namely the economics of race and gender.  On a cursory viewing the story looks deceptively simple.  But when the storyline, screenplay and other nuances in the film are observed, numerous interpretations are made available. Embedded within it are themes of economics, especially that applying to race and gender.  The rest of the essay will elaborate on such observations.

The term ‘Economics of Gender and Race’ is usually employed by economists to talk about disparities in income and work opportunities among different races and the two genders.  In the American context, these disparities are skewered in favor of white Americans, especially the White Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASP) group.  The whites generally have a headstart in terms of standard of living they are born into, career opportunities they can avail of, neighborhoods they can inhabit, etc.  Also, on average, whites earn more income than other minority groups.  A similar disparity exists among the genders, where males are favored for both positions of high office and in the incomes they earn.  In the movie Freedom Writers, the classroom under the charge of Erin Gruwell is a representative collage of these realities.  There we see white pupils born to well-to-do parents (who also perform better in exams) contrasted against pupils from minority communities such as blacks and Hispanics, who are projected to be disorganized and less disciplined (indicative of their socio-economic backgrounds).  The microcosm of the classroom is a reflection of larger realities in American society.  The semblance to reality is all the more so because the movie was based on the real life story of an American teacher of the same name – Erin Gruwell; and the school she works for Wilson High School.

What moves the story forward are a) a racially motivated shoot-out involving members of the class and b) the interception by Erin of a racially-loaded drawing in the classroom board.  This is a crucial juncture in the movie from where the students will embark on a creative, developmental journey.  Instead of indulging themselves in gang-wars and wasting their lives, by recording and exchanging their experiences they would gain insights into other perspectives and viewpoints.  The economics of race is manifest here, as Erin struggles to procure necessary stationary for students’ writing projects.  Since the class is largely comprised of minority students, their lower socio-economic background meant that they cannot buy stationary supplies with their own money.

In what is a subtle playing out of the politics and economics of gender, Erin Gruwell’s husband presses for divorce, for he thinks that his wife spends far too much time on her career.  The underlying assumption here is that women are expected to fulfil they familial role first before devoting time for their careers.  On the contrary, if a man would be workaholic, it is not objected to.  This sort of patriarchal mentality is a big factor in why women are lagging behind men in the workplace.

On a broader note, the Holocaust itself can be seen as the result of an economics of race.  That is, the systematic rounding up and extermination of millions of Jews by the Third Reich was in part economically motivated (for folklore and religious dogma portray Jews as the usurpers of wealth in which ever region they inhabit) and in part racially motivated (for Jews are also perceived to be of an inferior race to he Aryans).  So within the main cinematic theme of economics of race and gender, the Holocaust provides us with a thematically consistent sub-plot as well.   Adding poignancy to Erin’s allusions of the Holocaust is the usage of The Diary of Anne Frank as a model for students’ exercises.  Erin Gruwell inspires her students to follow the example of 13-year old Anne Frank, the heroic historical figure, who resorted to writing down her feelings and thoughts, when forced to live in an attic for fear of being rounded up by the Nazis.

Hence in conclusion, among various interpretations and prisms through which the movie Freedom Writers could be studied, the Economics of Race and Gender is one viable option, as the above examples demonstrate.