“Won’t Back Down” is a marriage made in hell between bad art and bad politics. Sitting through it at a press screening on Monday night was the most painful experience I have had since undergoing emergency laser surgery on both eyes to relieve the pressure that would have led to glaucoma and possible blindness. Halfway through the screening I began to wonder if laser surgery might be needed to relieve the pressure on my brain that this awful film was producing. With its treacly Lifetime cable TV clichés and its reckless disregard for the reality surrounding the charter school juggernaut backed by Democrats and Republicans alike, it might take months for me to get the bad taste out of my mouth, like the one that accompanies a hangover from really cheap wine. Maybe the answer is to lock myself in my bedroom and watch the collected works of Akira Kurosawa over the next week or so.
Despite some rather pro forma gestures at making the teacher’s union appear something a bit less threatening than a George Romero zombie attack, the key moment arrives when the head of the union quotes Albert Shanker: “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.” Although Shanker was a pretty despicable figure, that quote was apocryphal. It first appeared in a Mississippi newspaper (surprise, surprise) but without any source. In fact enemies of the teacher’s unions rather than their leaders are the ones that tend to use it. For example, New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein, one of the country’s top charter school boosters along with Michelle Rhee, used it an June 2011 Atlantic Magazine article that also stated:
The traditional schools, as well as their employees and the unions, are screaming bloody murder, something vividly depicted in The Lottery, a recent documentary that shows community agitators brought in by the union to oppose giving public-school space to the Harlem Success network. But this kind of push-back is actually a good sign: it means that the monopolists are beginning to feel the effects of competition.
Furthermore, with respect to the real Albert Shanker—as opposed to the inversion made by screenwriters Brin Hill and Daniel Barnz (who also directed)—the truth is that he was one of the early supporters of charter schools as the American Federation of Teachers website points out:
In a landmark address in 1988, former AFT president Albert Shanker became one of the first education leaders to champion the concept of charter schools. Shanker envisioned teacher-led laboratories of reform that would experiment with new instructional practices. These practices would then be subjected to rigorous evaluation and, if successful, would serve as models for other public schools.
Shanker also saw charter schools as a way to empower teachers, free them from overly bureaucratic regulations, and strengthen their voice in school and curriculum decision-making. In his view, unions were essential to charter schools, because unions help create the kind of secure work environment that encourages innovation and risk-taking.
As a stand-in for the creator’s confused liberal politics, the script includes a young, dedicated and pro-union teacher named Michael Perry who becomes Maggie Gyllenhaal’s love interest at first and then ultimately her ally in privatizing the school (this is really what the struggle ultimately boils down to.) As a way of demonstrating his idealism, he is identified as coming off the Teach for America assembly line. In keeping with the failure to represent Shanker’s true beliefs (and it is no surprise that the rancid social democrat would have had good words for charter schools), there is little inkling of the dovetailing of charter schools and Teach for America. Both are “reforms” intended to break the back of a powerful and effective trade union.
In Boston, TFA corps members replaced 20 pink-slipped teachers, says Boston Teachers Union President Richard Stutman. “These are people who have been trained, who are experienced and who have good evaluations, and are being replaced by brand-new employees.”
This month, he met with about 18 other local union presidents, all of whom said they’d seen teachers laid off to make room for TFA members.
“I don’t think you’ll find a city that isn’t laying off people to accommodate Teach For America,” he says.
In March, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., schools Superintendent Peter Gorman told board members he was laying off hundreds of teachers but sparing 100 TFAers because the district “made a commitment to this program.” Gorman noted that TFA teachers “are placed at schools with high populations of underprivileged students where the placement of personnel has proven to be difficult.”
You really have to wonder if Brin Hill or Daniel Barnz gave a shit about the truth. These are a couple of hacks that were only too happy to pick up a paycheck from Walden Media, the rightwing production company founded by billionaire Philip Anschutz who advocates teaching creationism in public schools. I can just imagine these knuckleheads sending their kids to such a place.
This is Brin Hill’s first screenplay and it really shows it. As for Barnz, he had the chutzpah to tell the N.Y. Times last February that “I am strongly pro-union”. He also stated that “wanted to recreate the thrill of past action-inspiring social dramas without being snared in partisan debate.” Working from an earlier script by Hill, Barnz clearly sought to create a movie in the spirit of “Norma Rae”, “Erin Brokovich”, or “Silkwood”, all of which feature a working-class woman fighting against Bad Guys standing in the way of truth, justice and the American way. Showing some awareness that an Anschutz-funded project is not likely to fulfill those hopes, he has a female character on the trade union staff say, “When did Norma Rae get to be the bad guy?”
Perhaps there is some value to the film in that it will galvanize public opinion, and particularly that of critics, about what it represents politically. As a clumsy recitation of charter school talking points, it will hopefully serve as a wake-up call in the same manner as Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” remarks. But it would be a big mistake to attribute its toxic message to the designs of the Mitt Romney’s of the world, including the men who run Walden Media and Twentieth Century Fox, the corporation that released it (owned by Rupert Murdoch.) The charter school movement is an alliance between conservatives and liberals, something that was perhaps lost on A.O. Scott who told his N.Y. Times readers that it “might serve as a useful counterweight to the conventional wisdom that Hollywood is a liberal propaganda factory.”
In truth, despite its ultra-right corporate backing, the movie is very much liberal propaganda. The movie was inspired by the attempt of Parent Revolution to take over a couple of schools in California. To call this outfit conservative would be very far from the truth, as the composition of its board of directors would indicate:
Previously, as a strategy consultant, she launched new organizations, restructured existing efforts, forged partnerships across sectors and branded international efforts.. For Sir Richard Branson and Nelson Mandela, she helped convene and advise the development of The Elders, an independent group of eminent global leaders who offer their collective influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity.
Peter also has extensive national, state, and local political experience. He was a staff member in the Office of Political Affairs at the White House during the Clinton Administration, and has worked on numerous political campaigns across the country. He remains involved in the community, both as an active participant in bar activities and as President of the Board of Directors of the Tierra del Sol Foundation, a non-profit that serves developmentally disabled adults. Immediately before joining the firm, he was Vice President of Communications for a $100 million/year nonprofit based in Los Angeles County.
In other words, these are the same kinds of people that Arne Duncan, Obama’s Secretary of Education, is aligned with. They get their funding from the Gates Foundation, launched by a billionaire who has lavished money on Democrats and Republicans alike, just as is the case with Goldman-Sachs.
I want to conclude with a recommendation of some pieces I have written in the past about charter schools and Philip Anschutz’s Walden Media.
I first took a look at charter schools after seeing “Waiting for ‘Superman’”, a Walden Media documentary and “The Lottery”, another preachy documentary:
In Waiting for “Superman” and The Lottery, the heroes are charter school administrators like Geoffrey Canada and Eva Moskowitz who operate in New York City, and Michelle Rhee who ran the board of education in Washington. Moskowitz is an ubiquitous and truly unpleasant presence in The Lottery while the equally toxic Rhee is dominant in Waiting for “Superman”. Mostly they say that if the teachers unions were busted, an educational Messianic era would ensue. The only thing standing in the way of success in poverty-stricken Black and Latino neighborhoods is teachers enjoying protection against being arbitrarily fired–a basic right won through collective bargaining.
Canada, Moskowitz and Rhee are depicted as the champions of the plucky families who are doing everything they can to get their kids into a charter school. Canada practically guarantees that graduating from his Harlem Children’s Zone will open doors at Harvard, Princeton and Yale. It is hard not to feel for the underdogs they profess to fight for, whose main enemy appears to be an unfeeling and greedy teacher’s union rather than poverty and racism.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, is called upon to make the case for protection against firing but is not really allowed much more than soundbites. She plays kind of the same role that Charlton Heston played as head of the National Rifleman’s Association in Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, or a Dr. No in a James Bond movie: the sum of all fears.
And with respect to Philip Anschutz, he is a far more evil bastard than Dr. No as my review of “Amazing Grace” would demonstrate.
Thanks to my good friend and comrade Prairie Miller who was one of the founders of New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) and who hosts an Arts show at WBAI, I was able to watch Dinesh D’Souza’s documentary on Barack Obama on Vimeo, an option becoming more prevalent for film reviewers both professional and amateur like me.
Although it was not quite as painful as sitting through “Won’t Back Down”, it was not easy listening to this conservative creep for 90 minutes. Even worse was looking at him, a face that only a mother could love.
The documentary is titled 2016: Obama’s America, and is based on his 2010 book The Roots of Obama’s Rage. According to Prairie, it “is apparently poised to overtake Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 as the most financially successful documentary of all time.” As P.T. Barnum once said, “a sucker is born every minute.”
D’Souza is a graduate of Dartmouth College and a veteran of the “culture wars” in which rightwingers try to make the case that places like his alma mater and Columbia University, from which I retired after 21 mostly happy years, are the equivalents of the Smolny Institute in the summer of 1917. With other noodniks like David Horowitz and Daniel Pipes, who is given the platform in the final 15 minutes or so of the film, we are led to believe that characters like Columbia University’s Lee Bollinger and Bard College’s Leon Botstein are allied with George Soros and other liberal billionaires in a conspiracy to lead a socialist revolution in the U.S. In fact the title of D’Souza’s film is meant to warn Amuricans (as LBJ used to put it) that Obama’s reelection will culminate in a Soviet America in 2016. Christ almighty, if only that were true.
Doing a clumsy imitation of an intellectual, D’Souza tries to get to the roots of Obama’s alleged “anti-Americanism”. It goes something like this. Although Obama hardly knew his father, his mother served as a transmission belt for his anti-colonial ideas. When she was in Indonesia with her new husband Lolo, she always expressed a preference for her first husband who supposedly was for “sticking it to the man”. Lolo, it seems, was bought off by the Western oil companies doing business in Indonesia and even went so far as to go out on commie-killing missions when he was in the Indonesian army during Suharto’s dictatorship.
Once she bought her son back to Hawaii, he was put under the tutelage of Frank Marshall Davis, a member of the Communist Party who was close to Barack’s Nigerian birth father ideologically as well as his grandfather Sidney Dunham, who according to interviewee Paul Kengor (the author of “The Communist. Frank Marshall Davis: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor”) was some kind of Red. It all sounds rather like a half-assed version of “The Manchurian Candidate”, doesn’t it? All this led to Obama finally embracing the ideas of Edward Said, Roberto Unger (his law professor at Harvard), Bill Ayers, and Jeremiah Wright.
Like most rightwing intellectuals, I doubt that Dinesh D’Souza reads much out of his comfort zone of the Weekly Standard, the National Review, and Wall Street Journal editorial pages.
But if you read the article titled “Party of None: Barack Obama’s annoying journey to the center of belonging” by Chris Bray in the thankfully reincarnated “The Baffler”, you will discover that Barack Obama’s mother was “an employee of a thinly veiled Cold War agency, reporting to the American director of an organization with an office at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta.” This hardly sounds like sticking it to the man.
As far as Frank Marshall Davis is concerned, I found his advice to Obama, as recounted in “Dreams From My Father”, a rather perceptive take on where his supposed tutee was headed:
What had Frank called college? An advanced degree in compromise. I thought back to the last time I had seen the old poet, a few days before I left Hawaii. We had made small talk for a while; he complained about his feet, the corns and bone spurs that he insisted were a direct result of trying to force African feet into European shoes. Finally he asked me what I expected to get out of college. I told him that I didn’t know. He shook his big, hoary head.
“Well,” he said, “that’s the problem, isn’t it? You don’t know. You’re just like the rest of those young cats out here. All you know is that college is the next thing you are supposed to do. And the people who are young enough to know better, who fought all those years for your right to go to college—they’re just so happy to see you in there that they won’t tell you the truth. The real price of admission.”
“And what’s that?”
“Leaving your race at the door,” he said. “Leaving your people behind.” He studied me over the top of his reading glasses. You’re not going to college to get educated. You’re going there to get trained. They’ll train you to want you don’t need. They’ll train you to manipulate words so they don’t mean anything anymore. They’ll train you so good, you’ll start believing what they tell you about equal opportunity and the American way and all that shit. They’ll give you a corner office and invite you to fancy dinners, and tell you that you’re a credit to your race. Until you want to actually start running things, and then they’ll yank on your chain and let you know that you may be a well-trained, well-paid nigger, but you’re a nigger just the same.”
And finally there’s this. If Roberto Unger is supposedly a guide to the ideology of the man who is a shoo-in for another term as most powerful capitalist head of state in the world, just check what he said on Youtube in May of this year:
President Obama must be defeated in the coming election.
He has failed to advance the progressive cause in the United States. He has spent trillions of dollars to rescue the moneyed interests and left workers and homeowners to their own devices. He has subordinated the broadening of economic and educational opportunities to the important but secondary issue of access to health care in the mistaken belief that he would be spared a fight.
He has disguised his surrender with an empty appeal to tax justice. He has delivered the politics of democracy to the rule of money. He has reduced justice to charity.
His policy is financial confidence and food stamps. He has evoked a politics of hand holding. But no one changes the world without a struggle.
Unless he is defeated, there cannot be a contest for the re-orientation of the Democratic Party as the vehicle of a progressive alternative in the country. There will be a cost for his defeat in judicial and administrative appointments.
The risk of military adventurism, however, under the rule of his opponents, will be no greater than it would be under him.
Only a political reversal can allow the voice of democratic prophesy to speak once again in American life. Its speech is always dangerous. Its silence is always fatal.
That is the voice of a genuine radical, not the one that the Tea Party and its house intellectuals choose as its target. Obama will surely withstand their attacks and in the next four years we can expect more of the same, an unrelenting austerity drive like the one taking place in Europe. There is a need for a documentary about Obama but it will be up to genuine socialists to make it. With Michael Moore’s shilling for Obama as some kind of man on white horse and the D’Souza’s of the world trying to knock him out of his saddle, there’s an opening for a radical filmmaker to tell it like it is. Hey, you out there, what are you waiting for?