With ‘Won’t Back Down,’ The Charter School Movement Gets Its’ Oscar Bait

Won’t Back Down is careful not to speak the words in the trailer, but it’s clear from the decisions the characters make and the protest signs they’re waving that these moms are setting up a charter school:

This is the kind of movie that always give me pause about how well popular entertainment, particularly popular entertainment that’ll clock in at under two hours, can lay out policy solutions instead of articulating policy problems. Narrative fiction can be very, very good at the former. The Wire handled Baltimore public schools well over the course of a season. Brooklyn Castle, my favorite documentary from SXSW uses the jeweler’s lens of a competitive middle school chess team to examine New York City public school budget cuts and the city’s high school exam system. But the solutions it presents are all temporary, individual fixes rather than system-wide reforms. One student wins a scholarship through a chess competition, but that means of achieving escape velocity isn’t available to all students. The school manages to do some stop-gap fundraising, but not everyone has the extremely dedicated parent base and an extracurricular program that can be a massive rallying point.

I’ll be curious how much Won’t Back Down presents setting up a charter school as a difficult endeavor, and if and how meaningfully it acknowledges charter schools’ closure rates. Triumphal narratives feel good, and I’m all for movies that push back against stereotypes of poor parents as uninvested in their childrens’ education. But if you actually want to mobilize people, you have to valorize the effort, not just the end result. And promising outcomes that are far from guaranteed is a recipe for disappointment.