Won’t Back Down is an energizing movie about an unlikely pair who band together to gain support for taking over a school that has been struggling for years. Many of the teachers have become complacent, and the students just aren’t pushed to their true potentials. One parent, Jamie, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, is a single mom who is barely getting by supporting her daughter Malia, who is dyslexic. She is fed up and, after being turned down for a lottery at a prestigious school, decides to attempt to turn her daughter’s school around. But she needs help. She enlists the aid of a teacher with whom she has become impressed, Nona, played by Viola Davis.
The two women couldn’t be more different. Nona is middle class, married and living on the good side of town in a beautiful home. But not only does she have a young son Cody, who has been labeled a slow learner and has trouble with his studies at a private school, Nona and her hubby (played by The Wire’s Lance Reddick) have a strained relationship. Turning a problem school around to benefit the students is no small task, but together Nona and Jamie are able to persuade 18 teachers and about 400 parents to sign a petition. The next step is convincing the Pittsburgh school board to read and sign off on their proposed plan for the new school.
Nona, however, isn’t a quick convert; Jamie has to really make a case that this takeover will be successful. Another teacher who is slow to join the cause at first is Michael played by Oscar Isaac. He is an innovative teacher who uses music to help his students learn math. Of course, he would be a prime candidate to remain at the new school, once the bad apples are flushed out. The threat of being fired, if a new school program is approved, is the main thing that hangs in the balance, while Nona and Jamie try to recruit teachers and parents to go along with their plan.
Won’t Back Down is a story based on actual facts that is filled with motivation and promise for students who are obviously not learning as they should be. It is also a warning for the current teachers who might not be as productive as they should be. And this creates a problem for Nona’s fellow teachers and principal, played by Bill Nunn. One of those teachers is Rosie Perez, who at one point becomes upset that Nona didn’t let her know about her plans.
Other opponents include members of the school board and the teachers’ association, whose members are unionized and include Holly Hunter, who tries to bribe Jamie with a scholarship for her daughter, if she would just abandon her ideas for an improved school. Much is at stake, but Nona and Jamie finally find a willing listener in school board member Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who is one week away from retirement. Jean-Baptiste has been a favorite of mind, since I first saw her in the Secrets and Lies (1996), and her cool demeanor is at work here.
I have loved Davis’ work since she played the drug addled mother in Antwone Fisher. But I would love to see her cast as the main actress in a movie and not just the “sidekick,” as in her Oscar-nominated roles next to Meryl Streep in Doubt , and as Aibileen in The Help, as well as Delia next to Julia Roberts in Eat, Pray, Love. Davis has the gravitas to deliver and sustain the leading role in any movie at this point in her career, and her Nona character seems to be pushed away by the less educated and unpolished Gyllenhaal’s Jamie. And while Won’t Back Down might motivate many a parent and teacher to tackle their school boards for autonomy in the name of good education for poor, inner-city students, the theme also creates a political hotbed, as the future of school unions is at stake. However, I hope Hollywood at least is soon motivated to cast Davis in a movie where she’s the lead actress and not in a supporting role. (I have read that she is playing civil rights activist/Congresswoman Barbara Jordan in an upcoming biopic, but that’s not the same thing to me). Won’t Back Down is in theaters everywhere.