By Lorie Barzano
Chair of Coalition SAUS (Strengthen Austin Urban Schools), a parent led group representing inner-city public schools working to ensure accessible, quality Public Education for all children and healthy, thriving Public Schools in Austin’s urban core.
I saw “Won’t Back Down” last week with two other parents from Coalition SAUS. A free, pre-screening hosted by the Charter School Association, we sat in the dark theatre surrounded by a hundred charter school teachers and a smattering of charter school parents. I know this because they laughed and “hmmed” at points in the movie, where we did not. I know this because we laughed and “hmmed” at points in the movie, where they did not.
As a film, the movie earns “two of five stars” at best. I found it shallow and formulaic. Although studded with a strong cast of actors, unfortunately they all play fairly flat characters moving through a completely predictable plot. In typical Hollywood style, the movie portrays a complex issue in simplistic terms. It moves the storyline along by using a variety of cheap-shot twists that defy even the most liberal “willing suspension of disbelief.” Plainly speaking, it’s just not that good of a film.
“So other than that,” Mrs. Lincoln, “how was the play?”
Politically speaking, “Won’t Back Down” hits all the marks of a well-produced, highly effective, “five star” piece of propaganda. Unabashed, barely disguised political propaganda! The movie, a fictional story, starts by flashing a heading which implies it tells a true story based on factual events. It does not. The opening scenes move you through a less-than-affluent mother and daughter running late in the morning and rushing to get to school. Who doesn’t have that real story to tell? Boom! Empathy established—the first necessary component for manipulating an audience in any effective piece of propaganda.
“No propaganda is possible unless psychological influence rests on reality, and the recruiting of individuals into cadres or movements goes hand in hand with psychological manipulation.”
(Jacques Ellul. Propaganda, The Formation of Men’s Attitudes. 1965.)
“Won’t Back Down” does not come close to Oscar-grade as a movie, but goes right to the front of the class as effective propaganda. Propaganda aimed at effectuating social policy and political action. Beware! Contrary to widespread myth, effective propaganda does not rely on lies and tall tales for its effectiveness. Quite the opposite, it relies on empathic truths and personal realities.
Go back to the mother and daughter in the movie. The audience and mother soon discover the 3rd grade daughter cannot read. What caring mother wouldn’t talk to the teacher about getting help for her daughter? Dissatisfied with the teacher’s refusal to offer extra help, what mother wouldn’t go over the teacher’s head to the principal and request a different teacher? Angered by the principal’s unwillingness to buck the administrative protocols and rules, what mother wouldn’t go over the principal head and knock on the school district’s door to demand a good education for her daughter? Hey, I’m there.
Knock. Knock. Who’s there? Every parent in America.
Go back to the movie and the teacher, who partners with the mother to take back the school. Believing in the purpose of teaching every child, what teacher wouldn’t listen to a parent about the help their child needs? Understanding what it takes to reach a child at their level of learning, what teacher wouldn’t ask the principal to maneuver the rules to transfer that child? Choosing to teach at a downtrodden, inner-city, public school where students needed you the most, what teacher wouldn’t join the parent in knocking on the school district door to demand that the rules change. Hey, I’m there.
Knock. Knock. Who’s there? Every teacher in America.
Go back to the movie and “Won’t Back Down” as propaganda. For its effectiveness, propaganda relies on empathic truths and personal realities. In this case, a situation that rings true for every teacher. A need that feels real for every parent. What teacher today doesn’t feel frustrated and hamstrung in trying to do their job? What parent today doesn’t feel exacerbated and angry in trying to get the best education for their child? On the propaganda meter, this movie knocks it out of the park in establishing the necessary audience empathy for effectiveness.
On the other hand, propaganda in and of itself does not present a pejorative. Contrary to popular understanding, propaganda is merely a technique, a medium, not a message. Its effectiveness does not come from any particular content. Rather—to borrow Tony Schwartz’ term—the effectiveness of propaganda comes from its ability to sound a “responsive chord” with the audience. It comes from resonating an empathetic truth and personal reality with the masses.
“Won’t Back Down” does strike a responsive chord with viewers aimed at effectuating social policy and political action. However, effective propaganda itself cannot dictate the content of that social policy or political action viewers will choose to embrace. Note that not once in the movie do you hear the words “trigger law” or “charter school” ever mentioned or spoken. The movie could not speak these words because propaganda that overtly dictates the content of social policy or political action loses its effectiveness. Propaganda that specifies content or promotes particular policies or actions disintegrates into mere marketing or simple advertisement.
Go back to the movie in the dark theater with me and the other two Coalition SAUS parents. We could not help but whisper back and forth as we viewed certain scenes of “Won’t Back Down.”
One of us said, “Look how they portray the teacher’s refusal to give extra time to help after school. If they just paid the teachers for the overtime they deserve, teachers would have no complaint about working extra hours to help students.”
“Notice how they portray a single mother with two jobs having the ability to collect all the petition signatures,” another one of us said, “without ever showing any of the outside groups (like Parent Revolution) who have really mounted such efforts to collect signatures for parent trigger petitions.”
Another of us said, “It doesn’t make any sense. Why couldn’t the parents and teachers have worked together to accomplished all the same things (improve the curriculum, hold the school district accountability, get approval from the school board, transform the school) without doing all the extra work of getting petition signatures or starting a new school?”
“Note how all the teachers have started teaching differently, with more passion, and transforming their classrooms,” one of us said, “long before all the signatures have been collected for the petition or the parent-teacher application to take over the school has been completed, let alone the school board approving it.” The school board approves the application at the very end of the movie.
Another one of us said, “It figures the movie ends right when the real work of education, the real challenge of actually running a school just begins.”
We felt the responsive chord of “Won’t Back Down” resonate, but we definitely did not agree with the movie’s implied solution. We felt encouraged to go back to our schools and reach out to the teachers. Reach out to other parents. We felt inspired to go back to our campuses and rally the other parents and teachers to work together in a focused effort to improve our public schools. We felt a renewed mission to work together in holding the school board and district administrators accountable. We felt motivated to warn everyone about not wasting any of our precious energy on outside, takeover strategies, when we could use our energy to improve the public schools we already have. We felt compelled to stand up and say, “No, we do not want petitions or charter schools,” as parents have repeatedly said, “We want quality, accessible public education for all children!”
In the end, propaganda can sound a responsive chord that moves the audience to act, but it cannot dictate, or even predict, once moved by it, what the audience will choose to do.