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Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal Court Controversy With Won't Back Down

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by Melissa Silverstein
September 27, 2012 11:40 AM
1 Comment
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When was the last time there was a movie that focused on two women (or more) both over 30 that opened on 2,500 screens?  I count three in the last two years.  Earlier this year there was Joyful Noise starring Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton (which wasn't a big success.)  And last year there were the megahits Bridesmaids and The Help.

And now we have Won't Back Down.  The film stars Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal as two moms who use the "parent trigger" law to try and take over the failing local school.  Davis plays a beloved teacher who sees her son struggling and also sees the school where she works falling apart around her.  Gyllenhaal plays a single mom on a mission.  Her daughter has dyslexia and she will move heaven and earth to get her  agood education.

Both actresses are terrific.  And in a year where there are so few strong female Oscar caliber performances (more on that coming soon) both of these women have potential to vault themselves into the Oscar conversation.  The issue is that their performances are better than the movie, which while I liked it comes off as preachy.  And second and more important, the film is vociferously anti-union, specifically anti-teachers union.  The filmmakers have denied the film is anti union but they really don't have a leg to stand on especially since there is a scene in the film where the union organizer played by Holly Hunter attempts to bribe Gyllenhaal's character to drop her attempt to take over the school with a scholarship for her daughter to a private school.

It's not news to anyone paying attention to the world around us that public schools are struggling.  The whole system is a mess.   And also the film is co-financed by Walden Media which is owned by the Christian conservative Philip Anschutz.  Walden Media also released the critical praised documentary Waiting for Superman.

The film has not gotten a lot of pre-release press before this week (and screening were not plentiful).  It also went through a bunch of name changes (Still I Rise, Learning to Fly, Steel Town) before settling on Won't Back Down. Gyllenhaal and Davis started the full press for the film this week but there is limited buzz about the film except the for the teachers union which are promising boycotts. 

Davis went on the Today show and addressed the protests head on.

I welcome discourse; I think discourse is a good thing. I think it spearheads change.... And you know what, in this movie, the teacher at the end of the day is the hero. They save the day. And it's a system that's broken, that needs to be fixed.

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She talked about how she lvoed the story and as an actress she looks for good stories. 

When The Help came out there was much consternation about the types of roles available for African American actresses.  People want to see women of color in a diversity of roles, not just as maids.  Well, here is a film with one of our best and brightest actresses and she plays an amazingly strong woman who is  a leader. 

Quite frankly, I am shocked that people are not talking about this performance because as usual, she is stellar. 

I do have concern that movies about women will suffer if this film doesn't open well.  (Of the 19 reviews as of 11am EST on Rotten Tomatoes, 6 are fresh and 13 are rotten.)  There are so many complications for its success or failure that has nothing to do with the gender of the leads.  Who knows if it will be seen that way.  By Sunday I fear we could be back to our old conversation on the fact that movies that star women are not successful.

'Won't Back Down's' 'parent trigger' school story draws protest (LA Times)

Teachers Protest Viola Davis Film (The Root)

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1 Comment

  • grrljock | September 27, 2012 12:41 PMReply

    "Won't Back Down" is heavily advertised on Netflix streaming, at least. I love Holly Hunter and Viola Davis (just meh on Maggie Gyllenhaal), but I think I will have to skip seeing this movie at the theater. I feel that not even the performances can balance the preachiness of the movie, considering the source.

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