Hilary Swank's new film Freedom Writers portrays with raw honesty the issues faced by minority students at a Los Angeles public high school, says Maria Reyes, a Latina whose life story was the inspiration for one of the main characters.
The film, which opened Friday in the U.S., depicts the true story of Erin Gruwell, an idealistic teacher and recent college graduate portrayed by Swank, who fights an old-fashioned bureaucratic educational system in the early 1990s at a school with lots of gang activity, racial hatred and a high dropout rate.
Gruwell inspires her students to write personal journals, helping them overcome their intolerance and stay in school.
"The film is extremely open and real," Reyes said in a recent interview in New York, accompanied by actress April Hernandez, who plays the character Eva, based on her life.
"The first time I saw it was difficult," she said. "I wanted to run out of the theater but I couldn't feel my legs." For Hernandez, a 26-year-old from the New York City borough of the Bronx, getting to know Reyes was the best preparation for the role.
"She was very open," said the actress, who has appeared in the television series' ER and Law & Order. "I never knew what it was to be in a gang."
Her character is one of the most powerful in the movie because she experiences the greatest difficulties including her father's unfair imprisonment and being the only witness to a killing done by a Latino but blamed on a black man and undergoes the biggest transformation.
It was "extremely intense," Hernandez said. "I created my own space. Everybody was like the enemy to me."
In the film, Gruwell teaches the students about the Holocaust and assigns them the book The Diary of Anne Frank, the world-famous journal written by a Jewish teenager hiding with her family in an Amsterdam attic who later died in a Nazi concentration camp. Gruwell does this to show her students that they are not the only ones who have been persecuted because of their race.
The teacher gives her students notebooks to scribble down anything they want a drawing, song, thought or experience and says she will grade them based only on whether they have added something, because "how can you grade the truth."
She also allows them to decide whether she can read what they have written. Their journals led to the book "The Freedom Writers Diary," published in 1999, from which the movie takes its title.
"I keep a journal to this day," Reyes said. Hernandez credited the film with inspiring her to do the same: "I kept a journal all the time, especially after (the movie)."
In real life, Reyes said she never thought she would graduate from high school, but that the arrival of "Miss G," as she calls Gruwell, turned her life around: She finished high school and went on to graduate from California State University, Long Beach, with a major in English. And now she wants to follow in her mentor's footsteps.
"I want to go into education," she said. "Education needs to be revolutionised. We need to create a difference." Reyes also said she was happy with the two-time Oscar winner's performance: "Hilary captured her spirit, her mannerisms ... the spark in her eye".
She hopes people will walk away from the film "feeling they can do something, create a difference in somebody's life." Hernandez, who said she has grown as a person while making the film, hopes for her part that "we spark a reaction ... and that people realise that no matter what the situation is, there is hope."