Freedom Writers: The Real Life Story That Continues To Inspire New Generations Today

Within the world of teen dramas, tales of inspirational teachers and at-risk students have proven to be especially popular, with "Stand and Deliver" and the Michelle Pfeiffer-starring "Dangerous Minds" being notable examples. The 2007 film "Freedom Writers" is also a fan favorite, and it boasts an impressive 87% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.

Hilary Swank stars as Erin Gruwell, a young teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California. It's 1994, and in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the school is a pressure cooker of racial tension and gang violence. When Gruwell realizes only one of her students know what the Holocaust is, she makes it her mission to educate them on forms of prejudice that lead to violence, and encourages them to record their own traumatic experiences in diaries inspired by "The Diary of Anne Frank" and "Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Sarajevo." The students dub themselves the Freedom Writers, based on the civil rights activists the Freedom Riders. All 150 of the students graduated in 1998.

Like other movies in the subgenre, "Freedom Writers" is based on a true story, which perhaps contributed to its immense popularity; "Freedom Writers" grossed over $43 million worldwide. Gruwell compiled her students' writing into a book, published in 1999 as "The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them." The book went on to become a #1 New York Times Bestseller. Today, Gruwell heads the Freedom Writers Foundation.

The Freedom Writers mission persists around the world

As a founder of the Freedom Writers Foundation, Erin Gruwell continues to use education as a means to promote tolerance and social justice by utilizing the same teaching techniques that were put on display in "Freedom Writers." She has had her students meet with Holocaust survivors, as well as refugees from Cambodia and Rwanda.

The foundation has expanded the scope of Gruwell's mission beyond what she imagined was possible. "We started training teachers and giving scholarships to educators," she told PBS in 2019. "Now we have 700 Freedom Writer teachers. They're in every single state in America, eight provinces in Canada, and 20 countries. It's incredible because these Freedom Writer teachers are doing the exact same thing that I did with my students. They're doing it better because they're not alone."

The Freedom Writers mission didn't end with the release of the 2007 film. The documentary "Freedom Writers: Stories from an Undeclared War" shines an additional spotlight on Gruwell's original 150 students, exploring their journey from teenagers in 1994 to adulthood.