The idea for the film came from journalist Tracey Durning, who made a documentary about Erin Gruwell for the ABC News program Primetime Live. Durning served as co-executive producer of the film. The film was dedicated to the memory of Armand Jones, who was killed after wrapping up Freedom Writers. He was 18 and was shot to death in Anaheim, California after a confrontation with a man who robbed Jones of a necklace in a Denny's restaurant.
Woodrow Wilson Classical High School is a formerly high-achieving school which has encountered some difficulties bearing its new racial integration plan. In 1994, in the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots, Erin Gruwell, an enthusiastic young teacher starts at the school. Her enthusiasm is challenged when she finds her class is composed of "at-risk" students, the "untouchables," and not the eager-for-college students she expected. Her students self-segregate into racial groups within the classroom. This causes problems, as gang fights break out and, consequently, most of her students stop attending class. Not only is Gruwell challenged with gaining her students' trust on personal and academic levels, but she must do so with very little support from her professional peers and district higher-ups. For example, her department head refuses to provide Gruwell with an adequate number of books for her class because she insists they will get damaged and lost. Instead, she suggests that Gruwell focuses on instilling concepts of discipline and obedience in her classroom.
Two students, Eva (April Lee Hernández), a Latino-American girl and narrator for much of the film, and Sindy (Jaclyn Ngan), a Cambodian refugee, frequent the same convenience store. One night, Grant Rice (Armand Jones), an African-American student at Woodrow Wilson, frustrated at losing an arcade game, demands a refund from the store owner. As Grant storms out of the store, Eva's boyfriend, Paco (as retaliation for losing a fight against Grant that took place earlier during a gang fight at Woodrow Wilson), attempts a drive-by shooting to kill Grant, but misses accidentally killing Sindy's boyfriend. As a witness, Eva must testify at court; she intends to guard "her own" in her testimony.
At school, Gruwell intercepts a racist drawing by one of her high school students and utilizes it to teach them about the Holocaust, most of which have no knowledge of. She gradually begins to earn their trust and buys them composition books to record their diaries, in which they talk about their experiences of being abused, seeing their friends die, and being evicted. Determined to reform her high school students, Gruwell takes on two part-time jobs to pay for more books and spends a lot more time at school, much to the disappointment of her husband (Patrick Dempsey). Her students start to behave with respect and discover a lot more. A transformation is specifically visible in one student, Marcus (Jason Finn). Gruwell invites various Jewish Holocaust survivors to talk with her class about their experiences and requires the students to attend a field trip to the Museum of Tolerance. Meanwhile, her unique training methods are scorned by her colleagues and department chair Margaret Campbell (Imelda Staunton).
The following school year comes, and Gruwell teaches her class (now sophomores) again, making it the second year that she is their teacher. On the first day of semester, Gruwell makes her class do a "Toast for Change", allowing everyone to open up about their struggles and what they wish to change about themselves. Later on, the class makes enough money to have Miep Gies to arrive to the United States and tell her experience when she helped Anne Frank, her family, and the Van Pels hide from the Nazis; she then also persuades to the students that they are heroes and that they "within their own small ways, [can] turn on a small light in a dark room." These two events inspire Eva to break free of the demands of her father to always protect her own rather than tell the truth. At Grant's trial, she shocks the courtroom by revealing that Paco actually killed the man in the store; Grant is spared of being convicted and Sindy later forgives Eva. On leaving the court, Eva is attacked and threatened but ultimately spared by members of her gang and ends up going to live with her aunt in order to keep herself safe.
Meanwhile, Gruwell asks her students to write their diaries in book form. She compiles the entries and names it The Freedom Writers Diary. Her husband divorces her and Margaret tells her she cannot teach her kids for their junior year. Gruwell fights this decision, eventually convincing the superintendent to permit her to teach her kids' junior and senior year, much to their elation. The film ends with a note that Gruwell successfully prepared numerous high school students to graduate high school and attend college, for many the first in their families to do so.Hilary Swank as Erin GruwellPatrick Dempsey as Scott CaseyScott Glenn as Steve Gruwell, Erin's FatherImelda Staunton as Margaret CampbellJohn Benjamin Hickey as Brian GelfordApril Lee Hernández as Eva BenitezMario as Andre BryantJason Finn as MarcusCuba Gooding, Jr. as Man in Cab #2Vanetta Smith as Brandy RossAntonio Garcia as MiguelJaclyn Ngan as Sindy NgorKristin Herrera as Gloria MunezGabriel Chavarria as TitoHunter Parrish as Ben SamuelsGiovonnie Samuels as VictoriaDeance Wyatt as Jamal HillSergio Montalvo as Alejandro SantiagoRobert Wisdom as Dr. Carl CohnWill Morales as PacoRicardo Moline as Eva's FatherAngela Alvarado as Eva's MotherAngela Sargeant as Marcus's MotherPat Carroll as Miep GiesChil Kong as Store OwnerArmand Jones as Grant Rice
Freedom Writers had a domestic gross of $36,605,602 and had a foreign gross of $6,485,139 bringing the movie to a total gross of $43,090,741 worldwide. On the film's opening weekend it grossed a total of $9,405,582 ranking 4th behind Children of Men (3rd), The Pursuit of Happiness (2nd), and Night at the Museum (1st).
Freedom Writers has received mostly positive reviews from critics. The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes provides links to 124 reviews, 69% of which are positive. The critical consensus is that "Freedom Writers is a frank, formulaic entry in the inspirational inner-city teacher genre, with an energetic Hilary Swank leading the appealing cast of unknowns." Another review aggregator, Metacritic, which assigns a weighted average score out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, calculated an average score of 64/100 based on 29 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews". Cynthia Fuchs of Common Sense Media gave the film three out of five stars, writing in her review that "the plot is predictable, the actors too old to play high school students, and the pacing too slow. And really, the camera circles around deep-thinking faces a few too many times. But Freedom Writers also argues for listening to teenagers. That in itself makes it a rare and close-to-wonderful thing." The film received a positive rating from Fox Weekly, giving the film a 9 out of 10.
Chloé Valdary says that seeing the film inspired her to become politically active.
Common lent his talents to the soundtrack with "A Dream", featuring and produced by The Black Eyed Peas member will.i.am. The soundtrack also includes the Tupac Shakur song "Keep Ya Head Up".
Instrumental sections of Sia's "Breathe Me" accompany the film's television trailer.
The Freedom Writers soundtrack contains the following songs:"A Dream" by Common featuring will.i.am"Listen!!!" by Talib Kweli"It’s R Time" by Jeannie Ortega"When the Ship Goes Down" by Cypress Hill"Hip Hop Hooray" by Naughty by Nature"Keep Ya Head Up" by 2Pac"Code of the Streets" by Gang Starr"Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" by Digable Planets"Officer" by Pharcyde"This is How We Do It" by Montell Jordan"Colours" by will.i.am"Bus Ride" by will.i.am"Riots" by will.i.am"Eva’s Theme" by Mark Isham"Anne Frank" by Mark Isham