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Blu-ray Giveaway: Exemplar Message Movie ‘Won’t Back Down’

Message movies get a bad rap, don’t they? Especially when one considers the memorable films that could fall under this category: All Quiet on the Western Front, On the Waterfront, even something like Born on the Fourth of July. And actually a classic without much overt political content to speak of, It’s a Wonderful Life, is occasionally classified as a message movie due to the single-mindedness of its moral fable and how explicitly it spells out its homilies through Clarence the angel’s well-known aphorisms.

Not convinced? Are some of these not message movies, or are somehow demeaned by focusing on that aspect of their content? Well, it’s fine if you disagree because that’s exactly the kind of inquiry you may want to open up with students for whom you screen such films. I’ll tell you where I stand, though—all movies are message movies because, as media texts, they all have media messages. In a sense, that’s the classic “media literacy” stance on such matters, and in practice that theory plays out very simply, very easily: “regular” movies, message movies, and propaganda fall on the same continuum, and therefore can blur into each other depending on audience, context, and other factors.

In any case, if you’d like to explore such issues with students, I can’t recommend a recent film more highly than Won’t Back Down, which is releasing on home video this week. For starters, I’m a firm believer in approaching media literacy with content that will be somewhat familiar to students, subject matter for which they already possess schema; that way they can focus on how that content is shaped, presented, and subtly (or not so subtly) injected with what MLE folks often call “embedded values.” With Won’t Back Down‘s narrative about a schooland a systemthat doesn’t work, you’ll have some subject matter that will be very familiar to students, namely, teachers and classrooms. For much the same reason, last year I recommended using films such as Monsieur Lazhar to study “representation.”

Before, during, or after screening Won’t Back Down (or any message movie of your choice) I suggest the following questions to guide viewing and analysis:

  • How, when the film was made or released, was its topic, well, topical? (In the case of Won’t Back Down, the recent Frontline profile of Michelle Rhee points to the timeliness and continuing relevance of the hot-button issue of “ed reform.”)
  • Where are devices such as caricature and generalization present, and how reliant is the film text on them? Hint: look for scenes where everybody, even in a large classroom or similar gathering, is behaving in exactly the same way.
  • To what extent are central characters fleshed out by the script… or simply used as shorthand to signify a particular class/category/theoretical construct/demographic/issue? One way to discern this is to note the proportion of “non-issue” character development devoted to them, which indicates whether they are first “people” and then “symbols,” or if it’s the other way around.
  • How often is dialogue in the form of polemic? Or maybe I should clarify that monologues ought to be included as well since often blatant message movies will be peppered by speeches. In either case, look for language that speaks as if to a problem beyond the immediate (e.g., do characters say “unions do x” instead of “this union does x” or “your union does x”).
  • Could a nonfiction treatment of the same issue deliver the same key information and perhaps comparable (or greater) emotional content? (A nice pairing with Won’t Back Down might be the documentary Waiting for Superman.)


So are you interested in winning a Blu-ray of Won’t Back Down, courtesy of Fox Home Entertainment? Great. Here’s all you need to do:

1. Double-check that you live in the U.S. or Canada.

2. Leave a comment here (through 11:59 pm ET Jan 18) about your favorite message movie or favorite movie about educators/schools, and be sure to explain why it’s your favorite.

3. If you don’t see your comment, just contact me via email or Twitter (see below).

4. I’ll email the two winners, who’ll then be asked to provide (via me) their mailing addresses to the distributor’s publicist.


About Peter Gutierrez


  1. Great post! Didactic film making is a rich category for discussion and critical thinking. I appreciate your keen insights.

    I am really bad at picking favorites . . . especially when it comes to movies. Right now my favorite “message film” is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Like lots of Capra’s work it is pretty preachy and blatantly didactic . . . but I love it! I feel like it is the perfect fairy tale of what what could happen in Washington if Machiavellian strategies were dissolved and the strong moral characters were able to come out on top.

  2. Maria Selke says

    I love to use Christmas Carol (the version where Patrick Stewart plays Scrooge, of course). While this isn’t just a “message movie”, it is one that the kids love to watch and then read. We talk about if and how people can change – and how to look below the surface of someone’s behavior to figure out why they act the way they do.

    • Peter Gutierrez says

      Thanks for your comment — it was drawn and you won the Blu-ray. Please check your email in-box… oh, and congrats!

  3. Bernardo Villela says

    Great piece. I agree with Mr. Williams inasmuch I’m not sure I can peg a favorite message film as easily as I can a favorite kind of message film. That would be anti-war, or more astutely anti-propaganda films that portray the wages of war. Some recently viewed, not so well known titles come to mind like “No Greater Glory” or “Somewhere in Europe.” There are many others I could mention.

  4. Matthew Stephens says

    MY favorite movie about schools and educators is the movie Lean On Me. It stars Morgan Freeman as ‘Take no [—-] from anyone’ Joe Clark. He is appointed the principal, and from there he is determined to prove that he can improve the quality of the school.

    I am a huge fan of this movie and Morgan Freeman. I feel he lent his voice well to a character who was the embodiment of strong moral values.

    • Peter Gutierrez says

      Thanks for your comment — it was drawn and you won the Blu-ray. Please check your email in-box… and congrats!

  5. Linda Rider says

    I recently watched “Last Ounce of Courage” which interweaves grief at the loss of a young soldier with a resurgence of Christmas spirit several years later. The soldier’s father, the mayor, has had enough of innocuous “holiday” celebrations and tries to resurrect Christmas in his town by erecting a Christmas tree (with shiny, but non-symbolic ornaments and lights) on town property and restoring a “Jesus-saves” cross to a historic building that houses a mission. A hot-shot lawyer shows up claiming that anything Christ-related can’t be done if even one person claims offense. However, the mayor has done his research and knows that what he’s doing is perfectly legal. He is perfectly willing to have others practice their religions publicly (although such people are in short supply in the film), but doesn’t want others to prevent his town from displaying their appreciation of Christmas.