Rap & hip-hop music plays in the background as the movie begins. Actual video footage of the Los Angeles area from the early 1990s is shown and the audience is told by a series of captions that racial tensions are at an all-time high. As the camera zooms in on a Barbie doll, a girl’s voice (Eva, pronounced AY-VAH) says, “In America, you can become a princess based on grace, poise, and beauty. But (as the camera lowers to show a Mexican doll) for us, it’s all about the blood.” Eva hears her father calling and runs to the front of their store. Her father has her put on some red boxing gloves and practice punching with him. Eva says that she does not remember when this battle began, but the first time she saw it was on her first day of school. We see Eva as a little girl, sitting on her porch, waiting for her father to come out and take her to school. She waves to Roberto, a young man across the street working on his car. Eva turns to look at her doll, but quickly looks up when she hears two shots ring out. Roberto is on the ground, bleeding. Eva’s father runs to help their friend as Eva’s voiceover says, “The war had begun.”
The flashbacks go on to show that Eva’s father was arrested and imprisoned for Roberto’s murder even though he had nothing to do with it. Eva says that when she was initiated into the gang, she was third generation. We see Eva getting beat up and punched around by a group of people and Eva says that they beat her to form bonds. We now see Eva all grown up as a girl of 15 or so. She is walking with her boyfriend when all of a sudden, a car stops and two Asians get out of the car. They immediately began hassling Eva and her boyfriend and Eva’s boyfriend (Paco) pulls out a gun. The Asians back off, but someone else shoots instead. Eva runs at the command of Paco and inadvertently ends up in “Black Territory”, where she is jumped.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Erin Gruwell is starting a job at Wilson High School in Long Beach, California. Mrs. Gruwell gives Margaret Campbell, the Department Chair her teaching plans only to be told that they are much too advanced for her freshmen class. The students Mrs. Gruwell will be teaching are typically at a 5th grade reading level, if not lower. Mrs. Campbell also advises that Mrs. Gruwell not wear her pearls (a gift from Erin’s father, the attorney general) to class. Mrs. Gruwell decides to ignore the woman’s advice and wears her pearls anyway. On the first day of school, Mrs. Gruwell discovers that her classroom is in shambles. The desks have graffiti all over them and the windows are broken. Mrs. Gruwell waits patiently by the door, but no students enter. Finally, after the second bell rings, a security guard brings her students in. The students immediately move the desks into divisions of the Cambodians, the Mexicans, the Blacks, and the only Caucasian in the room, Ben Wallace.
At first, Mrs. Gruwell has difficulty getting anything accomplished. Many of these students have never been shown any respect in the past. Eva and some of the other students tell Mrs. Gruwell that they will not just hand her their respect, she must earn it. Mrs. Gruwell struggles to identify with the students and takes on two other jobs one as a lingerie salesperson and one as a concierge at the local Marriot, in order to reach the students in a different way. Her husband is beginning to get worried. He does not understand why she is doing all this because clearly, no one has asked for it. Mrs. Gruwell asks him to be patient because all these things are “temporary”. She moves the students around, out of their racial divisions. She attempts to show the students that they are united by playing the “Line Game” with them. She puts a line of thick red tape across the classroom and tells the students to move forward when a statement she makes applies to them. Her most effective form of reaching out, however, comes in the form of a black and white composition notebook. Since the school refuses to “waste” funds on these students, Mrs. Gruwell has taken extra jobs in order to provide supplies for them. She gives each of the students a notebook and asks them to write in it every day. They can write in any form they wish, as long as it is continual. She tells them that it is completely private and she will not read their journals unless they put them into the locked cabinet in the back of the room. For Parent Night, Mrs. Gruwell bakes a variety of goods and makes a beautiful poster only to be greeted by the silence of an empty classroom. Feeling defeated, Mrs. Gruwell begins locking up when she decides to check on her cabinet. Upon opening the cabinet, she discovers that it is filled with notebooks. Filled with a little more hope, Mrs. Gruwell sits down at her desk and begins to read the first one. The journal belongs to Brandy, the quiet girl who was the first person to stand up for her journal. Brandy tells of her fear as a child as she watched her mother being beaten by her father. A similar fear is felt by Sindy, a Cambodian girl because she always feels like she must take care of her entire family and she simply cannot carry such a heavy responsibility. Marcus, another student, tells of his childhood best friend who always had his back. One day, they found a gun and were sitting on a park bench examining it. His friend suggested they practice with it, but the next thing he knew, his friend was slumped over with a bullet in his back. His friend had accidentally shot himself and Marcus, being young and very confused, sat on the bench with his friend until the police arrived. Marcus was innocent, but when the police came, “all they saw was a gun and a nigger.” Marcus was put in Juvenile Hall and has been in and out of there ever since. Gloria, a Hispanic girl, tells Mrs. G (as her students have begun to call her) that when you look at her face, there is nothing wrong. If you lift up her shirt, however, you will find bruises. Gloria has been beaten repeatedly by someone in her family (we are not sure if it is her father or her boyfriend).
Meanwhile, Sindy and her friends are out for a night in the town when they stop at a liquor store to get some snacks. Eva’s friends stop there as well and as Eva enters the store, we see them give each other a little stare down. A black kid is standing at the video game area and is punching the machine in anger because it ate his money. He begins yelling at the storeowner. Eva’s friends, who are sitting outside, see this. When the kid leaves the shop, Paco takes out his gun and aims it at the kid. In one deft move, the kid ducks and runs and Sindy’s boyfriend is shot instead. Frozen with shock, Eva runs out of the store and jumps into their car. She knows that she is the only one who saw Paco do it and that for the trial, she will have to protect her own. Sindy can only stare at her boyfriend’s lifeless body.
Mrs. G is moved by her students’ stories and decides to reach out to them in an unconventional manner once more. During class one day, Mrs. G found that some of the students were passing around a picture of Jamal, one of her black students. It was a caricature of him and the Mexican boys had drawn him with thick lips. Jamal usually acted like a tough person, but when he saw this picture, he began to cry softly. Mrs. G saw this and told the class that their gangs were nothing compared to the greatest gang of all time the Nazis. She tells them about the Holocaust only to discover that none of them (except Ben) even knows what it is.
Mrs. G raises money from her other jobs and takes the students to the Museum of Tolerance. First, however, she goes to Dr. Carl Cohn, the superintendent, to ask him for permission because Mrs. Campbell and Mr. Gelford (the Honors teacher) are very displeased with Mrs. G. Dr. Cohn gives her permission after some hesitation and in the students’ sophomore year, and they are taken there. One student is especially moved when he learns that the child he has been assigned to during the tour ended up dying in a concentration camp. The students begin taking action. Several of the boys go around the neighborhood at night, disarming the hidden guns. Mrs. G also buys brand new books for her students, something they rarely receive because the school board thinks it will be a waste of materials. The students are not accustomed to this kind of treatment and they really begin to respect her. Even the toughest students show their soft side.
Marcus tells Mrs. G that Miep Gies, the woman who housed Anne Frank, is his first hero and that he would really like to meet her. The students suggest that Mrs. G take them all to a fancy dinner again (the first time she took them was after the Museum of Tolerance, when she invited actual Holocaust survivors to eat at the Marriot with them). Mrs. G tells them the expenses are simply too much, but the students tell her they will raise the money. We see the students doing “Food for Change” and “Concerts for Change” and the next thing we know, Miep Gies is at the school. Marcus asks to be her escort and he proudly leads the old woman to the stage.
Although Eva has fun at school, she still has her trial to worry about. She knows what she must say in order to protect her friend, but her mother tells her that the man who put her father in jail was protecting his own too. Eva is frustrated, but on the day of the trial, she decides to tell the truth. Afterwards, Eva’s former friends jump her and tell her that they are not going to kill her this time, but someday she will know how it feels to die a traitor. At school the next day, Eva asks Mrs. G if she can stay after school a little longer from now on because in order to escape the gangs, she will have to go to and from her aunt’s house. Mrs. G tells Eva that she can stay as long as she wants and Eva smiles gratefully. Sindy comes in and seeing that Eva is doing her makeup, comes over and says that she has Eva’s color. Sindy is proud of Eva for telling the truth and it is the beginning of a blooming friendship.
Mrs. G has been with her students for nearly two years now and it is almost time for them to become juniors. The problem lies there. Mrs. G does not have any experience to teach juniors or seniors and the students will have to move on. The students are shocked. This classroom has become a second home for them and Marcus protests, saying, “No, that ain’t right Ma.” Mrs. G has already picked up some of her students’ slang, but she does not understand Marcus’ comment. She tells them that she is not anyone’s mother. Eva corrects her saying that it is a sign of respect. Realizing how much this means to her students, Mrs. G takes her case closer and closer to the top before finally getting permission. During the first day of school toast, a teary-eyed boy comes to the front of the classroom and tells them that he has just had the worst summer of his entire life. His family was evicted and he is now homeless. He thought that his friends would laugh at him because all of his clothes were old and dirty, but instead they were truly sympathetic and caring. Looking Mrs. G in the eye, he says, “I know I am home.”
During all of this, Mrs. G. and her husband are constantly having arguments about her school. They rarely spend any time with each other and they do not seem to connect as well anymore. One day, Mrs. G. returns to her house to find that her husband has packed his bags and is leaving. She cries with him and drowns her sorrows in wine. As she and her father (who has never really approved of this job because of its low pay and the fact that Erin could do much better) are packing her husband’s things, he sits down next to her. He tells her that although he did not always support what she was doing; now he can say that he is truly proud and even envious of what a tremendous task she has accomplished.
Mrs. G cleans herself up and moves on with her life. Her program has gained the respect of not only the school, but also the community. After being treated rudely in her honors course, Victoria, a black honors student, asks to be transferred to Mrs. G.’s class. She tells Mrs. Campbell that when she transferred to this school, she had a GPA of 4.0, but the teachers were weary putting her in honors courses. Now she is achieving high grades in all of her honors courses and they won’t let her switch to a regular class? She tells Mrs. Campbell that her grades will not drop because she is a good student, but she wants to be in a class where the respect is mutual.
Lastly, Mrs. G tells her students that for their final project, they will be typing up their journals and binding them. She tells them to give their books a title. Even if the books are not published, the students will have left something behind other than violence.
Many of Mrs. G’s students were the first ones in their families to attend college. She started a fund called the Freedom Writers Foundation to encourage programs such as the one she started. The Freedom Writers Diaries was first published in 1999 and has been widely read ever since. The film ends with a picture of the most recent Freedom Writers.