WAITING FOR SUPERMAN – directed by Davis Guggenheim – Documentary – Film Review

by Kevin Bowen on October 1, 2010

in Film

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I don’t like to pull out the phrases “important movie” and “This is the one movie you should see.” But if I had to describe a movie as important, and had to say there is one movie you should see, it’s Waiting For Superman.

That’s not to say it’s my number one film for the year. And that doesn’t mean it’s a future classic. In 30 years, this film isn’t going to matter. Our education system then will teach our children for the world of that time. Whether that’s producing graduates prepared to compete in the global economy, or imparting the nuances of prairie dog hunting to survive winter on the freezing plains, we will get the education we deserve.  

If there is one thing that left and right have agreed on all my life, it is that the public education system stinks. In a democracy, in theory, such a consensus ought to mean that the public demands and receives successful reform. Yet in 30 plus years we’ve barely seen a squirt of it, as the world gets more competitive and our test scores flatline. Davis Guggenheim, the director of the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth, explains why.

Past documentaries about children and “inner city life” – even very good films like Hoop Dreams or Mad Hot Ballroom – have emphasized the desire for escape. As such, they present their child subjects as exceptions with the skills or luck to escape tough realities. Underlying these stories is an assumption of fatalism about their situations, that tough lives are unavoidable and a permanent reality for children in these places. Guggenheim’s withering assessment stares right at this belief and refuses to let us buy it.   

Waiting For Superman introduces two myth-busting challenges to perception. The first is that bad schools are the products of bad families and bad neighborhoods. Guggenheim points to evidence that the opposite might be true, that neighborhoods might well fail because their schools fail. The second is that we don’t know how to improve the education of these children and that perhaps there is no way to do it. Guggenheim asserts – and it makes the situation all the more damning – that 20 years of charter schooling have given us the solutions, but that entrenched powers dedicated to protecting bad teachers prevent our society from putting them in place.

And that’s the thing, right? We can do something about this. Maybe not everything. Maybe not perfectly. But something. But we won’t. Narrating his own film, Guggenheim examines the success of some charter schools, public schools that operate independently from the rules governing the rest of the system. We visit places like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the KIPP schools that use innovative techniques to routinely produce top-level students. More importantly, these schools do not seem to be the products of a single terrific staff. They reproduce their results in numerous cities across the country.

These schools have been founded by teachers and administrators who were fed up with the failing system. One is Geoffrey Canada, a Harvard-educated reformer operating a charter school in the Bronx, whose childhood fantasies inspire the title. A second is Michelle Rhee. The driven chancellor has fired underperformers and introduced charter school techniques to the horrendous Washington D.C. school system. In real life, she is about to be fired despite her successes. Some writers, particularly on the Washington Post website, suggest Rhee is better at public relations than reforming schools. Whatever her performance, what she says makes sense. When she says we’re sacrificing the lives of children to preserve harmony among the adults, we all know that’s true. 

We see the impact on lives by spending time with several inner city children (and one suburban girl – that’s a third myth busted here, that suburban schools are immune). These students are hoping to escape the “dropout factories” of the public school system and attend charter schools. We watch them walk to school, play with dogs, and dream of becoming veterinarians.  We listen to the parents speak their fears of their neighborhood schools and their hopes for their children.  These aren’t original scenes, but they are necessary scenes. By the end, we feel a stake in the bouncing-ball lotteries that determine which of the hundreds of children will fill the 30ish spots offered by the charter schools.

At first you’re sad because most of these children will miss out on a quality education. Next, you realize the absurdity of having futures determined by the bounce of a plastic ball. Finally you’re angry, because you know that as each child loses his or her future, our society loses something by refusing to give the best available education to the most promising among us. All because a stupid plastic ball didn’t bounce right. And all because we’ve abdicated our responsibility to a stupid plastic ball to make these decisions for us.  

Everyone knows who the villains are: bad teachers and those who protect them. Over the past few decades, the teachers unions – the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association – have stifled reform and created employment contracts that make it nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher. Unions might have been great back when factory workers were being forced to work 73-hour days in between dodging bullets from Pinkerton agents. Nowadays, we know – heck, we even joke about – what happens when unions make ridiculous demands debilitating to the success of an organization. We’ve seen General Motors. In fact, nowadays we own half of it. But unlike car companies, public education systems don’t have to come begging to Congress when they fail; they just raise your taxes. Think of this country’s education system as one slow-motion legalized bailout.

Superman has a gentle delivery, even occasionally humorous, but it is made out of a cool anger. It’s a good anger. It’s the type of anger that gets something done. You know that stiff drink that people in movies take to steel their nerves before they deliver a baby on a plane, or otherwise fight the odds? Waiting For Superman is a cinematic shot of gin for a difficult but absolutely necessary task. Because yeah, our future depends on it.

kevinbowen @ stageandcinema.com

Waiting For Superman
rated PG
now playing in select theaters

{ 1 comment }

Tom Moll March 8, 2011 at 2:07 pm

Sir, I must respectfully disagree. In fact, the movie is a propaganda piece, pure and simple. Guggenheim uses lies of omission and misleading statistics to tell half of a story. As an example, he talks about how the U.S. ranks 25th in math in developed countries. He doesn’t mention the specific scores or how close they are. We could be literally fractions of a point behind Finland; the movie never says. It also doesn’t mention that U.S. poverty levels are significantly higher than most other developed countries. Why? Oh, I forgot. Poverty doesn’t matter.

You mention his claim that it is not failing neighborhoods that bring schools down, but the other way around. Why, then, do you never find the so-called “drop-out factories” in affluent neighborhoods? In fact, the suburban public school that one of the characters in the film does not wish to go to is not a failing school. She just does not want to take part in the system of tracking that it uses.

The truth is that it is generational poverty that makes it more difficult to teach certain students. It is not that they cannot learn. It’s that they didn’t have anything to eat for dinner last night and the best they could do for breakfast is the free one provided by the cafeteria. Their moms are addicted to crack and their dads are in prison. So they could learn, but they have other things on their minds. Their schools are the only ones who are not failing them. Their schools are the only safe place they can go. The only problem with their schools is that they can’t seem to get the standardized test scores up. And education in this country will never really be reformed until we abandon our obsession with standardized testing. Finland doesn’t obsess on it.

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