Waiting for 'Superman'
Directed by Davis Guggenheim. (2010, PG, 102 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 15, 2010
With this new documentary, director Guggenheim hopes to kick-start the national conversation about our public education system in much the same manner as he did with global warming in An Inconvenient Truth. The premise of Waiting for ‘Superman’ is that the system is broken – that public schools in America have failed to meet the needs of the last few generations of children and that the system is saddled with so many layers of bureaucracy, outdated assumptions, and institutionalized mediocrity that it is virtually impossible to fix from within. Unflattering numbers that indicate the flatlining of students' scores over the last four decades despite the increase of funds poured into the system are enhanced through the use of animated graphics. The statistics are appalling and even more troubling when looked at in terms of inner-city schools and “at risk” students. The reasons for these “failure factories” are numerous and complicated, and are predicated on educational notions that have changed little during the last 50 years. Guggenheim ably lays the groundwork that supports his argument regarding the ineptitude of our school system, and the bare facts alone should seemingly be enough to spur public action. Guggenheim goes further, however, by suggesting that charter schools – which are are funded with public and private dollars and can hire and fire whomever they please – are the answer to the problem. Extensive interview footage is included of well-known Harlem Children's Zone educator Geoffrey Canada and controversial Washington, D.C., school Chancellor Michelle Rhee (who was forced to resign this week), which additionally emphasizes the film’s biases. The teachers’ unions are painted as the primary obstacles to school reform. With detailed contracts that impede change and a tenure system that protects incompetent and underachieving teachers, the unions are dismissed as antagonists to the cause, while the reasons these protections exist are never explored or given any due. Looking only at charter schools that are achieving great results, Guggenheim structures his film around the lotteries these successful schools are required to hold annually for students looking to earn the few spots they have open. Five students in different grades and parts of the country are followed for several months until the film climaxes with heartbreaking close-ups of the children and their parents at the big event at which their futures are determined by random selection. (Structuring documentaries around big competitions has become a commonplace strategy in the wake of such films as Spellbound and The King of Kong: A Pocket Full of Quarters. For another documentary that uses this structure to explore the charter school system, look for The Lottery, which is widely available for viewing via numerous video-on-demand options.) Ultimately, it may be the case that Guggenheim is a better instigator than filmmaker, as the debate about our educational system appears to be on the upswing at present. For this, rather than all the specifics of its argument and what it leaves out, Waiting for ‘Superman’ is essential viewing.