Waiting for 'Superman'
Not just academic: Documentary underscores urgency of public school crisis
You don’t often equate American education with science fiction. But the final 15 minutes or so of “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ’’ a new Davis Guggenheim documentary detailing the dysfunction of the public school system, combines Aldous Huxley and some unfilmed season of “The Wire.’’ Families in different cities sit in packed rooms as participants in a lottery that could win them a coveted spot in a charter school.
Among its many activities, the movie follows five families — one white and middle-class, the others poor and black or Hispanic — in New York, D.C., and California. Each has entered the lottery because their respective public schools are sub-par. What’s surreal about this sequence is how urgent, how desperate the atmosphere is. Even though the movie has just argued, in its earnest, scattershot way, that the public system isn’t working, and even if you know how charter school enrollment works, you still can’t quite believe the lottery.
Its fairness hardly mitigates how heartless it feels. At the drawing for Harlem Success Academy in New York, there are 35 open spaces for more than 700 applicants. If one of the children the movie’s been following does get in, all you’ll notice are the scores of families sitting there hoping the name or number of their child is called next. Your heart is sinking because these parents and, by extension, these children, feel their lives are at stake. To compound the stress, Guggenheim puts the number of remaining available spots in the bottom right of the screen and counts down: 8, 7, 6 . . .
The camera gets right up to the faces of disappointed mothers and crestfallen kids and watches the tears stream down their faces. It’s as if the children lucky enough to enroll will live and those who don’t will be left behind. This doesn’t feel exploitative, the way it does in other disaster movies (and this is a disaster). The filmmakers don’t need to put down the camera to hand the thirsty a cup of water or the drowning a ride in a helicopter. On some level, the movie is that cup of water, part of a solution. It’s meant to infuriate you and break your heart enough that you feel compelled to do something. There’s a great deal of agit with very little prop.
Guggenheim’s previous documentaries include “An Inconvenient Truth’’; “It Might Get Loud,’’ in which Jack White, Jimmy Page, and the Edge sit around admiring each other’s talent; and “The First Year,’’ about six months in the lives of five schoolteachers, which Guggenheim references in this new film. His nonfiction has made noticeable strides. This is a patient, simmering movie. It’s contemplative but without his usual smitten indulgences. (Presumably, he got that out of his system with the uncomfortably moist biography of Barack Obama that aired during the 2008 Democratic National Convention, and with the follow-up — that Obama infomercial — that was broadcast and heavily watched the next month.)
The director now appears to have found a style. When a point needs to be made, often involving statistics (whose sources also appear on screen), perky music plays over a snide montage, animated graphic, or full-blown cartoon while Guggenheim narrates the information. The style is Michael Moore’s, but it’s better than no style at all. Plus, in its own way, it works. I actually remember a sequence called “The Lemon Dance,’’ which explains how some principals get rid of their bad teachers by trading them for another principal’s.
Guggenheim also seems to know that this is such a charged subject that Moore’s ranting approach would be overkill here. The movie isn’t subtle, but it isn’t discursively histrionic, either. The atrocities of the public school system are well documented. This movie serves as pointed indicator that there’s a long way to go.
There are moments when you do wish for a slightly more aggressive approach. A great deal of time is spent with Geoffrey Canada, the charismatic education-world superstar who runs the Harlem Children’s Zone, but often it’s in an office. This is a man whose loud, tough talk you want to see in action. There’s an
The movie also devotes a not insignificant amount of time to enumerating the ways in which the teachers’ union has contributed to the public school system’s woes. It won tenure for its teachers, making them almost impossible to fire no matter how demonstrably terrible they are. Guggenheim sits down with the head of the national teachers’ union, Randi Weingarten, but Weingarten is seen pretty much speaking only about the radical approach of Michelle Rhee, D.C.’s polarizing school chancellor (one of the film’s other subjects), and then only obliquely. It would be wrong to make Weingarten a scapegoat, but she must have reasons for standing by the union’s policies, even the obstructionist ones. It would have been nice to hear what they are.
A tighter focus would also have been welcome. The film rarely remains on one subject long enough for a real argument to flourish. It’s topical, returning to subjects or ideas repeatedly. But the sum of the parts is effective.
Only one in five charter schools, which are basically independently run public schools, is said to be a success. But for many parents, things are so dire in so many districts that, even with those odds, it’s worth a shot.
Aside from the demoralizing lotteries, the most astounding thing in the movie is the wealth of depressing facts indicating how steeply in decline American education has been since the 1970s. Our very best math students, we’re told, now rank 25th out of 30 developed countries, and 21st in science. That might just be accidentally inspirational. You want to get better at math just to improve those numbers.