Emotional lessons about our public schools
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, October 1, 2010
Many documentaries make you cry. They often present seemingly insolvable problems. But "Waiting for 'Superman,' " filmmaker Davis Guggenheim's scathing, moving critique of American public education, makes you actually want to do something after you dry your eyes.
While there's little doubt that the controversial D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who appears prominently in the film, has at some point provoked tears -- or at least spitting anger -- there's nothing about her blunt commentary that would make anyone mist up, as sad as the state of the District's public schools is. As the film points out, Washington, D.C., has the lowest eighth-grade reading proficiency rate in the country.
In Guggenheim's movie, Rhee comes across as a heroic, if polarizing, reformer. There may be an unintentional layer of tragedy, given Rhee's recent characterization of the city's mayoral primary results as "devastating" for the children of Washington. Nevertheless, Rhee's appearance will leave most viewers dry-eyed, despite the widely held assumption that she will leave or be forced out of her post now that Vincent Gray -- who has been highly critical of her performance in the past -- has defeated D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty.
If there's a villain in the piece, it's Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. Her union, and its historical institutional resistance to such things as teacher evaluations, merit pay and the elimination of automatic tenure, are here seen as self-serving at best, if not downright harmful to children.
But there are others in the film with greater emotional pull on the audience. One of them is Geoffrey Canada. The founder of the Harlem Success Academy, a much-sought-after charter school in New York City, gives the film its title when he tells the story of his childhood disappointment upon learning that TV's Superman wasn't real and would never be coming to save him. Canada is among the film's liveliest talking heads -- he seems to get more screen time than Rhee and Weingarten combined -- yet his sense of disillusionment with the U.S. public school system is palpable.
Disillusionment, in fact, pervades "Waiting for 'Superman.' "
Mostly, it's the result of Guggenheim's decision to structure his film around the stories of several children across the country who are participating in the highly competitive lotteries that take place every year in successful schools for a limited number of openings. An audible gasp was heard at a recent screening when the numbers flashed on screen about one such lottery: 792 kids fighting for 40 slots.
Harlem Success Academy is one of those schools; the SEED school, a public charter in the District, is another. Some the kids the film follows will get in. Most won't.
We get to know all of them: Emily in Redwood City, Calif.; Daisy in Los Angeles; Bianca in Harlem; Francisco in the Bronx; Anthony in Washington. Their hopeful faces -- and the looks of frustration when some of them don't make it -- are crushing.
But Guggenheim is no defeatist. The film ends with an inspirational litany with ways you can help. The director, who wrote the film with Billy Kimball, and who narrates it, passionately, as a kind of personal essay, wants to make a difference, in the same way he hoped to with his 2006 film "An Inconvenient Truth."
As adults, he says, it sometimes feels easier to just throw up our hands and give up, rather than to take a good, hard look "at just one student."
"Waiting for 'Superman' " takes that good, hard look. And not just at one student, but a handful. They deliver the film's real message, though it's one echoed by Rhee, who laments that the fight for better schools inevitably becomes "about the adults." In the end, "Waiting for 'Superman' " argues, it isn't the people named Michelle, Randi and Geoffrey who matter in this fight, but the millions of Emilys, Daisys, Biancas, Franciscos and Anthonys.
Contains references to drug abuse and troubled families.