LITTLE ROCK Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for “Superman” is the latest and best film to emerge from a burgeoning new genre, what we might call the “America’s schools are broken and we’re all doomed” horror documentary.
A highly hyped Academy Award favorite for the Best Documentary Oscar that - judging by my e-mail and phone messages - may be the most anticipated grown-up movie of the year, it’s also probably the highest profile nonfiction film to hit American theaters since Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911.
Still, though it seriously and soberly considers a seemingly intractable problem, presenting us with columns of dire facts and anecdotes of bureaucratic atrocity, Waiting for “Superman” also succeeds as entertainment and allows us to leave the cinema feeling, if not uplifted, at least hopeful. LikeGuggenheim’s earlier film, An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for “Superman” allows us to feel as though we’ve somehow joined the resistance - the odds are against us, comrades, but we few, we lucky few, we shall overcome.
I do not mean to be facetious; there’s a frightening disconnect between the how well our kids are learning and how smart they believe they are - we can’t add or spell or think critically but we still believe we’re theworld’s best and brightest. Early on in “Superman,” we’re presented with a chart that ranks the math skills of students from developed nations. The United States comes in last but when its students are asked where they think they rank, they invariably guess they’re No. 1.
That illusion is hazardous to our civic and national health, and even if we differ on how that problem ought to be attacked, we should at least recognize the problem exists.
Over the past few weeks, my e-mail in-box has been bombarded with messages from advocacy groups warning me that Waiting for “Superman” doesn’t tell the “whole story” about our public schools, and I’m quite sure that it doesn’t.The problems facing educators are complex and deep-rooted, if not unsolvable. Most teachers want to do good, most may even be doing the best they can given the pragmatic constraints of political will and public money. I’ve got two sisters who teach in public schools - I know how hard they’re trying and how much they’re frustrated.
Guggenheim understandsthat teachers are the key to rebuilding our once great education system, and though Waiting for “Superman” faces up to the unspoken obvious - not all teachers are good teachers - it also argues that good teachers can compensate for poor neighborhoods and even poor parenting. The key, as Guggenheim sees it, is the widespread implementation of policies that have been battle-tested in some of the country’s toughest districts by a handful of bold, innovators such as Geoffrey Canada, who presides over a trio of charter schools that have enjoyed phenomenal success in terrible neighborhoods where traditional public schools have degenerated into “dropout factories.”
Guggenheim portrays Canada - also one of the subjects of Madeline Sackler’s The Lottery - as a ferocious opponent of mediocrity, and the bete noire of the American Federation ofTeachers.
Still, Waiting for “Superman” is a persuasive, thoughtful argument; an advocacy film that should be taken as an opportunity to open an important conversation about our future - and whether we’re willing to do the work necessary to justify our national amour-propre.
MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 10/22/2010
Print Headline: REVIEW Waiting for “Superman”