However, when it came time to enroll my daughter in school, it was private all the way, from kindergarten through the 8th grade. High School shifted things to a Charter school for the Arts that she had to audition to get in to… and I still had to pay for.
Why not just regular-ass public school? Freedom of Choice. It’s that simple. For Davis Guggenheim, director of An Inconvenient Truth and now Waiting for “Superman”, it’s not quite so simple. Part of this reason is that he also directed Teach, a 2001 documentary that, in part, advocated for public schools. Still, as he tells us in his latest education-based documentary, he drives past two public schools to drop his kids off at a private school.
He goes on to tell us why. In short, the US Public School System is broken… and breaking more and more as time goes on. This is Davis Guggenheim’s opinion, yes, but it is an opinion shared by a great many people in this country and beyond and the falling statistics for success seem to keep proving this point. What everybody in the country can’t agree on, however, is just how to fix US Schools. Hence the Documentary… hence the need for a documentary.
This is a very fine and well-done documentary that, as many of the more popular theatrical documentaries tend to do, utilizes many tricks of the trade to get its point across. From animation by Yu+Co. to on-screen suspense building, emotional words and statistics to long takes that give us real slices of life (often elongated by slow motion endings), the modern documentary is exemplified here. This works for the film, and not only to make it more palatable to its audience.
Guggenheim goes a lot deeper than merely animating the statistics for us and offering his opinions on the subject. In fact, he goes a lot deeper than interviewing the educators, bureaucrats and lobbyists on the multiple sides of the School Dice. Waiting for “Superman” is primarily told through the eyes and voices of five hopeful children named Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy, and Emily and their caretakers.
Each of the five have had their experiences in good and bad schools. Each of their guardians have found the schools to be too lacking or too expensive to be effective. Their stories are similar, though they come from many places in the United States and have very different backgrounds. However, each of them is trying to get into a very exclusive charter school where a lottery, not an audition, decides who gets in and who doesn’t.
Interspersed with these tales are the statistics of the USA’s falling grades and place in the racing world. Guggenheim supports these facts with news clips, hidden cameras, interviews and archival footage, all blended together beautifully. Of particular note are the interviews with (and stories of) Michelle Rhee and Geoffrey Canada. Rhee is the chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools system of Washington, D.C. She’s made a lot of friends and a lot of enemies with the radical changes she has both implemented and proposed. Not everything she says or does (within this documentary or without) will be agreed with by, well, any of us. However, her story does illustrate how real change has often been stopped by teachers’ unions.
Canada is president and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone in Harlem, New York and a life long activist educator. Canada is brilliant and charismatic in his speech and beliefs and (it’s implied) gives this film its title. Why ruin it? See the film!
Waiting for “Superman” is as well-intentioned as it is well-done. The film is incredibly touching and Guggenheim clearly believes in what he is doing and cares deeply for the subject matter. Most of all the film is very touching and no matter what “walk of life” these kids come from, their stories are touching. It’s impossible not to feel for the children and the adults who love them so very much as they wait in wide-eyed hope for acceptance into these great schools.
However, it’s also clear that Davis Guggenheim, his co-writer Billy Kimball and their producer Lesley Chilcott are so sure they are on the right side of things that certain elements of this multi-faceted story aren’t truly explored. We are told that some public schools are quite good, yet we never see them. We are told that these particular charter schools are excellent and much better than the standard public school, yet we don’t really get any comparable statistics about the success rate of charter schools. Many walking out of this film might speculate that charter schools are the only answer and might be close to infallible.
Further, Guggenheim touches on the US ranking in the world when it comes to education, broken down by subject, however, we get very little real insight into what these other nations might be doing differently. The talk of other countries feels like a preview to a subject we never really get into. Similarly, the almost vilified Teachers’ Unions are given a very small amount of say here. Often the words we do hear from American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten seems to almost be included for the sake of irony.
While there is clearly more story to be told on many of these facets, in Guggenheim Kimball and Chilcott’s defense, they are making a documentary feature here and they do their best to both get the thesis of their film across, including the opinions they share while adding as much balance as possible. It should also be noted that as a feature film based on a MOUNTAIN of a topic, there was only so much time they could allot to each facet of the story. Yes, it’s clear what Guggenheim’s opinions are and this is not exactly a “neutral” documentary. However, it should be noted that nothing that he advocates here is harmful. And when it comes to the stark realities that these children (and millions of others like them) are living in, the camera catches things as they really are. Some good… some very hard.
The choices that Guggenheim makes to tell his tale, again, including animation, licensed footage from news stations and, of course, other wise unrelated archival footage, are both exceptionally executed and very, very entertaining. The ironic inclusion of footage from the 1950s (a very different era for education, to say the least) both adds an ironic bit of humor in the context its presented and manages to illustrate the contrasts he is attempting to point out. Never are these inclusions ham-handed or tacked on. They all manage to relate to the main plot and points and enhance the story, never distracting from it.
Archival appearances include George Reeves as Superman in The Adventures of Superman, presidents from Barack Obama to Gerald Ford to Ronald Reagan to Lyndon B. Johnson to George Bush to George Bush, even Carl Sagan… and Jerry Mathers… as the Beaver!
The most important message of Waiting for “Superman” is that improvements to Education are all-too-often slowed to a stop when the adults become more important than the children. There are bound to be divergent opinions on how to fix education. It’s quite simply… not that simple and therefore tons of ideas necessarily abound. The point is that like An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for “Superman” dares to ask the question, dares to do it brilliantly and articulately and dares to go farther than mere entertainment into the realm of legitimate activism. Four Stars out of Five for Waiting for “Superman”! Davis Guggenheim tells us that it may take extraordinary powers to make any real progress to save our broken and breaking school systems. He may be right, but if something doesn’t happen, then we may end up with an entire generation of internet film critics. Shudder. See you in the next reel.
If you’ve read down this far, then you’re clearly educated enough to
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