DOCUMENTARY REVIEW: Waiting for "Superman"


Waiting for "Superman" is the latest documentary from director David Guggenheim, who previously won the Academy Award for the outstanding Al Gore-led global warming button-pusher An Inconvenient Truth.  His new documentary follows the glaring (and not-so-glaring) flaws of the American education system as it stands today.  It is the Audience Award winner for Best Documentary from the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

The documentary gets its title from an early anecdotal story of how Harlem charter school founder and activist Geoffrey Canada used to watch old TV episodes of "Adventures of Superman," starring George Reeves, as a kid hoping and waiting that a super hero could come to his neighborhood and make all of the bad stuff go away.  He likens that early memory from his youth to the blind non-action people and government have today when it comes to fixing what's wrong with America's education system. 

Waiting for "Superman" follows several individual journeys on two levels: 1) public school students and their families, and 2) administrators and activists trying to change the system.  We, the audience, most frequently follow five very different families across the nation who are each trying to gain admission for their son or daughter into local limited-admission charter schools.  For those not familiar to the education scene, a charter school is a school that receives public money, in addition to private donations and sometimes corporate backing, and are a free, non-tuition, public choice/option of limited enrollment.  They are not subject to public school rules and regulations in exchange for negotiated accountability to deliver certain results (college preparatory, the arts, test scores, etc.) set forth in their charter agreement.  They are commonly started in low-income areas where the public education is failing.

Studies have shown (within this film and outside of it as well) that charter schools, with their data-driven accountability for results and freedom from regulation and union control, are not only working, but thriving and far outperforming their neighboring public counterparts.  It is with this success in mind, that we follow the five families who are trying to gain admission for their children into these schools because, in some cases (mostly those bad neighborhoods with high school dropout rates above 50%), these schools are their only chance of academic success and a college education down the road.  The cameras follow these families in their lives and struggles all the way to the final lotteries for the open spots at their desired schools.

The second half to this story in Waiting for "Superman" is that of the administrators and activists who are trying to change the failing system.  The film particularly follows the entertaining Canada, the president and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone, a charter school he started in the poorest part of Harlem.  Through highly qualified, motivated, and better paid teachers, he practically guarantees that he can turn every first grader into a high school graduate accepted to college.

The film also follows notable Time magazine cover subject Michelle Rhee, the tough reform-minded Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools.  The former Teach For America recruit and founder of The New Teacher Project has been in a three-year battle since 2007 against the local and national teacher unions in trying to do away with teacher tenure, set up merit-based pay and evaluations, and dismiss underperforming teachers.  In 2010, she fired 241 teachers, put another 737 on notice, and, in 2008, closed 21 schools due to excess capacity.  During these segments, Waiting for "Superman" doesn't hide its very liberal point-of-view.  Make no mistake.  The film is very anti-union and anti-tenure.  They are made to be the bad guys in the black hats. 

From both story perspectives, the cracks and deficiencies of the American public school system are revealed and out on display in a very strong way. Waiting for "Superman" doesn't sugarcoat or hold its statistics and ugly findings back.  Much about No Child Left Behind and educational funding is discussed.  It is both sickening and fascinating to watch at the same time, yet all the while poignant.

All of these interwoven stories from the family and administrative points-of-view come together and peak when the lottery balls, computer randomizers, and folded slips of paper begin to turn and churn for the five focus families.  In just this area alone, Waiting for "Superman" is a filmmaking achievement that is astonishingly shot and made to showcase these very real and relatable people.  The lingering views into the eyes of these children will engage and haunt you.  We witness who makes it in and who doesn't.  Simply put, by that point, it becomes almost maddening and anguishing to watch that futures of some of these innocent children come down to the bounce of a bingo ball.

LESSON #1: GOOD PARENTS WILL DO ANYTHING FOR THEIR CHILDREN-- If the heart-gripping stories of the children don't get you, the hard-working and sacrificing parents of this film will.  The lengths to which these five sets of parents will go for to see that their child receives a good education is beyond commendable.  The saddest thing is that it shouldn't be this hard for them.

LESSON #2: EVEN WHEN YOU WORK HARD, SOME DECISIONS ARE LEFT TO CHANCE-- It shouldn't have to be this way, but these lotteries shown in the documentary are not staged or rigged.  The selections are not based on merit, need, or deserving cases, but on luck and chance.  There are other times in life (military drafts for starters anyone?) when all the hard work and preparation in the world won't improve one's chances.

LESSON #3: EVERY KID DESERVES THE BEST EDUCATION-- No matter what side of the aisle, coin, or debate your are on, it is plain and simple to state that every child deserves a chance for a good education.  When did this problem become more about money and the adults than the kids?  It shouldn't take drastic measures like these we see here.  It shouldn't come to situations like this that truly feel hopeless to the point that you long for a fictional character to save the day.  The power to fix this, no matter what side, lies in us, not heroes.