Waiting for Superman
Directed by Davis Guggenheim. US. 2010. PG. 111 minutes.
Fri., November 19, 2010 thru Wed., November 24, 2010
“What could be more awkward for a political progressiveDavis Guggenheim, who made “An Inconvenient Truth”than to open a documentary with the admission that he betrays his ideals every morning, when he drives past his local school in the Washington, D.C., area and drops off his children at a private institution? What could be riskier to his countrys political future (as he sees it) than to conclude that the villain of his story is a union, the American Federation of Teachers, that also happens to be one of the Democratic Partys most generous sources of contributions? Waiting for Superman has a measured tempo and a humanistic spirit, but you can feel the directors struggle to keep it evenhanded. I especially felt it because my own response was unmeasured: This is one of the most galvanizing documentaries Ive ever seen.
The clunky title comes from Guggenheims most charismatic figure: Geoffrey Canada, the president and CEO of the Harlem Childrens Zone, who laughs at himself for his childlike dreams of a comic-book savior, and for thinking, way back in 1975, when he got out of grad school at Harvard, that hed have the countrys problems solved by, oh, 77, 78. After Canadas wry recollections, Guggenheim lets roll a clip reel of more than a half-century of presidents, from George H.W. Bushs vow to be the education president to his sons teaming up with Teddy Kennedy to pass No Child Left Behind on the premise that childrens [sic] do learn.
But this is not a movie about presidents, and every statisticthere are manyconnects with the story of a child: brooding Anthony in D.C., darlingly open Daisy in L.A., sweet-tempered Bianca in Harlem, and others. They want to go to school, but the schools to which theyre headed are the ones where maybe three of every 100 kids will graduate with the minimum requirements for college. They have parents who work desperately to get them a decent education, but their dreams of going to a magnet or charter school rest on balls or slips of paper pulled at random, on crap shoots with dismaying odds.
Here are some of the revelations in Waiting for Superman. Failing schools cant always be blamed on failing neighborhoods; failing neighborhoods can be blamed on failing schools. The U.S. ranks 25th out of 30 developed countries in math proficiency, but first in how proficient its citizens think they are. And heres the most amazing statistic: Under the AFT contract, only one in 2,500 U.S. teachers with tenure (typically granted after two years) will lose his or her job, and the cost and time to fire him or her will be staggering.
Guggenheim does point out that the union has protected the underpaid and overworked, and unlike Madeleine Sackler in her recent film, The Lottery, about the battle over charter schools, he doesnt float accusations of corruption. But Guggenheim arrives at the same place. Every time an administrator like D.C.s Michelle Rhee or Pittsburghs Bill Strickland comes along with a plan to weed out the miserable teachers, there she is, AFT president Randi Weingarten, telling the media that her critics are all self-serving. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Lex Luthor.
The image Ill take away with me is of Anthony, whose father died of a drug overdose, explaining that he doesnt want to leave his friends and go to a boarding school but will because I want my kid to have better than what I had. Hes worried about the next generation, because he has already lost his own childhood. The website (waitingforsuperman.com) to contact appears many times in the closing credits. A word of caution: Once you see Waiting for Superman, youll have no excuse for letting things stand.” (David Edelstein, NY Magazine)
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