Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for “Superman” is almost certainly going to end up on the short list for this year’s Best Documentary Oscar, and not without reason. Whether you agree with the film or not, whether you think it stacks the deck and simplifies the complex, it’s hard to ignore that this is a master class in how to make an effective documentary. Everything about the film is designed to work on the audience—and for the most part it does. Does it simplify a complex problem? Oh, that’s obvious, but the point of the film is less to provide answers than to raise questions and start a dialogue on the topic of why public education is failing.
The film takes its title from education reformer Geoffrey Canada’s moment of childhood revelation when his mother broke it to him that there was no Superman. It wasn’t the revelation that his hero was mythical that devastated him. It was the realization that no one was magically going to arrive in his impoverished Bronx neighborhood to save anybody. In its way, this motivated Canada to adopt a do-it-yourself attitude, which led him to become a teacher and, in turn, to decide to fix the educational system. That last, he quickly discovered, wasn’t quite as easy as he thought it was going to be—which started him on the path to Harlem Success Academy, an inner-city educational facility that works.
The problem with his approach is how to apply it on a broader scale—and that, the film finds, is a huge problem. The film traces this problem to the teachers’ unions, which are powerful indeed, owing to their heavy political contributions—mostly to the Democratic Party on the national scene, but spread out over both parties on local and state levels. The idea, of course, is to secure as much money for education as possible from the government. The downside to this stems from the fact that most teachers—regardless of competence—are granted tenure after a few years in the system, making it virtually impossible to fire even the most incompetent of teachers.
Not surprisingly, this has caused the film to be greeted with less than open arms in large portions of the teaching community—and caused it to be blasted for not dealing with the whole picture. And there’s little denying that it doesn’t deal with quite a few broader issues, but that hardly invalidates the ones it does deal with, especially since Guggenheim goes out of his way to show the problem isn’t limited to schools in bad neighborhoods. The reaction against the film is, well, reactionary in the worst knee-jerk manner, which makes one wonder whether the sense of entitlement in students isn’t engendered by the teachers themselves. Consider that the one area where U.S. schoolchildren score much higher than those in other developed countries lies in a sense of self-confidence that they are indeed the “best and brightest.” They learned this somewhere, though not, I suspect, entirely from their teachers.
The brilliance of the film lies in the decision to follow a handful of families in their attempts to get their children into academically superior schools—even though there are far more applicants than there are openings, resulting in a pure luck-of-the-draw lottery for those schools. In this manner, Guggenheim not only puts human faces on the issue, he gives the film shape and dramatic tension. Neither we nor the families we follow have any clue as to what the outcome will be—and the film shrewdly plays on this tension, creating one of the most suspenseful sequences (or series of sequences, since the lotteries are intercut with each other) found in any kind of film this year. And, of course, the outcome is a mix of jubilation and agony, depending entirely on the results of the lotteries.
Waiting for “Superman” is not perfect. It does—out of necessity—simplify. It occasionally gets on the preachy side. And while I don’t begrudge the film pitching the idea for action—it is after all an activist documentary—I got the feeling I was being guilt-tripped into donating to the cause right this minute, with what felt like a barrage of urgings to “text this number now” and “visit this website” etc. It suddenly called to mind spending an evening with someone trying to convince me to sell Amway, and I don’t think that was the film’s idea. It certainly oughtn’t have been. But that to one side, the film raises important issues that are worth exploring in greater depth. Rated PG for some thematic material, mild language and incidental smoking.