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Waiting for ‘Superman’ (2010)

March 14, 2011

written by:Davis Guggenheim & Billy Kimball
produced by: Lesley Chilcott
directed by: Davis Guggenheim 
rated PG (for some thematic material, mild language and incidental smoking)
111 min.
U.S. release date: September 25, 2010
DVD/Bluray release date: February 15, 201

America likes to pride itself on being a SuperNation, such a declaration is foolish chest thumping when the nations parents and children suffer. Which is what we see in Davis Guggenheim’s latest documentary, “Waiting for ‘Superman,'” where the failures and plight of the public education system in America is analyzed. The Oscar-winning director takes us coast to coast, visiting  several professionals and five families in various economic levels, as they share the troubles and struggles of their scholastic experiences. While the film shows a congested system as a confusing and depressing quagmire full of congestion, often disregarding the needs of children, it does so without offering any real solutions.

Still, the film offers an informative and animated look at the failures that plague the educational system in the U.S. It’s a subject many have touched on for years. From the smoke-filled faculty lounge of yesteryear to the modern-day office water cooler, a variety of issues have always been around. Some of the same subject material is covered  in another documentary from last year, “The Lottery” yet it’s not as polished as “Waiting” is. Understandably so, since Guggenheim has been at this for some time. He knows how to maintain the attention of the viewer with each documentary, not just with his charts and graphs but also by following the people who are close to the source of the topic.
Serving as narrator, Guggenheim tracks down four students varying in single or dual parent households as well as various income levels. He sets out to pinpoint the needs of each child and in turn finds out how they all fall victim to a tangled web of legal mumbo jumbo made possible by empowered adults. Real nice.
These are children with hopes and dreams and aspirations to one day provide a better life for their own children. Wait, what? That’s right. Such is the case of Anthony, a child who lives with his grandmother (his father had overdosed) in D.C. It’s a situation that is both sobering and heartbreaking that he would even have such foresight to think of his unborn children. Meanwhile, the parents (or parent or grandparent) must work more than one job, fill out a variety of forms, and/or partake in a lottery in order to gain entry into a charter school. Why a charter school? Because they produce better results and more college-prep pupils than those of their  public school peers.
The majority of the film is spent following these children, their families and the hoops they must jump through in search of a decent education. Not just an education, mind you, because any one of them can settle for a plethora of institutions where they will receive an assessable yet pathetic educational experience. It all becomes a frustrating mess, leaving us with more questions than answers. The U.S. is one of the richest and most privileged countries and yet we fail at offering our children the best possible education.
How can that be and what can be done? Will this floundering system continue to erode before someone comes along offering solutions? Yet we hear the term “education reforms” thrown around by politicos left and right for the longest time….is there ever any long-lasting legitimate follow through? The biggest question is: What can a devoted parent do to see to it that their child gets a decent education?
These questions are proposed, either in the film or in the mind of the viewer, but we’re never really presented with any real hope or a tangible light at the end of this crowded hallway.
Then there’s the problem with the teacher unions that shield some of the most inept career educators (often deemed as lemons or turkeys) in order to protect them from getting fired. These unions are essentially blamed for the mess we’re in, rendered untouchable due to their colossal political donations. One example of this is shown when Guggenheim takes us to the “rubber rooms” in D.C., basically a purgatory for teachers who are facing disciplinary issues or have been reprimanded for poor ethics. All they do is sit in a class all day long, sometimes for weeks, kind of like what you have to sit through to get a traffic ticket off your record. what happens to these teachers since they are protected by the union? Quite often they are flip-flopped to different schools, hoping their history doesn’t leave a trail.
With all this depressing information Guggenheim lightens the mood with clever animation and finds a way to give us some charismatic and engaging voices.  Like charter school founder Geoffrey Canada, of Harlem’s Children Zone. He shows up throughout the movie and is the reason behind the clever title, which also has Guggenheim inserting choice scenes from the classic Superman TV show with George Reeves. Honestly, I would’ve been fine if this was a documentary solely on Canada. His story seems just that interesting.  We also meet D.C. public school chancellor Michelle Rhee, who has an uphill battle from Day One with the unions. Her fight is both frustrating and impressive in how she must take on complacent adults over matters that concern the future of the nation. It’s to the film’s benefit that despite all the obstacles and red tape, it showcases heroes like these two.

Many documentaries have a slant or an angle that want to show you. I expect that and accept it. Guggenheim just guides you, which is fine because what he shows you disturbing as it is. No one needs to tell the audience how wrong it is for our children and their families to get the short end of the ruler.Sadly, the only misstep I found is not a minor one but quite a glaring one, in my opinion. It’s an error that had me building an itch throughout the film but then in the end when Guggenheim tacks on a number we can text to find out what can be done….that’s when I became really angry.
Really? After all this information, all these stories, and the intense climactic ending where we see several different families in different cities, sitting in a lottery, waiting for their child’s name to be called. After all that, we’re just given a text?!?!
That’s where I had to look back and found myself feeling  like Guggenheim was just pulling my heartstrings and wanting to get me all riled up. He wanted me to cry out for educational reforms, yet he gives me no place to channel so much desire and emotion. Maybe he should’ve taken an obvious perspective throughout the film. He could’ve asked more questions, like what families can do to fight the current system.
The DVD does have a good deal of additional info on what’s been done since the film was made and what can be done. But that makes it seem like the Teacher’s Edition text book whereas the main feature, as valuable and important as it is, is what we give the kids to study. Not providing us with options after giving us so much compelling content, is like not preparing an eager and willing child for success.
3 Comments leave one →
  1. windi noel permalink
    March 15, 2011 9:58 am

    interesting….as a parent of a child (and a very bright child, I might add), what do you feel needs to be done?

    Do you agree with his assessments about the Teacher’s Union? It is a huge issue right now, I wonder at the timing of this film given the amount of attention the whole issue of the unions are given right now.

    Also, maybe he doesn’t offer any solutions because he really doesn’t know WHAT to do. The whole educational system has become quite the cluster-youknowwhat. We’ve had conversations on the pros and cons of traditional schooling vs home schooling. Thing like this make me rethink my decision to keep the kids in school!

    It’s a mess, and at the risk of angry responses, I do believe that the teacher’s unions are not helping one bit. are they to blame for the mess? Of course not. I also think that societal decline is also to blame. Parents do not take nearly enough responsibility for their children’s actions, and the teachers are left not only trying to teach the children, but also instill some sense of pride, duty, right and wrong, etc into the children…..something that is the parent’s duty, so that children will come to school and be able and willing to learn.

  2. FaithJ permalink
    March 15, 2011 3:24 pm

    My husband and I just watched this on Friday night! Though we don’t have kids, I never understood why the nation was so up in arms over education reform. This documentary helped me understand the problems, the bureaucracy, and in general the practices of public schools. I thought it was great, well-done and thoughtful, and am recommending it to parents I know.


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