Waiting for Superman

13 Dec

Title: Waiting for Superman
Davis Guggenheim
Davis Guggenheim and Billy Kimball
Geoffrey Canada, Michelle A. Rhee
MPAA Rating:
PG, some thematic material, mild language and incidental smoking
111 min
Major Awards:
1 NBR Award
IMDb Rating:
Rotten Tomatoes:

Davis Guggenheim can make some really good documentaries. He of course won the Oscar with the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth, which was pretty amazing. Then in 2008 he did It Might Get Loud, a documentary which focused on the electric guitar, and featured The Edge, Jimmy Page and Jack White. And now he has a very good shot at yet another Oscar with this one, Waiting for Superman, another passionate film of his, which much like An Inconvenient Truth is a very heartbreaking and riveting look at its subject matter, which in this case happens to be the American educational system.

This is both overwhelming because of the truths it exposes, but it also has a bit of hope in its outlook. And that’s because Mr. Guggenheim rocks at doing these type of documentaries, approaching a sensitive subject much like he did in An Inconvenient Truth, just stating the facts, showing the tough truths. In that one he was helped by Al Gore, here he is backed by a number of promising kids and their families, who go through the system, showing the human stories behind the statistics.

It’s alarming, yes. But it’s alarming not only because of the truths it speaks, but because in the end, as it gives hope by saying how it all can be fixed, you get alarmed because it seems like such fixing wouldn’t be that hard a task, especially considering the importance of its effect, and it’s stunning to think that nobody seems to be doing much about it anyway. Add all of this to the fact that the kids Mr. Guggenheim focuses on are so charming and real, and the fact that their families are so frustrated with this system and you can’t help but feel connected to it. This is powerful filmmaking.

We obviously knew that the education system of America was failing, we have heard it before plenty of times. But Waiting for Superman takes it to a whole other level, not just because we are shown the lovely faces it’s failing, but because the truths stated by Mr. Guggenheim are very simple and straightforward. He acknowledges that there are good things about the system, but the weight the things that are wrong about it is way more breathtaking.

We are told plenty of teachers just don’t want to teach, and they’re not really getting fired for saying so, either. And it’s really horrible to see these teachers admit to that. If one’s a union teacher then it means the chances of one ever getting fired as teacher is seriously slim, as it is made abysmally clear when the film puts it in comparison to doctors or lawyers. Union teachers will be teachers for life, even though their interest for teaching many times seems close to non-existent. And that’s one of the reasons why the system is so messed up, because teachers aren’t motivated, and the results of their students, especially in subjects like math, reflects that.

That’s the harsh depressing truth the film shows, and it’s really sad to see how it is. However, as I said, there’s also hope to be found here. We are told that there is available high quality education even for those students who are seriously disadvantaged, and are told that in the coming decade the amount of skilled students will be exponentially higher than it is now, as will be the number of high paying jobs available for them. And while all that’s true, it doesn’t take away from the most direct truth this film shows, which is that, simply put, the school system in America just doesn’t work properly.

Geoffrey Canada is a man we focus on quite a bit in Waiting for Superman. An educator who runs the Harlem Success Academy, and who’s what every teacher should be, a charming and inspiring guy who clearly believes in what he does. He’s the one who inspires the title of film, telling us that one of the saddest days of his life came when he found out that Superman didn’t exist, because he realized that no one was really coming to save us. One could say that Mr. Canada is as close as we’ll get to a Superman for now, the guy running a school that shows success at getting kids through school and into college.

The stuff the film shows is sad to watch, the teachers union especially, not being willing to take away teacher’s credentials. We are shown the two sides to this, first with Michelle A. Rhee, chancellor of the public school system who tries to shut down ineffective schools and try and get the unions to fire the incompetent teachers, which they pretty much always refuse to. And with Randi Weintergarten, who I guess would be one of the villains of the movie, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, who concedes that there’s much wrong with the system, but won’t fire those who make it so.

It’s hard to see this film at times. The kids we are presented to are competing for spots at charter school, which have huge success rates at putting kids into college and have only so many spots for quite a lot of children competing for them, and who give the spots away with a lottery process. And if your number isn’t called, the consequences will most likely be a horrible education for quite a bit of time, a really high probability of dropping out and then probably leading a below average life.

These are the hard truths Mr. Guggenheim exposes, but he says it as it is. Showing us that there is hope in the future, but as it is right now, out of 30 developed nations, America ranks 25th in mathematics and just a few places better in science, even though most Americans would believe they rank at or near the top.

The movie ends as we see the kids we’ve grown close to looking at that lottery. Close ups of their faces just relying so much on their number being called up for a chance at a better education and a better life. There’s joy in knowing that some of these deserving kids will go through, but there’s a lot of sadness in knowing that many won’t, and in seeing that so much relies on the result of a random lottery and that a nation that spends so much money in wars won’t do all that much to fix this. Waiting for Superman is necessary viewing.

Grade: A-


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