Waiting For Superman
“Waiting for Superman,” directed by Davis Guggenheim, requires a box of tissues on hand. It opens with black-and-white footage of Christopher Reeves as Superman while Geoffrey Canada, an educator in Harlem, talks about his childhood in the South Bronx. When his mother told him that “Superman” was not real he began to cry, because “there was no one coming with enough power to save us.”
The film does an incredible job of portraying the emotionally affecting realities of a failing public school system. The film follows five young children and their families as they express their dissatisfaction with the school system and attempt to get their children into highly selective charter schools. Many public schools are referred to as “dropout factories” and “academic sinkholes.” Flashy illustrations accompany depressing statistics and Guggenheim interviews the students about their academic aspirations. By the end of the film, each of the five children is shown going through the charter school lottery process in real time, their faces falling as the number of spaces in each class slowly drops toward zero.
Much of the film explores the fight between educators rallying for reform and the seemingly unbreakable barrier of the teachers’ unions. The unions are accused of blocking reform and making it extremely difficult to fire poorly performing educators. Michelle Rhee, superintendent of the D.C. area, a pioneer, is shown as she evaluates and fires low-rated teachers and closes down schools. Geoffrey Canada, and others like him, are praised for creative new methods of reaching students. Guggenheim has received sharp criticism from educators and periodicals like The Village Voice and The Huffington Post, which accuse him of furthering an agenda to privatize schools and blame teachers for low standards.
For the casual movie goer, and arguably for the experts as well, the film didn’t seem to offer up any real solutions. Just before the credits roll a sentence appears on screen stating, "Great schools won't come from winning the lottery. They will come from you," followed by a prompt to text something to some random number. What could “you” do to help? What exactly would texting do to fix anything? After almost two hours of buildup the sentiment comes off as lame, vague, and naively hopeful.
Guggenheim, intentionally or not, has sparked an enormous amount of discussion about the topic of school reform. At the very least, if the jury rules this film bogus, maybe someone else will step up and vocally lead this nation’s public school system in the correct direction. Then again, the film made it quite clear that Superman does not exist.