by Richard von Busack
WHEN a documentary filmmaker phrases a social problem in a way sure to break your heart, beware. Waiting for Superman by Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) follows five young students as they try to get into private schools.
The documentary insists that their futures depend on acceptance to the schools. Guggenheim adds sad piano and tears (and a syrupy John Legend ballad over the end titles) when the results are announced.
Of the five children, perhaps the most endangered is Anthony, a denizen of the embattled Washington, D.C., school district, whose father died from drug-related causes.
Francisco, from the Bronx, has reading problems. Bianca, a Harlem kindergartener, and Daisy, from a poor Hispanic background in Los Angeles, face crowded impoverished schools.
Lastly, we meet eighth-grader Emily of Redwood City, whose parents are concerned that her school will push her onto a noncollege track. They believe that her only hope for college is getting accepted at Summit Preparatory Charter School.
Shuttling among these striving kids, Waiting for Superman takes teacher’s unions and bureaucracies to task. Guggenheim contends that school funding has doubled while test scores continue to fall. He charges that schools with high dropout rates are “failure factories” or “dropout factories.” Moreover, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) head Randi Weingarten (seen in villainous slow-motion) is singled out as the head of an organization that protects “lemons”—underperforming teachers who are seen in an animated dance being shifted from one poor school to another.
Guggenheim has embraced the postmodern, post–Michael Moore style of sweetening the statistics with vintage TV clips and original animation. The title refers to the American fantasy of a savior coming to fix an insoluble problem—we see George Reeves fly in as Superman.
When satirizing the crumbling school system, Guggenheim includes an excerpt from The Simpsons. Bespectacled teacher Elizabeth Hoover checks out on her students the very instant she earns tenure. Guggenheim could just as easily have shown what makes Springfield Elementary (and so many real-life schools) so rotten: the chronic underfunding, the useless testing, the unconquerable anti-intellectualism of the town it serves.
Every journalist, especially one who works as hard as Guggenheim does, faces one problem: When facing an overwhelming story, one seizes on the figures who look the most confident about what they’re doing. Geoffrey Canada, CEO of the famous charter school Harlem’s Children’s Zone, is a charismatic man; he dominates the movie in a way no one else can match.
Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the D.C. schools, was considered the hope of that terribly blighted district. Rhee posed on the cover of Time magazine with a broom, presumably intending to sweep the schools clean; the Blondie song “Dreaming” accompanies her on the soundtrack to mirror the size of her ambitions.
Every documentary has a preference for the proactive, the anecdotal and the bigger than life over the incremental and the quietly brave. Guggenheim has a point: the dropout rate and the failing students are a hell of a problem, but the worst-case examples don’t tell us everything.
The war against ignorance is a far more necessary struggle than the war on terror or drugs, and the people who fight this war are caught between tight-fisted taxpayers and parents who are too blinded with love to see the bigger picture.
What are teachers supposed to give? Their ostensibly huge salaries (insert an Edna Krabappel “Ha!” here), the clout they have as union members? The film outs the Democratic Party as beholden to the AFT. Talk about your velvet hand in the tinfoil glove.
Thinking over the movie, one recalls a blur of sad children and waltzing cartoon lemonheads. This documentary expresses the kind of ideology that even Meg Whitman can wrap herself around: that privatization and union-busting are the answer—the same answer we’ve been given since the 1980s.
This conclusion may not have been Guggenheim’s intention. But as always with passionate/intense documentaries like Waiting for Superman, there’s the possibility of deliberate misreading, thanks to the lethal combo of stridency and slipperiness.