In Waiting For Superman the state of education in America goes under the microscope. According to director (and co-writer) David Guggenheim the prognosis isn’t healthy. In fact it’s comatose. I rarely reflect on my own high school education back in the Stone Age (1970s) but seeing this film makes me realize how fortunate I am. I went to a public school and actually learned something.
Guggenheim excels at making documentaries; just take a gander at his It Might Get Loud, one of the best films ever made about rock and roll. While Waiting For Superman doesn’t hold a candle to the agitprop of Guggenheim’s award winning An Inconvenient Truth it does a good job of supporting its thesis, mainly that the educational system is broke. Attempting to fix the system without a complete overhaul is like using duct tape to stop a radiator leak. It doesn’t really correct the problem so much as it rigs it to work until the next day when the water seeps through anew.
There was another documentary from earlier this year called The Cartel that examined many of the same issues brought forth in Waiting For Superman, although graphically The Cartel was hampered by a low budget and stuck to facts and figures about one state’s education system (New Jersey) and talking heads. Another recent doc, Freakonomics uses one of its segments to examine high school students in Chicago who are bribed to make passing grades (and still fail).
Waiting For Superman opens up with one of its subjects, a Harvard educated school district supervisor, who recalls growing up reading comic books. Guggenheim cuts to a clip from the 1950s television version of Superman. The man tells us that even though he grew up in the ghetto he kept the dream alive that one day Superman would come rescue him. As a metaphor for the ailing condition of public schools it seems that current educators are also holding their collective breath for a savior who will never appear.
Waiting For Superman makes the complicated array of public schools easy to understand, for instance the difference between everyday schools and magnet schools and charter schools. Another issue that takes precedence is the strength of teacher’s unions and how it prevents really bad teachers from being replaced. Overall the film lacks sharp contrast as much of the footage comes from video interviews while sections that are animated stand out due to their juxtaposition with the flat images of classroom.
The most interesting thing about Waiting For Superman is the way it’s being promoted. Usually a documentary is considered a high grossing film if it plays more than a week or grosses more than a few million dollars. Waiting For Superman has already grossed over $1-million in its first week and when I attended a showing this week many of the other times the movie was playing were completely sold out. It’s been pre-sold to parents, in a clever grass roots campaign that’s been going on for weeks preceding its release, who are traveling by the carload to see what their children are facing. It won’t be a quiet ride home. The irony is not lost on me that Waiting For Superman is released by Paramount Vantage, while parent Paramount also releases Jackass 3-D (October15) a film that begs to prove that the dropout rate in American high schools is relevant to the decline in educational values.
– Michael Bergeron