Waiting for Superman - Spotlight on Black History Month

This DVD was released on February 15, 2011, during Black History Month, and even though this isn't an African-American movie in the conventional sense, this documentary deals with a subject and a problem that mostly affects African-Americans, specifically African-American children. Waiting for Superman analyzes the troubles and controversies with the public education system in inner-city areas.
Oscar-winner Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) opens this opus with the fact that this isn't his first film on public education. Guggenheim's The First Year (1999) followed first-year teachers. It was made prior to 2002's No Child Left Behind. Since then, test scores have not improved and drop-out rates have worsened. Guggenheim's attempt here is to figure out why.
Guggenheim never explicitly blames them, but essentially targets the teachers' unions like the NEA and AFT. He points out some conflicts and contradictions like tenure that are astounding and would make you think that teachers' unions are huge, bureaucratic machines that only care about themselves and not educating children. Guggenheim glorifies Michelle Rhee who is the DC advocate for charter schools, the public schools that can subvert or get around teachers' unions.
Guggenheim's thesis is that the unions don't have accountability and basically have set up traps ensuring bad teachers stay in schools and can't be fired. Guggenheim singularly attacks the unions and ignores other factors, which could lead to the low test scores and high drop-out rates. Those other factors include socioeconomic issues that are apart of inner-city struggles and are also apart of the lives of African-Americans like crime and poverty.
Attacking the unions may be important, but to pass over the socioeconomic issues of inner-city life does a disservice to everyone. This film also doesn't offer classroom analysis or critiques. Guggenheim doesn't go inside the schools he labels as "drop-out factories" to show us why they're so horrible. I suppose the numbers speak for themselves, but a more intimate and deeper survey of the poor-performing classrooms was probably required.
The film is less a comprehensive study that's really meant to objectively and logically analyze and deal with the problems and exists more to pull on people's heartstrings. Guggenheim spotlights four inner-city children: one from Washington, DC, one from Los Angeles, one from the Bronx and one from Harlem. They're cute. They're smart. They're well-behaved. They're absolutely loveable. They want to go to school and make something of their lives.
Echoing Madeleine Sackler's film The Lottery, Guggenheim focuses on these kids because he knows that their parents are pinning their hopes to being accepted into charter schools with limited enrollment. Because these charter schools have limited spaces yet such a high volume of demand, the schools hold a lottery to determine which students enroll. Many get in, but many don't.
Guggenheim ensures that we feel his subjects' dependency on the lottery, so that when he follows them to the actual ceremony where they learn their fates, Guggenheim can be there to capture their celebrations or their tears. I am only slightly bothered by the fact that it's obviously emotionally manipulative.
Despite that, I can't help but be caught by the film's message. It's a message that is triumphantly bolstered using the movie's soundtrack. John Legend with The Roots and Melanie Fiona do a version of "Wake Up Everybody." This classic, R&B and soul song has lyrics that trumpet:
"Wake Up, all the teachers
Time to teach a new way
Maybe they'll listen
To what'cha have to say
Cause they're the ones who's coming up
And the world is in their hands
When you teach the children
Teach 'em the very best you can."
Three Stars of Five.
Rated PG for themes and mild language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 51 mins.


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