What could be more awkward for a political progressive—Davis Guggenheim, who made An Inconvenient Truth—than to open a documentary with the admission that he betrays his ideals every morning, when he drives past his local school in the Washington, D.C., area and drops off his children at a private institution? What could be riskier to his country’s political future (as he sees it) than to conclude that the villain of his story is a union, the American Federation of Teachers, that also happens to be one of the Democratic Party’s most generous sources of contributions? Waiting for “Superman” has a measured tempo and a humanistic spirit, but you can feel the director’s struggle to keep it evenhanded. I especially felt it because my own response was unmeasured: This is one of the most galvanizing documentaries I’ve ever seen.
The clunky title comes from Guggenheim’s most charismatic figure: Geoffrey Canada, the president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, who laughs at himself for his childlike dreams of a comic-book savior, and for thinking, way back in 1975, when he got out of grad school at Harvard, that he’d have the country’s problems solved by, oh, ’77, ’78. After Canada’s wry recollections, Guggenheim lets roll a clip reel of more than a half-century of presidents, from George H.W. Bush’s vow to be “the education president” to his son’s teaming up with Teddy Kennedy to pass “No Child Left Behind” on the premise that “childrens [sic] do learn.”
But this is not a movie about presidents, and every statistic—there are many—connects with the story of a child: brooding Anthony in D.C., darlingly open Daisy in L.A., sweet-tempered Bianca in Harlem, and others. They want to go to school, but the schools to which they’re headed are the ones where maybe three of every 100 kids will graduate with the minimum requirements for college. They have parents who work desperately to get them a decent education, but their dreams of going to a magnet or charter school rest on balls or slips of paper pulled at random, on crap shoots with dismaying odds.
Here are some of the revelations in Waiting for “Superman.” Failing schools can’t always be blamed on failing neighborhoods; failing neighborhoods can be blamed on failing schools. The U.S. ranks 25th out of 30 developed countries in math proficiency, but first in how proficient its citizens think they are. And here’s the most amazing statistic: Under the AFT contract, only one in 2,500 U.S. teachers with tenure (typically granted after two years) will lose his or her job, and the cost and time to fire him or her will be staggering.
Guggenheim does point out that the union has protected the underpaid and overworked, and unlike Madeleine Sackler in her recent film, The Lottery, about the battle over charter schools, he doesn’t float accusations of corruption. But Guggenheim arrives at the same place. Every time an administrator like D.C.’s Michelle Rhee or Pittsburgh’s Bill Strickland comes along with a plan to weed out the miserable teachers, there she is, AFT president Randi Weingarten, telling the media that her critics are all self-serving. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Lex Luthor.
The image I’ll take away with me is of Anthony, whose father died of a drug overdose, explaining that he doesn’t want to leave his friends and go to a boarding school but will because “I want my kid to have better than what I had.” He’s worried about the next generation, because he has already lost his own childhood. The website (waitingforsuperman.com) to contact appears many times in the closing credits. A word of caution: Once you see Waiting for “Superman,” you’ll have no excuse for letting things stand.