Directed by Davis Guggenheim. USA. 2010.

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A bold attempt by Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim to tackle the inherent problems within America’s educational system today. The pic combines interviews, cartoons and follows the lives of five children from different demographics going through the educational system.

The film opens with the lively Geoffrey Canada, president of a successful school program called Harlem Children’s Zone, charismatically talking about the time in his childhood where his mother told him that superman didn’t exist. He was heartbroken. For him superman was the hope that someone would come and solve all of these problems troubling mankind. Without him, who would do it? Watching Waiting for Superman I feel that same hope in this film - that it might offer us a solution to the education system it much maligns, yet I come away feeling the same disappointment of a childhood Geoffrey Canada.

The arguments and facts presented in the film are both eye-openingly shocking – the number of 8th Grade students proficient at Maths and Reading in America is only in the region of 25% - and incredibly one-sided – the idea of there being a positive side to teachers receiving tenures to avoid them being fired by political or religious fanatics, or the benefits which unions bring to any profession, are briskly swept away without any due consideration. The cartoons used to visualise the ideas of the film appear childish and insultingly simple – not something you want in a film expounding the values of education. Combined with the self-righteous, know-it-all whispered narration of the movie, its flaws are clearly visible. There is a constant drive to force the documentary film into the conventions of narrative film-making – something which Michael Moore is famous for, and can make for a very heavy-handed film. Parallels can easily be drawn between the two film makers, who assume a role of innocent simpleton in a world which is needlessly complex and would be much better if it weren’t for a minority elite. This manifests itself in Superman in numerous different forced conflicts, the central one being Michelle Rhee, at the time Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools system of Washington, D.C., who was a radical reformist looking to make drastic changes to the current Education System. Resistance to change is focussed in the form of Randi Weingarten, whose shrill and ridiculously over-emotional speech clips frame this conflict between new and old, reform and out-dated tradition, into a sort of melodramatic soap-opera. You know who you are supposed to side with, though you don’t fully know why. You’re expected to just take the momentum and ride with Guggenheim wherever he is taking us, never checking the map ourselves. This is the intellectual equivalent of hitch-hiking blindfolded. The same thing troubles me with Michael Moore’s films, they attack media or institutions for feeding us one-sided views with political agendas, yet to me their films are guilty of the exact same crimes.

The film at times has its high points though, however they are never as fully explored as you’d like them to be. Geoffrey Canada, and his unconventional approach to teaching, seem to be having great positive effects in poor communities. But what is it that makes these schools effective? We have glimpses of a teacher rapping with her students and some teachers walking around the classroom energetically. Are these the methods which produce success? Maybe, but there has got to be more to it than this. Canada is a unique man, filled with passion for teaching and has dedicated his life to education. The documentary quite fully puts teachers at the forefront as the main cause of the poorly performing education system in America, or more accurately bad teachers. Canada seems to be one of those rare people who have the ability to inspire others, to make them want to achieve something and better themselves. He is a good teacher. So, if we had more teachers like him, then that’s the education problem solved and grades and proficiency will increase. That’s the logic the film purports and even has a graph to describe that if we get rid of the bottom x% of bad teachers, then things will be fine. The film runs with this idea, then hits into a bit of a brick wall when they meet a man who runs assessments on teachers to see if they meet the extensive criteria they need to be fired from their job. The purpose of this segment is to show how tenures are almost unbreakable despite underperformance or irresponsibility from teachers, though accidently it also highlights the complexity and immeasurability of what a teacher should do – what makes a good teacher good? In the example of Canada, it’s clearly his personality more than his intellect that inspires others. Is this true for all teachers? And how can a personality test be put into place that would ensure all teachers inspired students this much?

When the real interesting questions arise is when Superman makes a detour for another plotline, not to continue its investigation. It’s easy to arrogantly spot the problems with something, though if you can’t really offer a better solution to the problems, you’re in trouble. The step into murky water makes the boldness of the film’s delivery all the less convincing. It finds a scattering of lots of contributions to poor education, though is unable to concisely bring them together into a unified model for an education system. The fact mentioned at the start of the movie by Guggenheim that he spent many years believing in the ideals of public school education, but when he had his own son sent him to private school, smacks of the idealism and cowardliness at the film’s core.

On to its merits, and it does have some. Aside from the engaging personality of Canada eating up the screen, following the five children and their families through their struggles with the education system is very engaging, and brings a human quality to the film. A fatherless little boy, his dad involved with drugs, who is already thinking that he wants a better life for his kids in the future, despite only being a child himself. We also meet a Latino family, where, like most girls, the daughter aspires to be a nurse, doctor or vet when she grows up. Her father believes she can do it, though currently doesn’t have a job, meaning the possibility of her affording to go to college is minimal. Another mother looks on distraught at her daughter’s school across the street from her home on graduation day, which her daughter was not allowed to attend because she couldn’t afford the school fees. Hardships abound, but the human tragedy of these bright young kids having their education, and thus their futures, trapped by geography or chance is heartbreaking, and mainly not overplayed. This thread of the film is followed for its climax – a lottery draw to see which kids will be accepted into the good school in each area. The sense of frustration that education has been reduced to gambling, with people’s lives as the wager, cannot help you feel angry at life’s cruelty, even if the lottery is realistically the fairest way to determine places. Heartbreak for those not accepted, joy and relief for those accepted – the game show atmosphere still leaves you feeling a little sick in your stomach.

This is by far the most interesting aspect to the film, and brings to mind the excellent documentary Hoop Dreams which does something similar, following the lives of young basketball prospects playing a game of chance, going through the education system and trying to become pro. I think Superman would have succeeded a little better if it had kept a similar tight focus. Instead, it meanders through lots of different ideas, not sure whether to be documentary, drama, or propaganda, and in result, coming up short in all three. It wants change, but it doesn’t know how.

The over-simplification of teachers being the chief source of education failure doesn’t ring true for me. Having been a teacher myself for two years now, I’ve learned a truth that this film needs to acknowledge. That is, that teachers are just people. Like in any job, there will be people who are good at their job, and those that aren’t; those who try their best, and those who just want a paycheque and to live their own life outside of their job. This is human nature, and it isn’t going to change. If you are waiting for this change as your solution, then child, you really are waiting for Superman. 

Shaun McDonald
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