Review: ‘Waiting for Superman’
Is Anyone Coming to Save Our Public Schools?
Thursday, October 7, 2010
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando speaks with filmmaker Davis Guggenheim about making "Waiting for Superman."
Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim tackled global warming in "An Inconvenient Truth." Now he looks to America's troubled school system in "Waiting for Superman" (opening October 8 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas). Listen to my radio feature and look for the web video of my interview tomorrow.
America's failing public schools are a complex problem to tackle. Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim first began considering the topic more than a decade ago when he made a documentary about novice teachers. Now he returns to the subject with "Waiting for Superman." The title for the film comes from Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the innovative Harlem Children's Zone.
GEOFFREY CANADA: One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me Superman did not exist. I was like what do you mean he's not real. And she thought I was crying because it's like Santa Clause is not real and I was crying because there was no one coming with enough power to save us.
Guggenheim's point is that no one's coming to save America's schools. In fact, parents and students now find themselves staking their futures on a lottery.
ADMINISTRATOR: You see the cages up here it's a random selection. You all have your numbers right? Let's get started…
DAVIS GUGGENHEIM: These families put all their hopes, everything they worked for were pinned on how this ping pong ball in a basket landed. That was an incredible metaphor for our movie, metaphor for how our system is now.
It's a system that parents like Guggenheim feel is broken. So broken in fact that Guggenheim has put his child in a private school and he's reminded everyday of the choice he was fortunate enough to have.
DAVIS GUGGENHEIM: I drive by three public schools, is it enough that my kids are okay? I think there are a lot of people that say schools are broken I am going to take care of my own kids and they take care of their own and turn their back on the system.
Guggenheim's conflicted feelings about public schools prompted him to make "Waiting for Superman." The film cuts back and forth between families trying to find good schools and people who work within the educational system.
MICHELLE RHEE: I wake every morning and you know that 46,000 kids are counting on you.
That's Michelle Rhee, chancellor of DC's public schools.
MICHELLE RHEE: And that most of them are getting a crappy education
DAVIS GUGGENHEIM: You think most of the kids in DC are getting a crappy
MICHELLE RHEE: I don't think they are I know they are.
Guggenheim shows that one of the obstacles Rhee faced in her reform efforts were teacher unions.
DAVIS GUGGENHEIM: It's really important to understand that teachers are the solution they are a work of art I talk about that in the movie but their union in a lot of ways has fought against things that are keeping our schools from getting better.
Guggenheim has been justly criticized for not giving teachers and their unions more time to explain themselves in the film. On the other hand, he lets politicians and governmental policies off the hook too lightly. But education is a big topic and Guggenheim should be commended for turning attention to the problems as well as to hinting at some possible solutions.
DAVIS GUGGENHEIM: for me it's not enough to just make a movie I really want to feel like this movie creates positive change and really the idea that more kids get a great education you shouldn't have to play bingo to have a future in this country.
Using schools like the Harlem Children's Zone or inventive charter schools like KIP, Guggenheim tries to explore what things work and what things don't. His opinion is that our schools are broken but they can be fixed. It won't be easy. It will require parents, students, teachers, administrators, and politicians to work together and to begin a dialogue.
DAVIS GUGGENHEIM: ... I'm not gonna get it perfect and people are going to disagree with it but I know that the movie if you are open to going is a great way to start the conversation to say okay I get it the stakes are huge and they effect all of us and it's time for us to act.
"Waiting for Superman" is rated PG for some thematic material, mild language and incidental smoking.
Companion viewing: "To Have and To Hold," "Stand and Deliver," "Conrack," "The First Year"
And here's a list of Ten Most Inspirational Teachers in Movies that I did for About.com.
And you can watch my interview with Guggeheim.