07 October 2010


Four years ago, Davis Guggenheim made one of the most spectacularly successful documentaries of all time, An Inconvenient Truth: critically beloved, a box-office smash as such things go, the winner of a great many awards, and it was the first paving stone in the road to Al Gore's Nobel Peace Price. A hard act to follow, and in the interim, Guggenheim has more or less wandered from place to place as an apparent director-for-hire: a few TV episodes, a mawkish sports drama, a music doc. But the beating heart of a crusading activist filmmaker cannot be stopped that easily, and he's finally come back with what is unmistakably a deeply personal film, that like An Inconvenient Truth all but gets down on its knees to beg and plead with you, personally, right there in your chair, to join in the fight to change the world for the better. This time, Guggenheim's target is the United States' hideously dysfunctional educational system; the movie, which premiered at Sundance to outsized acclaim, is Waiting for "Superman". And it is intellectually dishonest to an alarming degree.

Guggenheim begins with his full disclosure: after years of believing, for proper ideological reasons, that public school was an essential good for the creation of a function democracy, he found himself in the late '00s with a child just about to enter school, and, well, the public schools in the neighborhood weren't quite what he wanted, so off to private school it was! And as he drove his child (gender undisclosed) to and from that private school, Guggenheim passed by multiple run-down public institutions, and it got him to thinking about the fate of a nation in which even public schools' most passionate boosters still can't bring themselves to put their money where their mouth is.

Thus: Waiting for "Superman", its title coming from interview subject Geoffrey Canada, an immensely charismatic education specialist, who recalls the story of the day he learned that Superman, the comics hero, didn't exist. This left him heartbroken, for as he looked at the worn-out schools and homes of his neighborhood, he - a six-year-old! - could not fathom any real-world solution; if he and his family and everything he knew would ever be saved, it would take a mythic demigod.

His is the first tale of childhood woe of many: the film is chiefly structured as the story of five children, spread across America, and the problems they face as a result of America's malfunctioning education system. In D.C., fifth-grader Anthony is as good a student as he can manage; his doting grandmother knows that he'll never make it out of their failing neighborhood without better education. Bianca, in Harlem, is going to kindergarten at a Catholic school that her mother can barely afford - but as long as there is any remote way to keep her daughter on track for college and a proper job, she'll make it happen. Francisco, a first-grader in the Bronx, needs special help with reading, and his mother has tried time and again to get him into a charter school, because he's not going to get the help where he is. Emily is graduating to a fairly nice Silicon Valley high school, but she's worried that their tracking system will lock her out of the best universities. Daisy is a bright East Los Angeles fifth-grader who already knows she wants to go to medical school, but 60% of students in her district don't even complete high school. Guggenheim tracks each of these kids and their families as they apply for a lottery to get into a charter school - and there let us pause.

Go and re-read that description of the five subjects, because one of these things is not like the others. Now, I'm certain that Emily's hopes and dreams for the future are as legitimate as anybody's, and surely it would be a crime if she were denied those dreams. And Guggenheim's rhetorical point is obvious enough: substandard education isn't just an inner-city problem, it could even affect YOU, guilty liberals who make up the film's obvious target audience! Which is all well and good, except here's the rub: Emily is not just unlike Anthony, Bianca, Francisco, and Daisy, in that she's not really facing an existential threat as such, she's unlike them because she is white. And this is one of the giant gaping chasms in Waiting for "Superman", a basic social point that Guggenheim does all he possibly can to ignore: shitty education disproportionately affects minorities. That is a truth staring the filmmaker right in the face, and yet: he hedges. He simply cannot bring himself to say the "R" word: race, race, race! We are a racist country! It hurts our children!

But Guggenheim, who directed the biographical film of Barack Obama's life shown at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, appears to of that terribly sensible, left-leaning-centrist brand of "liberal" who listens to NPR, drinks fair-trade coffee, recycles, wants gay rights but not too fast or you'll upset people, thinks it's a shame about that public option but at least we have health care reform, boycotts Wal-Mart and never looks for the "made in China" sticker, and above all, assumes that we positively must be a post-racist country, because we have a black president. Of course we're a racist country: Waiting for "Superman" itself reflects this. But Guggenheim is terrified to say as much, and it's the grandest example of his film's intellectual shabbiness.

But not the only one, and arguably not the worst. The argument presented in the movie goes like this: "Our schools are failing, and we all know it. This is because our teachers suck. Our teachers suck because the teachers' unions make it impossible to fire bad teachers. Thank God for charter schools, which are more effective than public schools, though at at 20% success rate, not really successful successful. Also, it helps if we ignore a lot of the things that charter schools do to maintain their effectiveness which makes them entirely useless as a model for nationwide school reform. Hey, look at me take these five children that I have spent the whole movie humanising, and turn them into the pawns in a thriller-style climax about admission lotteries!"

That our schools are failing because we have bad teachers is not a difficult position to defend (though a useful definition of a "bad" versus a "good" teacher is not something the film pursues with particular vigor). I'm not even going to challenge him on the teachers' union thing: it's absolutely possible that he's in the right. But the "fire the teachers!" campaign that Guggenheim seems anxious to start up (exhorting us to sign up via text or the internet a good eight times during the end credits) is probably not, by itself, a good solution, and it's the only one he offers. Which wouldn't be terrible if the film was just a consciousness-raising exercise, but it is predicated on the idea that we know the school system in the United States doesn't work. We don't need to have our consciousness raised. Like An Inconvenient Truth before it, Waiting for "Superman" is a call to action: but where the global warming film had the weight of canny politician Al Gore behind it, this one is just an advertisement for the Good Intentions Express, bound for... I don't know where. And neither does Davis Guggenheim.

This much can be said: the film is slick and polished and pretty, very much unlike An Inconvenient Truth, which was basically a costly home video of a PowerPoint slide, anchored by the distinctly unlovely Gore. There's a lot of shiny, funny animation (and glib - intensely, bothersomely glib), and haunting montages, and a great deal of moving location footage. At a minimum, the director presents an exceptionally handsome case for his argument; he just doesn't provide the argument.

That's what keeps irritating me, as I think back upon the film: not that Guggenheim presents an argument I like badly, not that he presents an argument that I disagree with: rather, that he doesn't present an argument at all, while grossly oversimplifying the state of American education & culture, and he then has the gall to be smug about it. "Most public schools suck, and some charter schools are good"; that is the point where a conversation begins. It is not the point at which you start telling people to join in your crusade. You don't have a crusade, just a vast and monolithic certitude that Somebody Should Do Something About the Problems.



Kevin J. Olson said...

And this is why, as a teacher, that I am going to have a really hard time wanting to see this movie. I totally understand where you're coming from with the whole "public schools are bad, charter schools are good..." argument not really being made, but simply broached. A lot of educators do this very thing.

I work at an alternative school (the public school and a charter school work together to sponsor our students), but that's a personal and vocational choice. I feel like my skills are better suited for at risk students, rather than the array of students one gets in their class at a public high school.

I'm not saying that one is better than the other, but for me and my skill set it is. However, educators have a tendency to take things REALLY personally because we all think we know what's best because we're very territorial when it comes to our classrooms and classroom practices. That's why I'm glad I work at a school that has a general philosophy and behavior management policy that all teachers must adhere to.

Anyway. That was a bit of rambling. Sorry about that. I know I have TONS to say in regards to what this film attempts to broach, but I don't want to fill up the comments with those thoughts.

I think your review is spot on, though. It's true that there are too many bad teachers not being punished for their terrible teaching; although, I think an even scarier problem is the fact that parents are becoming less and less involved in their children's education -- relying on movies and television and computer programs instead of sitting down and reading to their kids.

But I think that you're review is especially on point in regards to Race being a factor...I see this every day in the students who come to our school who are disillusioned with the racism and favoritism -- as it goes beyond race to economics, too, although the two aren't totally exclusive of each other -- displayed by the teachers who don't have the skills, training, or patience to deal with at risk teens who have behavior problems.

Anyway...I could go on, but I won't bore you, hehe. Great review, Tim. Perhaps I'll drag myself to the film one of these days.

Brigdh said...

What this review revealed of your own politics, Tim, has made me admire you even more, and enjoy this site more. (Because while technically aesthetics and morality do not need to mix, it's often hard to really entirely separate those things.)

Anyway, just wanted to say: thumbs up!


i never reviewed this but you are aware that i hate the film as much as you do. your review was a pleasure to read and i shall refer to it and maybe even quote it the next time someone goes on and on about how great the movie is.

I'm not even necessarily pro-unions (having worked in corporate america i understand why they came to be and how valuable they are... but i also know their darker side) but i found this film absolutely galling in its depiction of teachers union.

the film might as well have shown everyone with a union membership in black capes, maybe twirling their mustaches.

Meg said...

Just reading this review of the film and its treatment of teachers' unions makes me angry. I admit a bit of bias in that my father is president of a higher education teachers' union (APSCUF, for full disclosure), and the fact of the matter is that unions are consistently and undeservedly getting a bad rap when they are, in my experience, not dedicated to keeping their jobs but to how, through insuring fair contracts for their members, they can improve education. After all, high rates of teacher turnover isn't exactly the stuff of a great educational system.

After all (as my aforementioned union president father loves to mention), a union can't protect someone who is incompetent.

The fact of the matter is that teachers are underpaid, undervalued, and inconsistently qualified, and most are unprepared to deal with at-risk students. No safety net is set up for these kids to fall back on, either. If they don't get what they need from their schools, that's it.

It seems as though Guggenheim makes himself a moot point, as you said. He merely points out there's a problem and gives no solution, and doesn't even have the guts to point out that these problems are at least partly entrenched in the sticky topics of race and class.

Tim said...

Thanks, everyone, for having such kind words! I try not to let my politics show too much, both because they are fairly extreme, and because it's a cheap and easy way to stir up people's emotions. But when a movie is as directly political as Waiting for "Superman", it would by hypocrisy not to bring personal beliefs into it.

And for the record, I am pretty much pro-union across the board; they have their flaws, but I can't imagine that in any given situation, the absence of a union wouldn't be much worse. I was a union member myself, in fact, some years ago. UFCW 881, I think it was, for all of one summer. And I'm the grandson of a damn great old union man, rest his soul.