Guggenheim wants to start conversations, debates, elevated arguments to get people thinking about a crucial problem whose solution has eluded Presidents and parents for the past half-century. Waiting for “Superman” stirs that discussion, and perhaps moves it to the front of our national concerns, because it is so smartly and feelingly constructed.
Waiting for Superman doesnt explore the deeper changes in American society that have led to this crisis: the widening gap between rich and poor, the loosening of the social contract, the coarsening of the culture and the despair of the underclass. By showing how fiercely dedicated idealists are making a difference, it is a call to arms.
Guggenheim does his homework, including statistics on the success of the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools to counter assertions that poor neighborhoods produce poor institutions. And there are startling images of “problem teachers” sent to a professional detention. The title comes from Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone. He explains he once saw Superman on TV and thought George Reeves would one day swoop in to save him and his classmates. It’s an apt title.
Brick by brick, Guggenheim tears apart the current system, and brick by brick he puts up his idealized schoolhouse filled with passionate teachers ready to rap their math lessons or do whatever it takes for kids to learn. It’s hard not to get caught up in the possibilities.
The film demonstrates (1) that quality education is possible for even the most disadvantaged students; (2) the cost is low, considering that high school dropouts often turn to crime when they can’t find good jobs. In 10 years, the film claims, there will be twice as many skilled, well-paid jobs in America as Americans qualified to fill them.
Waiting for Superman has a measured tempo and a humanistic spirit, but you can feel the directors struggle to keep it evenhanded. I especially felt it because my own response was unmeasured: This is one of the most galvanizing documentaries Ive ever seen.
What is perhaps most pertinent here is Guggenheims rebuttal of the idea that uneducated, underachieving children are responsible for failing and impoverished neighborhoods. If anything, the film argues, it is the caliber of the schools in less affluent areas that produces failing neighborhoods. The frustration is that this point is so obvious, and yet, as Rhee points out, so many of the adults involved will do anything to keep the status quo.
Like An Inconvenient Truth, Superman can sometimes feel more like a lecture and an info-dump than a gripping narrative, but to his credit, Guggenheim never lets us forget the high, human stakes involved in saving public schools from themselves.
The film keeps its advocacy in plain view: Mr. Guggenheim doesn’t pretend to be a Superman surrogate with simple solutions to save the day. Audiences will argue the merits of his approach, which creates a stunningly scornful metaphoreducational opportunity in America conducted like a game showout of the lotteries around the country that are currently used to give children a shot at entering desirable charter schools. (In purely dramatic terms, the film’s structure is shrewd, and its climax devastating.) Yet there’s no arguing the urgent import of those sweet faces.
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