'Waiting for ‘Superman’': Lack of Accountability

The young students' stories are surely Waiting for ‘Superman’'s most effective strategy, but it's hard not to wonder at how they are being used in such a slick enterprise.

Waiting for 'Superman'

Director: Davis Guggenheim
Cast: Geoffrey Canada, Michelle Rhee, Bill Strickland, David Levin and Mike Feinberg
Rated: NR
Studio: Paramount Vantage
Year: 2010
US date: 2010-09-24 (Limited release)
UK date: 2010-10-15 (General release)

"At first I was like, having difficulties in school," says Anthony, a fifth grader living in Washington DC with his grandmother. "That's because I wasn't coming home and studying. And that's when I started to study and I started to pass. I stayed back one grade, and that was in second grade." Davis Guggenheim, sitting with the boy in his bedroom, asks why. "'Cause my father had passed," Anthony says. "He just died. He took drugs."

Anthony stops smiling here, his braces no longer visible as he catches his breath and looks away. He gulps and tries very, very hard to hold back tears, pretty successfully. He's a strong, focused, self-aware kid. But still, this early interview in Waiting for ‘Superman’ underlines, Anthony is a kid. When everything else went upside down his life, school was "hard." And even now, as he's finding ways to study and survive, school is still hard, for reasons that have nothing to do with him or his family, and everything to do with how school works in the United States.

Guggenheim's documentary makes an impassioned case, against a system that no one would defend. As he puts it early in the film, his decision to enroll his students in a private school has left him feeling "uneasy," as if he's betrayed "the ideals I thought I lived by. "I'm lucky," he adds, as the camera shows his view of the three public schools he passes on the way to his kids' school. "I have a choice. Other families pin their hopes to a bouncing ball, a hand pulling a card from a box, or a computer that generates numbers in a random sequence. Because when there's a great public school, there aren't enough spaces." Close-ups of lottery balls reinforce the idea: the futures of public school students are left "in the hands of luck."

Waiting for ‘Superman’ doesn’t make points that are especially new. It does, however, make them in a brightly colored, sharply edited, smartly packaged way. Like Guggenheim's An Inconvenient Truth, this movie means to make a difference. To that end, it focuses its argument through the stories of five families from across the U.S. All the kids have ideas about what they want. "I want to have a lot of choices, I want to be a nurse, I want to be a doctor, and I want to be a veterinarian, says Daisy, a fifth grader in Los Angeles who's already picked out the college she wants to attend. "My dad's struggling," she says, looking for a job. Daisy's sense of her future is based, she says, on her current interests. "I just love animals," she says, "And I would like to help somebody in need." Guggenheim wonders where she got such an idea. "I read books in the library," she asserts. Adults also say they want to help people: a montage of recent presidents, from LBJ to Reagan to Clinton to the Bushes indicates how often the call has been sounded for education reform. That nothing has changed over decades -- except perhaps that public schools are doing their jobs more poorly than ever -- is testament to the profoundly disturbing lack of will behind such pronouncements.

Geoffrey Canada, an educator in Harlem, who also testified in Madeline Sackler's documentary, The Lottery, provides a series of intelligent, even pithy observations regarding the entrenched, failing "system." When he graduated from Harvard with a Master's Degree in Education in 1974, he recounts, he was determined not only to be a teacher but also to change the culture of schools in the U.S. When he found system-wide change to be impossible -- and he's well versed in the manifold and overlapping reasons for this, from politics and poverty to racism and corruption to teachers' unions and parents' attitudes -- he instead decided to forge a small model of success. And indeed, his Harlem Children's Zone in 2009 inspired Barack Obama to commit to 20 similar schools across the country, under a program called Promise Neighborhoods.

"Kids look at the world and they make certain predictions based on the evidence they are receiving from their peers, their parents, and their educators," says Canada. "From their perspective, the world is a heartless, cold-blooded place because they realize they've been given the short end of the stick and they don't know why." As he speaks for kids, and encourages adults to behave responsibly, Canada is plainly frustrated.

The film's analysis is uneven, sometimes hard-hitting (Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, has complained about its attack on unions) and other times simple (it's easy to pick on No Child Left Behind, which this film does with clips of George W. Bush's mis-articulations and animated maps showing how NCLB has fallen short of all sorts of proficiency goals). It's sometimes celebratory (Michelle Rhee's attempt to fight the DC school system and especially, the lack of "accountability" in it, the ensuing ruckus, and the eventual falling short) and sometimes heartrending (the kids [and parents] who hope against hope to be selected in their lotteries appear in a lengthy series of close-ups at film's end, waiting to hear their fates). Taking a cue from the parents and educators in search of measurable goals, Waiting for 'Superman also points repeatedly to college as the answer, or an answer, which leaves out the problems students find there, whether they arrive unprepared (the film does note the egregious numbers of college students who need remediation), have other troubles adjusting, or leave with nowhere to go.

The young students' stories are surely Waiting for ‘Superman’'s most effective strategy, but it's hard not to wonder at how they are being used in such a slick enterprise (see also, Oprah's effort to publicize their plight, without making quite clear enough how it is your plight as well). It's the kids who matter, the kids who need something more secure than luck to find their futures. And it's the kids who suffer from the "complicated" inefficiency and inequality of public schools.






West London's WheelUP Merges Broken Beat and Hip-Hop on "Stay For Long" (premiere)

West London producer WheelUP reached across the pond to Brint Story to bring some rapid-fire American hip-hop to his broken beat revival on "Stay For Long".


PM Picks Playlist 4: Stellie, The Brooks, Maude La​tour

Today's playlist features the premiere of Stellie's "Colours", some top-class funk from the Brooks, Berne's eco-conscious electropop, clever indie-pop from Maude Latour, Jaguar Jonze rocking the mic, and Meresha's "alien pop".


Plattetopia: The Prefabrication of Utopia in East Berlin

With the fall of the Berlin Wall came the licence to take a wrecking ball to its nightmare of repression. But there began the unwritten violence of Die Wende, the peaceful revolution that hides the Oedipal violence of one order killing another.


Electrosoul's Flõstate Find "Home Ground" on Stunning Song (premiere)

Flõstate are an electrosoul duo comprised of producer MKSTN and singer-songwriter Avery Florence that create a mesmerizing downtempo number with "Home Ground".


Orchestra Baobab Celebrate 50 Years with Vinyl of '​Specialist in All Styles'

As Orchestra Baobab turn 50, their comeback album Specialist in All Styles gets a vinyl reissue.


Hot Chip Stay Up for 'Late Night Tales'

Hot Chip's contribution to the perennial compilation project Late Night Tales is a mixed bag, but its high points are consistent with the band's excellence.


The Budos Band Call for Action on "The Wrangler" (premiere)

The Budos Band call on their fans for action with the powerful new track "The Wrangler" that falls somewhere between '60s spy thriller soundtrack and '70s Ethiojazz.


Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" Ruminates on Our Second-Guesses (premiere)

A deep reflection on breaking up, Nashville indie rock/Americana outfit Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" is the most personal track from their new album, Home Team.


For Don DeLillo, 'The Silence' Is Deafening

In Don DeLillo's latest novel, The Silence, it is much like our post-pandemic life -- everything changed but nothing happened. Are we listening?


Brett Newski Plays Slacker Prankster on "What Are You Smoking?" (premiere)

Is social distancing something we've been doing, unwittingly, all along? Brett Newski pulls some pranks, raises some questions in "What Are You Smoking?".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Becky Warren Shares "Good Luck" and Discusses Music and Depression

Becky Warren finds slivers of humor while addressing depression for the third time in as many solo concept albums, but now the daring artist is turning the focus on herself in a fight against a frightful foe.


Fleet Foxes Take a Trip to the 'Shore'

On Shore, Fleet Foxes consist mostly of founding member Robin Pecknold. Recording with a band in the age of COVID-19 can be difficult. It was just time to make this record this way.


'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.


Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.


3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".


'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.