Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Waiting for Superman

A new documentary about America's failing public school system, Waiting for Superman, has sparked controversy about its intentions. The film, by renowned director David Guggenheim of An Inconvenient Truth fame, is being distributed by Paramount Vantage and opens in select theaters Friday. It was a winner at Sundance and has already received accolades from, among others, TIME magazine, who called it "powerful" and "compelling," and Hollywood Reporter, who called it a "moving, effective film." The project also has backing from Bill Gates himself, who even appears in the documentary.
The film, from all accounts, is a well-made, high-budget work intended to open the nation's eyes, particularly those of people who do not have children in underperforming public schools, and serve as a rallying cry for the country's citizens to become their own super men and women and help in any way they can. But are its purported intentions carried out? Detractors say the film is an unfair critique of the public school system, and to make matters worse, a high profile one at that; a film with a high budget taking aim at an easy target facing insurmountable budget deficits and money shortages. The film might as well be shooting fish in a barrel for monetary gain.
Having not seen the film, like pretty much everyone who has voiced their opinion in the blogosphere, I can't tell you whether that's true or not. But I can say that I believe Waiting for Superman has the potential to be a very important film and that such a film about such a subject needs to be made. It is undeniable that something, or a lot of things, is/are not working in our public school system, particularly in large urban institutions. Our nation's youth are 25th out of 30 "first world" countries in math and rank 21st in science. High school drop outs rates are glaringly high, public schools have abysmally low resources to work with, and yet the general public's attention and dollars are focused on other affairs, ones that in all likelihood will have less impact on future generations and thus our nation's future. It is simply another inconvenient truth that is largely going ignored. If it takes a high-budget film to re-shift attention so be it, as long as people are in fact paying attention.
As to the criticism that it is essentially preying on a broke system, unfortunately, that's part of the game. To compel people to watch, the film has to tell a story, and so certain elements have to be milked for dramatic effect. In this case, that means harping on statistics and portraying a tough reality lived by the children waiting at the school placement lottery. As for making money off the film without compensating schools, the documentary's website ( claims that for each advance ticket bought online, the purchaser will receive a $15 gift code to give to a classroom of their choice via
It cannot be underestimated the power that film still has today, both in its effect on the viewer but also how many people it can potentially reach. Other forms of traditional media are dead or dying, forms that previously reached tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of listeners, viewers, and readers. Today, those forms have been replaced by many more sources but ones that reach exponentially fewer eyes and ears. Movies, however, have not suffered in this way. They still reach a large audience, ones that unfortunately most proponents of educational reform can only dream of reaching. Waiting for Superman should be viewed as an ally in spreading the word and calling attention to the drastic changes and help needed by the public school system, rather than an adversary or a vulture profiting off a struggling system.

Joseph Gustav is a guest blogger.

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