Sunday, January 02, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW: Waiting for 'Superman'

Finally saw the acclaimed documentary Waiting for 'Superman'. It was showing at my favorite second-run theater, the Regency Academy 6 in Pasadena ($2 for a matinee, $3 other times). As an educator myself and someone interested in reforming mathematics education (especially 8th grade algebra) I had heard that this was a must-see film, and I was not disappointed.

Waiting for 'Superman' is the film which provoked the greatest emotional impact on me this year. It made me cry with despair and it made me gasp and groan with shock and disappointment. In the year of films with $100 million visual effects budgets, the most suspenseful moment I experienced in a movie theater in 2010 was waiting for a lottery ball to drop and reveal whether a student had been selected by random drawing for a slot in a public charter school!

The movie follows the educational hopes of five multicultural children, Daisy (a Latina 5th grader in East Los Angeles), Francisco (a Latino 1st grader in The Bronx), Anthony (a Black 5th grader in Washington, DC), Bianca (a Black kindergartener in New York City, NY) and Emily (a white 8th grader in Redwood City, CA). Each of these kids has engaged parents(or caregiver)  who have inculcated a love of education in their charges. However, the school uses an array of facts and figures to demonstrate that in order to improve their chances in life they will need to get a superior education, and in order to do that they will need to change what  schools they are going to. However, the decision of what school a child gets to attend in America depends on a number of things, and the primary thesis of the film is that the most important factor in the decision is luck. Either luck in being born to parents who have the resources to send you to private school, or the resources to buy a house in  a school district with good public schools. If you are not lucky to have been born to rich parents then you need the luck of the draw to win the lottery for admission to a public charter school that is committed to insuring that all their students have a good education and a better future.

The director, David Guggenheim, is already an Oscar winner for An Inconvenient Truth, and decided to tackle the issues of education reform when he realized that he was driving by numerous public schools on the way to dropping his kids off at at their private school.

Some would question the director's motives and are upset by the depiction of teachers' unions (American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association) as the primary impediment to meaningful education reform and the lionization of controversial Washington, D.C. superintendent Michelle Rhee and charter schools KIPP and Harlem Children's Zone. But I think people who dismiss the film for these reasons are missing the point; what Guggenheim's movie is trying to point out is that the American education system is  "about the adults" instead of being "for the children." And until that prioritization is corrected (and hopefully reversed) education is not just "other people's problem" it is all of our concern.

Title: Waiting for 'Superman'
Running Time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.
MPAA Rating: PG for some thematic material, mild language and incidental smoking.
Release Date: Friday, September 24, 2010.
Seen: Tuesday, December 28, 2010.

Plot: A+.
Acting: N/A.
Visuals: A-.
Impact: A+.

Overall Grade: A/A+ (4.11/4.00).

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