Every other month or so, another new documentary illustrates how America's public schools are failing its inner-city students. Already this year, we've seen several scathing indictments of the education system, from The Cartel to The Lottery to The Providence Effect to Race to Nowhere.
Now we have Waiting for Superman, which just might be the best of the genre's bumper crop. The film was directed by Academy Award-winner Davis Guggenheim (for An Inconvenient Truth), a man who shows a knack here for weaving ordinarily-bland statistics and bureaucrat-speak into a riveting drama replete with empathetic victims, altruistic heroes and a maniacal, power-hungry villain.
Though the play-by-play is subsequently narrated by Guggenheim in engaging fashion, the movie opens with an explanation of the title by Geoffrey Canada. The dedicated children's advocate reflects on growing up in the slums in the Bronx by recounting how heartbroken he was the day his mother explained to him that Superman wasn't real. Why? Because it meant that he had to face the hard, cold truth that no one was coming to rescue him from the ghetto.
Fast-forward a generation after Canada received his Master's degree in Education from Harvard University, and we find him back in his hometown wearing a cape as an academic superhero. For in his capacity as the CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone, he presides over a trio of charter schools which have met with phenomenal success compared to the regular public schools in the 'hood.
Canada gets portrayed as the life-saving cavalry, cast opposite an evil adversary in American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. She looks downright diabolical repeatedly defending the union in the face of shocking proof of decades of ongoing ineptitude.
Although incompetent members of other professions, like doctors (2 percent) and lawyers (1 percent), are apt to lose their licenses, fewer than 1 in 2500 teachers ever face firing. Guggenheim proceeds to illustrate exactly how Weingarten and her minions have managed to maintain the mediocre status quo by forcing frustrated administrators to run a gauntlet of regulations designed to allow disciplinary proceedings to drag on for years.
The upshot, of course, is that thousands of the nation's public schools have become dropout factories serving as feeders for the criminal justice system. The poorly-served students are the big losers, of course, and their desperate parents' only hope for their offspring rests with admission to an excellent program like HCZ's.
The tension mounts as the action telescopes tightly on the anguished faces of families praying that their kids' names will be picked in the lottery. Otherwise, as we've been assured, each tyke's potential is certain to be swallowed up by a sinkhole also known as their regular public school.
An Oscar-quality expose' laying the blame for the escalating dropout rate right at the feet of a greedy and selfish teachers' union which could care less about educating the country's kids.
Excellent (4 stars)
Rated PG for mature themes, mild epithets and smoking crude humor.
Running time: 102 Minutes
Studio: Paramount Vantage
See a trailer for Waiting for Superman