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A Film Review of Waiting for Superman
By Robert DeLauro, MSW, ACSW

Many years ago, in an 11th grade American history course at a public high school, I had to read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. It was a compelling novel about the plight of the working class and the need for reform in the meat industry at the beginning of the 20th century. When first released in 1906, it became a best seller, graphically describing the sleaze and stench of that industry. In fact, in response to the novel, President Theodore Roosevelt called on Congress to pass a law establishing the FDA. Eventually, federal meat inspection standards were established. I remember being as captivated by this reform story, the result of Sinclair’s book, as by the novel itself with its nightmare of the Chicago meat-packing district.

Davis Guggenheim, in his documentary Waiting for Superman, takes aim at another essential American institution very much in need of reform: the public school system. Guggenheim has struck a nerve with his film, and there has been quite a bit of media attention given to Waiting for Superman—much more than such a documentary usually gets. But will this attention lead to any improvement of public schools? Is the heightened awareness of our public education crisis—particularly in urban areas—resulting in a national determination to fix the system? I don’t think so. And, once again, I find the response to the film as critical and interesting as the film itself.

As a social worker taking a macro practice perspective, I ask myself this: Can we, as a society, as a culture, as a country, effectively address social problems such as our failing urban public schools? The political polarization that we experience through news media sources certainly impedes any progress toward solutions. For example, the sharply divided perspectives delivered daily by FOX News and MSNBC do not seem to move us toward brighter ideas, better dialogue, or successful resolutions. These media outlets serve to act as “madmen” and cheerleaders—selling and shouting for their product to “win,” leading to a loss of reason and rationality and ultimately to big losses for real people.

Guggenheim is an Academy Award-winning director probably best known for the documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Like this examination of climate crisis, Waiting for Superman is another well-made film. The camera work is particularly effective as he follows five students and their families through challenges at schools in primarily poor, urban neighborhoods. He successfully interweaves the lives of these families with his overarching review of the American public education system. He intersperses interviews with education reformers, school administrators, and teachers who reflect on and suggest solutions for the “drop-out factories” and “academic sinkholes” of which the film provides a glimpse. Going back and forth between the reality of the five focused lives and the deliberations of the various education experts not only heightens the significance of the observations and comments but also softens the sting of watching disheartening lives.

But ultimately the film forces us—as completely as a documentary is able—to observe real people who are suffering defeat. Guggenheim follows the five students and their families attempting to get into highly desirable charter schools. These eager, vulnerable children, differing in age, race, and family circumstances desperately seek to win a lottery that will gain them admission to a hopeful future. The film concludes with a view of these horrifying lottery ceremonies, with only one out of 20 children receiving good news. The waste and heartbreak are extremely painful.

The provocative title of this documentary comes from Geoffrey Canada, CEO and president of the Harlem Children’s Zone. He has become nationally recognized for his pioneering work helping children and families and as an ardent advocate for education reform. In an interview, he recalls that when he was little, he believed in the comic book hero Superman. At a certain age, he was distressed to discover that Superman didn’t exist and therefore, “there was no one coming with the power to save us.” He concludes that we must stop “waiting for Superman” and save ourselves.

— Robert DeLauro, MSW, ACSW, is a freelance writer and consultant with the Labor Management Project in New York City.