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Waiting for "Superman" Explores How to Save Public Education

  • Christa Banister Contributing Writer
  • 2010 4 Oct
<i>Waiting for "Superman"</i> Explores How to Save Public Education

DVD Release Date: February 15, 2011 
Theatrical Release Date: September 24, 2010 (limited)
Rating: PG (for some thematic material, mild language and incidental smoking)
Genre: Documentary
Run Time: 102 min.
Director: Davis Guggenheim
Actors: The story centers around five students named Anthony, Francisco, Daisy, Emily and Blanca.

Whether or not viewers wholeheartedly agree with how documentarian Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, It Might Get Loud) actually goes about proving his thesis, Waiting for "Superman" is still an important and compelling look at the current state of public education—unsightly warts and all.

Basically, short of an intervention from the iconic superhero in blue tights himself, Guggenheim asserts that we're all in big trouble when it comes to educating our future generation. And that need for a hero—and a powerful one at that—is what inevitably paves the way for an engaging dialogue that we all have a stake in, whether or not we've got the proverbial dog(s) in the hunt.

But instead of relying too heavily on the ol' graphs and pie charts that made An Inconvenient Truth a snooze-fest from time to time, Guggenheim mostly avoids the lengthy regurgitation of statistics and takes a more personal approach by zeroing in on five students of varying ages (Anthony, Francisco, Daisy, Emily and Blanca) and their respective families.

While they reside in different parts of the country (namely, Washington DC, the Bronx, East Los Angeles, Silicon Valley and Harlem), the tie that binds these protagonists together is that each of them is fighting for a coveted slot at a local charter school where there is a better chance of getting a quality education (hence a better shot at making it to college), something that isn't necessarily the case at their local institutions where many even fail to graduate—let alone with honors.

The trouble is, getting into a charter school is akin to winning the lottery, which is exactly how who makes the cut—and who doesn't—is determined, a heartbreaking process shown to emotionally reeling effect in Waiting for "Superman." By building a connection with these kids and showing the shockingly cavalier injustice that sometimes prevents promising students from gaining all they can from their time at school, the documentary provides plenty of fodder for future discussion.

And like many films of this ilk, a particularly volatile villain certainly doesn't hurt in trying to make the point. This time around, it's the teachers' unions that bear the brunt of the burden. Represented by the current head of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, a woman admittedly not easy to like here, even in limited screentime, the film points out that quality educators aren't properly rewarded and compensated for their effort (something any current teacher would heartily concur with), while bad educators are almost impossible to fire no matter how lackluster their performance.

Without better accountability and follow-through in these areas, Guggenheim says it's impossible for the system to ultimately change for the better. So what is the answer? By showcasing the efforts of reformers like Geoffrey Canada, the creator of charter schools in Harlem and Michelle Rhee, an educational pioneer who successfully fought for the very things the unions often oppose, Guggenheim unabashedly wears his agenda on his sleeve and paints his hopes for change in decidedly broad strokes.

And while the film would've benefited greatly from more specific examples for reform beyond simply adding more charter schools to the mix, not to mention more opportunities for the union folks to explain their side of the story, it's those aforementioned kids and their respective journeys that end up stealing the show in Waiting for "Superman" anyway.

After all, this flick is made with their good in mind, and how we actually go about getting there will probably always be up for debate. But if anything, the movie effectively gets everyone thinking (and talking) about this worthy topic, not to mention some major press in the meantime—and that's already a step in a promising direction, right?      


  • Drugs/Alcohol: Smoking is shown, but not in a way that glamorizes it.
  • Language/Profanity: Some mild language (he--, da--) makes its way into the movie on occasion, but it's definitely not the norm.
  • Sex/Nudity: None.
  • Violence: None.
  • Thematic Material: Some of the discussion of socio-economic conditions and the impact on education may go over the heads of younger viewers, but for the most part, the film is appropriate for all ages.


Christa Banister is a full-time freelancer writer, specializing in music, movies and books-related reviews and interviews and is the author of two novels, Around the World in 80 Dates and Blessed Are the Meddlers. Based in Dallas, Texas, she also weighs in on various aspects of pop culture on her personal blog

For more information, including her upcoming book signings and sample chapters of her novels, check out her Website.