"Waiting for 'Superman,'" and some who aren't

A CULTURE ALERT from 1 October 2010:


Well, Nancy and I went to see the premiere on 22 September Wednesday of Waiting for “Superman,” a film directed by Davis Guggenheim (director of the 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth). We had been eager to see this documentary about the sorry state of education in the United States, as it has been creating quite a media stir and has been generating a lot of public awareness for this extremely important issue.


I am sad to say, however, that the film is simply not all that good. It spends far to many of its 102 minutes on maudlin and manipulative emotionality: the personal stories of the children and families that appear in the film are touching and sad, but the film does not focus enough on the actual details of their stories to make it a meaningfully successful presentation of their human dramas; nor does it utilize these specific examples in a way that is sufficient to illuminate the issues that underlie the individual’s problems. Instead it presents these moving but shallow stories in a surface way that borders on pathos and melodrama. Meanwhile, the film never treats seriously enough or in sufficient detail the facts about the numerous weighty issues that it is supposedly about. The film therefore ends up being shallow and all over the place: there is no meaningful narrative thread; there is no in-depth, serious examination of any of the issues; there is no coherent focus.


The film is most valuable for its establishing the fact that the American education system is in serious decline and dangerous trouble: it contrasts the fact that the United States has profited from once-upon-a-time having had the world’s most progressive and successful system of public education with the current reality of how poor it is in comparison to almost any other industrialized, modern nation’s education system. (I shall get the specific percentages wrong, but it highlighted the astounding fact that while American students rank something like 26th of the 29 nations with the highest math competency, American students lead the world by an enormous margin in their belief that that they do well in math! This sad reality is certainly reflected clearly in the current political debates about our education system [which parallel what is said about our healthcare system], in which there is this incredible—albeit totally unfounded—pride expressed in the belief of the excellence and superiority of American education.) The simple truth is we are doing exactly the opposite of what is needed to insure the level of education that will be called for by the demands of the 21st century.


Nevertheless, from here the film fails miserably. It becomes a hodge-podge of thin, ideologically-driven observations that neither sufficiently explain the complex issues involved, nor present an understandable basis for the conclusions the film wishes to draw. We are shown the horrors of the nation’s “failure factories”; we are told about the obstructive bureaucracy of the public education system; we are introduced to the hideous opposition to any evaluation of teacher effectiveness and competence; we are confronted with the evil of union opposition to change; we are told of the incredible financial waste in the system; and, most of all, we are repeatedly shown how these factors take a morally indefensible toll on the lives of America’s young people—and particularly on the young of its inner-city poor and minorities. On the other hand, we are shown the astounding successes of charter schools; we are introduced to some of the truly wonderful teachers and administrators who have lovingly—but, much more importantly, effectively—devoted themselves to doing something different in American education; we are confronted with statistics of success that are almost as unbelievable as the statistics of failure.


I do not mean to make light of what we are shown in both directions. On the contrary: it is all true, and it is all crucially important. The problem is that the treatment of these observation is so superficial, simplistic, and jingoistic that it reduces itself to meaninglessness. Each and every one of these issues and observations reflects problems and situations that deserve sincere and intelligent scrutiny; and Waiting for “Superman” provides nothing of that.


Some charter schools are wonderful, but not all of them are by any stretch of the imagination. On the other hand, we cannot, as a society, abandon our public education system. It is clear that excellent teachers make for better learning; but what makes an excellent teacher is still a rather complex question. Having standards is clearly important; what those standards should be and how they should be applied are not simple questions. Waiting for “Superman” does not really take on these important but difficult issues; it just points towards them, and implies it has the answers. At the Q&A after the premiere, the question was asked, “How can we as citizens of New York help?” The answer was to “text 77177 [or some such number] on your cell phones,” or “to go to the film’s website.” In other words, the makers of this film want us to support their efforts in this worthy, albeit poorly defined cause—whatever they may be! (A visit to the film’s website is not nearly as informative as claimed, and it, too, was really asking that one lend one’s name to support this movement, without specifying exactly what that is.)


At my most cynical, I suspect that the lack of clarity is purposeful: I think there are forces behind the push in some of the film’s focuses that represent a rather unholy alliance (some who see it as a convenient place to express their generally anti-union stand; some who see it as a toehold in the fight to allow public support for parochial schools; some who are just completely against all government regulations in any area; et al.) of folks who are using this easily supportable issue as a stand-in for other more controversial issues. At best, the film simply did not do a good job of clarifying the problems or discussing their meaning in any depth—and therefore was totally unsuccessful in building meaningfully toward any solutions.


Meanwhile, there are many people, schools and programs out there that have been working meaningfully and successfully in these areas for decades—and the film never mentions a single one of them. On Monday, Nancy and I went to the annual HEAF (Harlem Educational Activities Fund) benefit—a very timely thing in this regard. HEAF has been working with unparalleled success (since it was founded in 1989, HEAF has served over 10,000 children in one of the nation’s most educationally disadvantaged areas; its high school graduation rate is currently 100%, and 95% of HEAF graduates complete their undergraduate degrees within six years [and 60% graduate in four years], and 35% its college graduates pursue advanced degrees). We have been ardent supporters of this program from its inception, and I urge you to learn about it, if you are not already familiar with the extraordinary work it does. (Check out its wonderful and extremely informative website at )


HEAF’s President, Danielle Moss Lee, has just written a piece that recently appeared in The Daily Beast that is very relevant to these issues, and I include it below:


Not Everyone Is Waiting for Superman by Danielle Moss Lee A much-heralded new film is shining a needed spotlight on underperforming public schools, but the news isn’t all bad. Education reformer Danielle Moss Lee explains that there’s excellence within the system, too. Heading a nonprofit college success program like the Harlem Educational Activities Fund in New York City sometimes leaves me feeling like a munchkin in Education Oz. I know from the very beginning of the story that Dorothy has she what needs all along. Unfortunately, she cannot hear my voice or see me waving my arms trying to signal to her that she doesn’t need to go traipsing down a yellow brick road to find out how to get more Black and Latino kids into and graduated from college. The answer is on 125th Street. I am no stranger to the desperate angst and anxiety of the parents whose journeys you will follow in the much-talked-about and anticipated Waiting for Superman documentary. As a student, I attended 11 schools between kindergarten and 12th grade. Yes, 11. And, before you ask, I was not a military brat. The truth is that my mother was trying to get my education “right.” She knew I was smart, curious, and had potential. She also believed I was entitled to an academically rigorous schooling experience that was nurturing, culturally relevant and affirming, and built on a foundation of high expectations. Her determination to see me realize my full potential took me on an odyssey from school to school, public and private, in the U.S. and in the Caribbean. If public education had been delivering on its promise as the great democratic equalizer, that odyssey would have been unnecessary. In the end, though, the glue was not school for me. I had some great teachers and not-so-great teachers along the way. But my mother was my first teacher. She got a master’s degree in Library Science (yes, there really is such a thing) from Columbia University in 1970—the same year my father opened his own photography studio in Harlem. They were young, hopeful and believed that the civil-rights movement had achieved its mission. After their separation, my mother spent the early ‘70s working as a research librarian at Rutgers University. She struggled to find balance between work and childcare and taught me to read early so I could keep myself occupied. I spent countless hours running among the stacks in the university library and reading books that were far above grade level. When she got a mid-level corporate job, she spent most of her disposable income on “lessons,” “culture,” and, occasionally, tuition. Nevertheless, every so often when it seemed I was on a roll, my mother would decide that my school wasn’t quite right. There wasn’t enough homework. The teachers seemed ambivalent, or did not recognize my talents. The curriculum was lackluster. Then came Mrs. Lawson, a retired teacher and family friend of Bajan descent—her people knew our people back in Barbados, etc.—with a ferocious appetite for what she termed “the basics.” For a good three years, I spent my weekends in her daughters’ old bedroom in the South Bronx studying and learning in spite of whatever school I was attending. My success was no accident. The most compelling thing about my story isn’t me. The most compelling aspect of my story is my mother, my family, and the community who all stood for me, and who I could become, long before schools did. Of course, I know that 11 schools wasn’t the only path I could have taken to Swarthmore College and Columbia University. As a New York City public-school parent, I know that pit that settles at the bottom of your stomach when you’re looking for a school you hope will get your children to where you know they can go. You’ll see evidence of that worry on the faces of the parents in Waiting for Superman. Last year, during the arduous high-school application process, I prayed my daughter would get accepted to an academically sound high school. She prayed she’d be safe from bullies and make new friends. So far, we both won. I know many families who weren’t that lucky. Waiting for Superman has succeeded in accelerating the argument for more immediate solutions to what ails public education, and that is a good thing. I welcome the opportunity to engage in rigorous debate. Nevertheless, I want to encourage everyone to approach these reforms with boldness, courage, and caution. The movie focuses an imbalanced spotlight on how the current system traps low-income and minority students. It gives the impression that everyone in the current system is asleep at the wheel (you will see teachers in the infamous “NYC Rubber Room” asleep… literally) and fails to recognize any traditional public schools with a proven record of accomplishment for educating young people across lines of race and class. Excellence does exist within this system. We need to celebrate our gains and victories while we continue to put fire to the feet of dead weight. We have to remember that this movie has a particular point of view that shows up as a shameless plug for charter schools as the most viable and immediate solution to providing disenfranchised families with educational options. We should also accept that the circumstances that created that point of view are real. Time and time again, the data on the opportunity gap between rich and poor students, and black and white students, tell a story of embarrassing disparities in grade-level proficiency, high-school graduation rates, so-called risky behaviors, special-education referrals, college going rates, college completion rates, and the list goes on. In our desperation to give all the kids in this movie—and others across this country with similar stories—a fighting chance, let’s give traditional public schools that are effectively closing the opportunity gap their due. Let’s use what we know about the link between poverty, joblessness, access to health care, systemic racism and classism, and community stability to make sure that all of our schools have the educational and social-service supports to succeed. Let’s depoliticize education so that our best efforts have time to take root and bear fruit. Let’s continue to support high-performing charter schools with a commitment to 21st-century skills and diversity that reaches beyond the student body and touches everyone from the faculty to organizational leadership. Let’s define performance benchmarks and accountability measures for charter schools that include rigorous review of financial models, scrutiny of compensation for charter school executives, increased admissions for English language learners and special-education students, and improved transparency across the board. Make sure that communities have a real voice in charter-school governance. Finally, let’s make sure we don’t count well-established community-based organizations and after-school programs out of the philanthropic equation in our haste to fund things that are shiny and new. Thousands of New York City public-school students who do not attend public charter schools receive high-quality college-access support from organizations that have been serving disadvantaged communities and getting results for decades. The after-school field’s presence on the educational landscape in this city has made public education better. HEAF serves approximately 500 students each year through our college pipeline programs from 6th grade to senior year of college. If we had the philanthropic investment, we would serve more students. We have been doing this work for over 20 years with sound leadership and a research-based model that works. Rest assured that while I continue my efforts to expand our presence in New York City, there will be at least 500 kids who will not be Waiting for Superman this year.



A CULTURE ALERT from 26 July 2006:


The Film Society of Lincoln Center had a Donor screening of Woody Allen's new film, "Scoop," last evening...and it was NOT bad!


The idea that a film's "not being bad" deserves a Culture Alert would be ludicrous, except that this unfortunately IS news about Woody Allen.  It has been SO sad:   the Woodman had been one of my very favorite filmmakers..and someone I actually consider to have been among the all-time great filmmakers--and one of the funniest people ever.  But since "Sweet and Lowdown" (a wonderful little film, with one of Sean Penn's best performances), his work has fallen off a cliff.  "Curse of the Jade Scorpion" and "Melinda, Melinda" were so unredeemably terrible that I was all but convinced his career was over--or should have been (I did not see "Small Time Crooks," but I understand it to have been half-way to this nadir);  and, while it arguably was not completely terrible, I did not like "Match Point" at all.  (I found it a trite, predictable re-working of "Crimes and Misdemeanor"--which I never thought was all that good in the first place.  Many people really liked it, but I was convinced that was because they were relieved that it was not completely terrible like the two preceding ones.)


In "Scoop," Woody actually is funny again.  His timing isn't perfect, and he has included some bits that fall flat (in a way that he never would have been guilty of in his prime); but he IS funny in the old Woody Allen way.  The story is a silly "Manhattan Murder Mysteries" redux--and one that lacks the special chemistry of his work with Diane Keaton; but the film moves along and is enjoyable.  I say this despite what I found to be a painfully bad performance by Scarlett Johansson.  Now, understand:  I very much dislike Scarlett Johansson.  (I liked her in "Lost in Translation"; but that liking diminished upon realizing that her annoying, entitled, narcissistic character was not exactly acting...)  I do not think she is very good at acting at all...but she is definitely not a comic actress.


Don't get me wrong:  "Scoop" is not a particularly good movie.  But we enjoyed it, despite Scarlett Johansson's pitiful performance...and I did not leave the theater swearing that I'd never again go to see another picture by Woody Allen


And, later that day:


Wow!  I have not had reactions like this since my Culture Alerts on Christo's "The Gates" project in Central Park (q.v., )....with many of you weighing in on it within minutes and hours after my sending it out.


I want to be VERY clear about one point:  I do NOT consider Scoop to be a particularly good movie.  It has a thin, flawed plot;  it is uneven and spotty;  its implicit philosophical positions are questionable--not least of which when it comes to his view of women and relationships; and, most importantly,  the film lacks much of Woody Allen's deep connection to and insight into those aspects of the human condition (odd and rarified though they may have been) that leant such an air of relevance and deep comic meaning to his great earlier movies.  And, I thoroughly disliked Scarlett Johansson's performance.  (More about that below.)


What is so different about this film from Jade Scorpion and Melinda, Melinda is that Woody Allen manages once again to be funny.  He is old, he looks frail, but I could feel some of his former comic vitality that many of us used to love so much.  He is doing some of his old schtick...but it works, in a way that it clearly has not in some time.  (His attempts to do so in Jade Scorpion were so off they made me wince.)  I laughed repeatedly while watching Scoop...whereas in his last three movies I just ground my teeth.


A number of you have replied that my little review was going to lead you to go see the film...although at least one respondent noted that she felt I had "damned [it] with faint praise."  I do not want to raise your expectations too high, because they will then most certain be dashed.  If you are expecting the unparalleled brilliance of Bananas or Play It Again, Sam or Love and Death or Annie Hall or Manhattan, or the raucous fun of Take the Money and Run or Sleeper, or even the balanced and polished enjoyment of  Manhattan Murder Mysteries or Bullets Over Broadway, you will be sorely disappointed.     But I do think old-time Woody Allen fans will at least mildly enjoy this a way that most of us have not been able to with his recent films.  (You might want to check out David Edelstein's good and rather balanced review: .  His bottom line is almost identical to my own position:  "This is the first Allen picture since Sweet and Lowdown that doesn’t leave a bad odor in its wake.")


With respect to Scarlett Johansson, while I've yet to hear anyone praise her acting (I've mostly received remarks like, "I'm glad I'm not the only one that thinks Scarlett's incredibly overrated.  It's a shame, too, since she seems to get her pick of roles these days, taking them from more talented actresses..."), it is interesting how disparate opinions are about her appearance.  The ends of the spectrum I've gotten run from "the most incredibly sexy woman I've ever seen" to "she looks like a fat cow."  Here are a few samples:  "She was so gorgeous in Match Point I thought it was obscene";  "I found Scarlett's shrieking and carrying on [in Match Point] so excruciating I was relieved when she died."  Personally, I am in the end of the range that does not find her either sexy or attractive. Mais, chacun à son goû long as no one tries to convince me she can act.


Opinions are diverse on Match Point, ranging from "one of his best movies in years" to my own thorough dislike of it; but, in general, most felt it to be at least "OK"--and many really liked it.  (At least one very knowledgeable viewer thought it felt like it had been done by someone other than the man who had made the previous few Woody Allen films.)  At least two respondents have mentioned that it was actually a reworking of "An American Tragedy."  Personally, I really did not like it, but I would not claim it to be without any possible merit.  What I do feel is that it does not return to any of the caliber of Woody Allen's earlier films.  And, more telling, I simply wished I had not bothered seeing it.


To put my view of his film oeuvres in some perspective, allow me to say that, until this most recent film, I felt Woody Allen had failed to make it into the twenty-first century:  I very much liked his last film of the old millennium (the 1999 Sweet and Lowdown), but I had not liked anything since.  (I have not seen Hollywood Ending [2002] or Small Time Crooks [2000], but nothing I've heard about them makes me suspect they would make me decide to the contrary.)  I thought Celebrity (1998) was a mildly successful film, with many flaws but with several redeeming features.  I am one of those people who thinks that Deconstructing Harry (1997) was a masterpiece, despite its disturbing level of misogyny.  I thoroughly enjoyed his musical romp, Everyone Say I love You (1996); I enjoyed much of Mighty Aphrodite (1995).  And I adored his "Oedipus Wrecks" piece that was part of New York Stories (1989).  As for his earlier works, I have raved about them above.  Woody Allen is a giant, in my estimation--a true artist who once was able to connect with something very real and profound in the human condition...which is why his recent decline has been so sad and upsetting to me.  In Scoop, he has at least succeeded once again in being funny.  It is not a great film...not even a particularly good film; but it is entertaining...and at the very least, as David Edelstein concluded, it does not "leave a bad odor in its wake."


And, if you want to experience the unparalleled brilliance of his humor, for $14 on you can purchase the two CD set Woody Allen: Nightclub Years 1964-1968.

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