Inconvenient Truth-Teller: Waiting for ‘Superman’ director/activist Davis Guggenheim
Director Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for ‘Superman’ has set off fiery debates and earned him the scorn of teacher groups across America. But it’s all right with him, if the film leads to the nation getting more serious about saving its public schools.
Chances are you’ve heard about Davis Guggenheim’s documentary Waiting for ‘Superman,’ which opened nationwide in theaters last weekend and has already grossed $1.6 million at the box office (a significant amount for a documentary). Guggenheim’s film has challenged Americans to stand up for children and fix the country’s broken education system. As with his previous film, the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for ‘Superman’ has been the subject of plenty of controversy and debate, and has faced strong opposition (teacher unions) as well as strong support (Oprah!). Guggenheim recently sat down with UrbanFaith to discuss the film and how the church community can get involved in saving our schools.
URBAN FAITH: Since making this film, have you noticed any faith-based initiatives that are getting involved with this issue?
DAVIS GUGGENHEIM: Yeah, the amazing thing about the movie is it speaks to everyone, no matter what his or her faith or political leanings. And the people who see the movie just fall in love with the kids and are inspired by the parents, because they see that every kid deserves a great education. I think faith-based groups see the moral consequences of our schools and that it’s a moral obligation to give every kid a great education.
How do you think the faith community can get more involved in the public education issue?
A lot of the big decisions happen behind closed doors at a negotiating table — the superintendent, a mayor, school board, union members. The seat that is often not filled is the person who’s fighting for the kids. What Michelle Rhee [chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools system in Washington, D.C., who recently announced her resignation] says in the movie is that the system works for the adults — for harmony amongst adults. The people who get neglected are the kids. I think the power to help the kids can come from faith-based groups — people who can organize and gather and say this is important for our community; the heart of our community is a great school. With that collective power, they can really put a lot of muscle toward making decisions at that table to give every kid a great education.
What are your thoughts on the negative response from certain teacher groups and unions?
I think some of the dialogue has gotten a little heated. A lot of that comes from people who haven’t seen the movie or don’t want you to see the movie. When people see the movie, they see that at its heart are these kids who just want a great school. Even though there’s a lot of politics in the movie, the message is really apolitical. It asks the simple question: Why can’t we give every kid a great education? And the kids in my movie don’t care what the school is called, and they don’t care how it gets fixed or who’s to blame. They just want a great school.
Has the response from teachers who have seen the film been positive?
I think the majority of teachers get it. There are so many great teachers out there who are slugging it out every day, and they are already fighting for kids. A lot of things I bring up in the movie, they deal with every single day — the vast bureaucracies, the very strict rules. The majority of teachers welcome the message of the movie.
What challenges did you face while putting this documentary together?
I think the biggest challenge of making this movie has been to get people to believe again — that it’s possible. That sounds really simple, but in many of these neglected neighborhoods there’s this sense of “this is what you get” and “it’s been this way for a long time,” and that maybe it can’t be done. What I think is so inspiring about the message of the movie is that I’m showing — through the stories of Geoffrey Canada [president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone], the kids’ schools, and these great, inspired reformers — that it actually can be done if we have the political will and the moral will. And the idea of the movie speaking to regular people — mothers and fathers and churches — to say it’s time for us to come together and demand good schools and believe again.
When people walk away from this film, what kind of reaction do you want from them? What kind of actions should they be inspired to take?
Well, the first step is seeing the movie, because it gives you this basic primer on how we’ve gotten to where we’re at. And it really shows you the stakes; you feel what it’s like to want your kid to have a great education or to want to have big dreams. And you feel the consequences when you see Daisy and Anthony [students] in this movie. So that’s the first thing: to really see the movie and feel the stakes. And the next thing you do is act locally. See how you can help your local school. There are a hundred ways to help –simple ways like mentoring and volunteering, and then bigger ways like knowing who your school board member is, and letting your voice be heard, and joining your church or group and saying, let’s use our group power to push leaders to go further and to make decisions that are good for kids.
How has this film changed you?
It’s funny. When you have a little documentary and it starts to do well, you realize that it does well because of these “little angels” all the along the way — members of the press, elected officials, regular people who tell friends to go. The success of a little documentary comes from all these people. I find myself saying at the end of the day to everybody, “God bless you.” I’m not sure what religion I am, but “God bless you” — only because I feel like it really takes a certain kind of shared belief to get this thing done and to really bring people together to do something good. That’s the exciting part about it. That’s how it’s changed me. I’m just one piece of it. I’m a filmmaker, so I’m doing my piece. But everyone along the way is doing his or her piece, from mothers and dads, to teachers, to pastors and politicians.
In Waiting for ‘Superman,’ director Davis Guggenheim examines the reasons for America’s public education crisis, and challenges us to do something about it.
I recently had the opportunity to view the new documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’ at a special pre-release screening. As an urban pastor, in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, education and its impact on our children has become an issue close to my heart. So I settled into my seat with high hopes for the potential of this film to shine light on the many problems facing our nation’s schools. I was not disappointed.
Director Davis Guggenheim strikes an effective balance between telling personal stories (he follows the journey of five students) while also examining the demise of the national public school system, at a systemic level, over the past four decades. It is not a pretty tale.
The curious title of the film comes from Geoffrey Canada, the innovative and relentless leader of the nationally acclaimed Harlem Children’s Zone. Canada tells the story of growing up in the projects of the Bronx and how he often fantasized about someone swooping in from the outside and saving him and his friends. His favorite superhero was Superman, who always seemed to show up when the people were in the greatest peril. Even as a young child, Canada knew the residents of his neighborhood were in grave danger because of socioeconomic inequities. It was a life-altering moment for him when his mother sternly warned him, “Geoffrey, Superman is not coming to save us. Nobody is coming to save us. We have to find our own way out.”
With this anecdote, Canada connects the viewer to the seriousness of this issue. He points out how children begin receiving contradictory messages about education from an early age. They are told, on one hand, that education is the key to being successful in this country’s economy. On the other hand, he says, they attend local schools that are “failure factories” that give them no chance at academic success. Kids are smart, and they interpret what is happening. They perceive early on that “this society is a cold, hard place.” They see that they are getting the short end of the stick, and they don’t know why. But they quickly figure out that there is no use in waiting for a superhero to fix the problem.
Throughout the film we are drawn into an emotional connection with the five young students (Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy, and Emily) and their respective parents/guardians. Each child shows a great deal of aptitude and hope for the future, yet each is in danger because they live in a neighborhood with failing or dysfunctional schools. I imagine that each person in the audience who watches this will closely identify with at least one of the children.
For me it was Bianca, an amazing sixth-grader who wants to become a doctor someday so that she can spend her life “helping people.” As she shares her dreams, it’s easy to think that this bright girl’s internal drive and the nurture and support of her loving family should be enough to help her succeed. But then Guggenheim’s camera pulls back to give us a full view of the dilapidated school Bianca is on track to attend for seventh grade. It is one of the schools deemed a “failure factory.” Attending there, he notes matter-of-factly, will drop Bianca’s chances of success to an almost impossible percentage. Her parents decide that that Bianca’s best chance for achieving her dream will be to get accepted to the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) charter school miles away. But KIPP has only a handful of spaces open and hundreds of applicants.
In the Trenches: Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada in the classroom. (Courtesy Paramount Pictures)
This is the essence of the first big point Guggenheim seems to be making in the film. In urban areas in particular, the vast majority of public schools range in quality somewhere between “mediocre,” at best, to “abject,” at worst. Typically in a large city there’s at least a handful of schools that are doing exceedingly well, but the demand to get into those schools is exponentially greater than the number of students those schools are able to admit.
As the film progresses, Guggenheim proposes what he seems to think may be the most substantial obstacle of all: selfish human agendas intertwined with antiquated policies and immoveable teacher unions. To make his point, the director spends a large amount of time following Michelle Rhee, the controversial chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public school system. Rhee is a fiery and dynamic personality whose brash efforts at school reform are shown to be both innovative and polarizing. In Guggenheim’s narrative, she and Geoffrey Canada (as well as other iconoclastic teachers and administrators) represent the kind of super-persons required to rescue an imploding system. But the odds are stacked against them like a wall of Kryptonite.
Guggenheim weaves in and out of the lives of the five students and their families while regularly coming back to the list of obstacles to educational equity. Teacher tenure for those in the public school system is another heavy issue that’s tackled. How can a school insist on great teachers if there is no motivation for greatness and no way to fire underperforming teachers? Other obstacles explored include confusion between federal and state regulations, poor leadership in schools, and unmotivated teachers.
It’s here that Guggenheim is bound to run into the greatest amount of resistance from some within the public education community. With his previous film, An Inconvenient Truth, the director drew the skepticism and ire of conservative critics who question the science behind global warming. With Waiting for ‘Superman,’ teacher unions and the politicians (primarily Democrats) who depend on them most for support comes under the most severe scrutiny. But, to be sure, Guggenheim spends just as much time highlighting the extraordinary and often sacrificial efforts of teachers who are making a difference in their students’ lives.
As the documentary moves toward its conclusion, at least two major themes emerge. First, Guggenheim wants to bring into the open a fallacy that has become too commonplace behind closed doors: that children in poverty-stricken neighborhoods cannot be educated at as high a level as children in middle-class environments. To make his point, he takes viewers deep into two successful charter-school models: KIPP — which now runs 52 schools and counting — and the Harlem Children’s Zone. In a nation with increasingly low expectations for urban schools, these two models are changing the stakes. Both are generating incredible results year after year, and these results are changing the landscape. Guggenheim observes that children from KIPP and HCZ are not just achieving scores higher than other poor kids; they are achieving scores higher than all kids.
The second big theme is the call to all Americans (not just educators) to be concerned, and even outraged, by the discrepancies that exist in our public-school systems. Viewers are instructed to take action by visiting the film’s website for tips that include getting involved by attending local school board meetings, donating funds to help purchase supplies for under-resourced schools, and encouraging your governor and other state leaders to adopt the Common Core Standards as a way of improving the quality of the schools in your state.
For me, the most poignant moment of the documentary came near the end. We travel with each of the five children attending the lotteries where they will discover whether or not they have been accepted into the schools that give them their best shot at success. As you see the lottery balls turning in slow motion and names being drawn out of a hat, it seems impossible to believe that the fate of these children is left to something as arbitrary as a random drawing.
At a personal level, I’m both provoked and inspired by Waiting for ‘Superman.’ The film’s message compels me to do more. It makes me hope that many of us will rise to the challenge for the sake of our kids. It reminds me of the piercing words of Jesus of Nazareth, who said, “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6, NIV).
The educational system in this country has become a stumbling block for too many children and families. If nothing else, Waiting for ‘Superman’ exposes the mish-mash of agendas and broken-down systems that brought us to the sad place we are today. We must deepen the national conversation about how to best improve schools. But even more important, we must experience a national awakening to the importance of our children. We must place their futures at the forefront of our agendas.
Waiting for ‘Superman’ opens Sept. 24 in limited release and everywhere on Oct. 8. For more information, visit the film’s website.