Put on Your Cape

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.

Hair Apparent

Hair Apparent for urban faithChris Rock’s new documentary probes the world of black hair to humorous effect, but also forces us to confront disturbing questions about our prescribed standards of beauty.

One of the big conversations in my household this year has revolved around the question of whether my 9-year-old daughter is ready to get her hair “permed.” Some girls at her school have already been initiated into the world of relaxed hair, so the peer pressure is in effect.

On the one hand my wife, who spends an inordinate amount of time combing and styling our little girl’s hair each week, would love to reduce the strain and pain (on both her and my daughter) of braiding and curling and ponytailing. On the other hand, she’s not yet ready to subject our daughter to the extreme measures involved in chemically straightening black hair. Who would’ve imagined that there’s so much drama involved in styling a little girl’s tresses?

Well, Chris Rock did.

Rock’s new documentary, Good Hair (PG-13), opens Friday in limited release and nationwide on Oct. 23, but it’s already got lots of folks buzzing about this most sacred of topics in the black community.

Critics have praised Rock’s mixture of satire, history, and social commentary. And his funny but insightful look at the $9 billion black hair industry covers a lot of territory. Indeed, there are few things more central to the daily experience of a black woman. A good-looking ‘do plays a pivotal role in both her personal and professional happiness.

Yet an ominous theme undergirds the entire enterprise. Why do so many women spend so much time and so much money trying to attain what’s essentially a “white” look? That question is at the heart of Good Hair, and with Rock as our irreverent yet sympathetic tour guide, the film sets out to get some answers.

By roaming the exhibit floor of the massive Bronner Bros. Hair Show and talking to everyone from Maya Angelou to Raven Symoné, Rock presents a subculture that is at once familiar but nonetheless foreign. How is it, again, that some women are willing to pay thousands of dollars for weaves (some actually putting their hair on layaway) to create the illusion of long tresses? Or how is it that so many are willing to apply harsh sodium hydroxide creams to their heads to straighten kinky hair? (Rock demonstrates how the chemical can literally eat through chicken flesh and disintegrate aluminum cans.)

What Rock discovers in his cinematic expedition is a gold mine of endless humor (Al Sharpton even gets some screen time — need I say more?). But it’s also a source of great poignancy. That lingering issue of who determines the standard of true beauty pervades the movie like a stubborn ghost, haunting every corner of a black woman’s existence. Even our churches — or, perhaps, especially our churches — are full of lofty hairdo expectations for black women.

Still, in Good Hair, Rock is able to take all these contradictions and discomfitting realities and allow us to laugh at them — and at ourselves. He also may have inadvertently helped settle that little dilemma in my household: If I have any say in the matter, my 9-year-old will have to wait until she’s voting age before getting that soda-can-eating paste applied to her head.

Related Article: Afro America.

Photo courtesy of Roadside Attactions

Are We There Yet?

Are We There Yet? for urban faith

The team members from Chapel Hill Bible Church prepare for their missions adventure in Nairobi, Kenya.

Round Trip, Christianity Today International’s new documentary-style DVD and curriculum about the lessons and adventures of short-term missions trips, can be boiled down to these three maxims:
1. Humankind is made in the image of God.
2. We have a lot in common that we may not be aware of.
3. There are things that others can teach me.
In expounding upon these themes, Round Trip offers Christian leaders and laypeople vital wisdom and guidance on a ministry ritual that is becoming an increasingly standard part of contemporary church life.

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The Crass Supper

“The industry doesn’t want you to know the truth about what you are eating, because if you knew you might not want to eat it ” — Food, Inc.

I recently headed out to a sold-out showing of the documentary Food, Inc. at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema here in Austin, Texas. Generally, getting dinner and drinks along with my movie is my favorite “night out” activity, but in watching a film which critically examines our industrial food system, it was a bit strange. Granted, all around me I heard orders for veggie burgers and the local organic veggie platter, and there wasn’t a high fructose corn syrup soda to be seen, but I was glad to have finished my (veggie) burger by the time the previews ended. Although I have sought to inform myself about the injustices in our modern food system, Food, Inc. presents the most comprehensive and disturbing summary of that system I have seen yet. It is a necessary film for basically anyone who eats food.

A film which took three years to make with a large part of its budget going to pay the legal fees defending itself against lawsuits from the industrial food companies, Food, Inc. takes a hard look at how corporations now control the production of our food, resulting in generally unhealthy, environmentally hazardous, and completely unsustainable food that in truth threatens the very well-being of our country.

From the animals that are confined in inhumane cages, left to stand in their own mire, fed unnatural diets and cocktails of drugs and hormones to the impoverished workers who are treated with the same disrespect, this system has sacrificed the respect and well-being of living creatures and people for the sake of profit. But Food Inc. doesn’t just stop with detailing those atrocities; it delves into the problems with government subsidies and the ways the fearmongering enforcement of genetically modified food copyrights are destroying the small farmer. People are being hurt by this industrial food system that dumps chemicals into our environment with reckless abandon and produces unnatural and unhealthy food for our consumption.

I appreciated though how Food, Inc. didn’t simply present the issues with industrial food as a clear cut, good vs. evil scenario. It acknowledged that poor workers have no choice but to take jobs on the factory farms, and that farmers have no choice but to give into the pressure to work with the huge industries. Those industries have so altered our nation’s laws, and have so many lawyers working for them, that any farmer who resists joining their ranks finds themselves out of work at best, and sued penniless for simply encouraging people to not buy the big company’s products. The farmers and workers are desperate for a better system where real freedom and healthy standards exist, but for now they have to work with what they’ve got.

Food, Inc. also explores why for the average working class family in America, buying healthy food isn’t an option, especially in many urban communites where the absence of full-service grocery retailers has created “food deserts.” And whether you’re urban, rural, or suburban, it is far cheaper to buy the cheeseburger from the drive-thru dollar menu than it is to buy fruit or vegetables. That is because everything in that cheeseburger comes from corn, which our government subsidizes so much that farmers can sell it below the cost of production. So the poor American eats the extremely unhealthy food because it is cheaper. But the rising epidemic of type 2 diabetes shows the hidden cost of that value meal.

The poor in our country — those with no health or job insurance — are getting sick at alarming rates due to the unhealthy, cheap food they eat. This is injustice of the highest extreme — but it’s all part of our industrial food system. It’s a complicated system that gives us unhealthy, unsustainable food that disrespects the earth, animals, and people all in the name of making the greatest profit for a handful of corporations. This is the story of the food we eat every day.

But in truth, I have a lot of friends who don’t want to know anything about their food. They shelter their kids from knowing the whole “circle of life” stuff, but also tell me point blank that they don’t want to know the story behind their food. In their mind, what they don’t know won’t hurt them. Unfortunately, as Food Inc. shows, that isn’t always the case.

I wasn’t expecting this film to be a tear-jerker, but hearing a mom talk about how her toddler son ate a hamburger and was dead in 12 days had me weeping. This mom was the typical middle-American Republican mom on vacation, but the hamburger they bought their son on the way home was tainted with E. coli 0157:H7, a deadly antibiotic resistant bacteria common in factory farmed cows. These cows, fed unnatural diets of corn, develop diseases (like E. coli) and are treated regularly with antibiotics, which leads to drug-resistant strains like this one. This mom has become the unlikely activist for food safety. The meat company who sent out the tainted meat knew it was tainted and didn’t issue a recall until two weeks after her son was dead. As she puts it, all she wants is an apology from the company and a guarantee that they are doing everything possible to prevent it from ever happening again. Instead, she finds the companies fighting for more lax food safety laws and herself under threat of a lawsuit under the “veggie libel” laws for discouraging people to buy meat products. Yeah, look up these laws — express fears about the safety of your food and you could be sued for causing these companies loss of revenue. So much for free speech, much less safe food. It’s hard to know the truth if you are not allowed to talk about it.

But for all the doom and gloom that Food, Inc. rightly covers, I was grateful that it didn’t end the story there. Instead of throwing up its arms and admitting defeat or even insisting that we all go join some intentional community/hippie commune immediately, Food, Inc. details the practical ways we can start changing the system from within. It profiles the organic dairy farmers who although they had boycotted Wal-Mart all their lives, were now selling their product to them. Some may call them sell-outs, and they are under no illusion that Wal-Mart jumped on the organic bandwagon out of the goodness of their hearts, but to get a store with a distribution as huge as Wal-Mart’s means significant amounts of pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics are kept from polluting our ecosystem. That’s a really big deal, and one of the main reason to buy organic. Working within the system, even if it is with Wal-Mart, makes progress happen faster and on a much larger scale.

The movie concludes with the reminder that we can each make a difference every time we go to the store. The point isn’t to abandon the food system, or stop buying food, but to simply demand healthier, sustainable food. We can choose to vote with our pocketbooks for the type of food we want to support. Do we want to support the food that oppresses animals, workers, and the environment or the food that does its best to care for all those things? We have that choice; we just have to be willing to make it.

Food, Inc. opens across the U.S. this summer. Check the Food, Inc. website to see if it is playing near you.