Should Rhee Stay or Should Rhee Go?: Guggenheim makes a case for the former.

Get local news delivered straight to your phone

We can't make City Paper without you

$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

It was probably inevitable that Davis Guggenheim, the go-to director for progressive causes that want a boost from Hollywood, would tackle public education. Guggenheim’s 2006 global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth enchanted Oscar voters, motivated corporations to appear more “green,” and rejuvenated a flagging environmental movement. But that was Al Gore’s pet project, and Guggenheim has priorities of his own. In Waiting for “Superman” he approaches education with the same urgency as the former vice president does with climate change. But what exactly does the Man of Steel have to do with public schools? The title comes from an interview with Geoffrey Canada, one of the reformers portrayed here as the only noble crusaders. Canada, who founded the Harlem Children’s Zone, recalls two origin stories—first as a child when his mother told him Superman was fictional, and the second when, early in his career, he became convinced he could single-handedly fix the nation’s education problems within a few years. But a montage of presidents from Kennedy to George W. Bush vowing to improve public schools reminds us that things have only gotten worse. With heroism in mind, Guggenheim spends about 100 minutes looking for the silver bullet, and he settles quickly on some leading contenders. Waiting for “Superman” follows five elementary and middle school students—four inner-city kids and a white girl from the suburbs—as they strive to attend charter schools in Southeast D.C., New York City’s Harlem, East Los Angeles, and Palo Alto, Calif. These institutions, Guggenheim insists, are great institutions because they have independent techniques, longer academic years, and nonunion faculties but aren’t private or parochial. And here Guggenheim has his villain: Teachers’ unions are Lex Luthor, Zod, and Doomsday rolled into one, it seems. Some of the criticism is more than deserved, with plenty of footage of teachers behaving badly and hiding behind collective bargaining agreements. But the greater threat is a monolithic intransigence toward change. Cue the hero. If Superman exists, Guggenheim believes it to be D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, whose job security is uncertain after D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray’s defeat of Mayor Adrian Fenty in last month’s Democratic primary. She’s an outsider, crusader, and hard-charging reformer taking on the teachers’ unions with school closings and merit pay. Rhee can do no wrong in this film that at times borders on a mash note. As he showed in An Inconvenient Truth, Guggenheim is very capable at establishing the gravity of a crisis. But his answers are simplistic: More charter schools and merit pay, greater power to administrators like Rhee and less to union bosses like Randi Weingarten, and an oft-repeated but ill-defined plea for great teachers. In its closing moments Waiting for “Superman” gives us a dose of what the potential solutions are actually like. The application processes for the charter schools Guggenheim’s subjects want to attend end with a lottery. But this isn’t a quiet event behind closed doors. In a cruel twist, the kids and their parents sit in auditoriums for hours and wait to hear their names called out for a shot at a better life. It’s a jarring sequence in an otherwise ham-fisted argument. Like Guggenheim’s last film, Waiting for “Superman” makes you sit through the credits as cheap aphorisms float among the names of the crew. A despicable ballad by John Legend plays—apparently the rights to “The Greatest Love of All” were unobtainable—while the film’s website lingers and the audience is repeatedly urged to convince others to spend $11 on this weak borscht. The children are our future, but they deserve a better argument than this.