More forcefully pushed on critics, politicians and the rest of the zeitgeist than any other film in 2010, Waiting for “Superman” did not receive the Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature it so expected to this morning. Though the education reform plea directed by An Inconvenient Truth helmer Davis Guggenheim carried the endorsement of Oprah Winfrey, NBC News, and the White House, in the end it could not hold the same sway over the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s Documentary Branch. Instead, the nominations went to Exit Through the Gift Shop, Gasland, Restrepo, Inside Job, and Waste Land.
This will be my final post on Waiting for “Superman”. It’s no secret that while I found the film’s intentions noble, it was poorly argued and heralded charter schools as a silver-bullet fix to one of the country’s more complex problems, so I was quite pleased to find out this morning that it did not make the final cut for the Academy Awards.
In an end-of-year essay last month, A.O. Scott charged Guggenheim with “intellectually lazy and emotionally manipulative” filmmaking, and it was easy to see why. Waiting for “Superman” positioned former D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee as one of the film’s heroes for her dogged moves against teachers’ unions and promotion of charter schools. When I spoke to Guggenheim last September as the movie premiered, the director—a D.C. area native who attended some of the region’s most prestigious private academies—was dismayed by Rhee’s inevitable replacement under the mayoralty of Vincent Gray.
“I would say just because the mayor changed doesn’t means the kids have changed,” Guggenheim said. “Those kids still need great schools and great teachers and they still need those reforms.” But the reforms profiled in Waiting for “Superman” tended to focus on Rhee extracting unprecedented concessions from the Washington Teachers’ Union in the face of the monstrously portrayed American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten. And the film’s lone proposal—charter schools to cure all educational woes—came with a single, fleeting mention of the statistical truth that only 20 percent of charter school outperform nearby public schools while the remainder are equivalent or worse. The institutions selected by Guggenheim were outliers, not the rule.
Still, Oscar nominations are about slick campaigns as much as they are about the films’ contents. And Waiting for “Superman” was promoted as much as any documentary.
“It was as well-run an Oscar campaign as you can have for a documentary,” Scott Feinberg, an awards prognosticator, told me today. “Part of the reason why, people speculate, is that the only people to see all of the eligible films (a requirement in the Documentary category) are older, retired and perhaps less in touch. Then again, they nominated Exit Through the Gift Shop.”
Feinberg added that the omission of Waiting for “Superman” will go down as one of the bigger snubs in the category’s history. Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, which led to the exoneration of a falsely convicted death-row inmate, and Hoop Dreams, the finest sports documentary ever made and one of the best on any topic, did not get nominated either. Another education documentary, The Lottery, was on the 2010 shortlist too, and could have prompted some ballot-splitting, but that film was virtually unseen compared to the Paramount Vantage-backed Waiting for “Superman”.
But with a haul of $6.4 million and a renewed political focus on education reform—President Barack Obama is expected to push for a revision of the No Child Left Behind law in his State of the Union address tonight—it’s tough to imagine that Guggenheim and the studio chiefs at Paramount are unsatisfied with their effort.
“At the end of the day they got what they wanted,” Feinberg said.
One other possible explanation for the snubbing was broached by Scott this morning on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show. In a discussion with Slate‘s Dana Stevens, Scott noted that the anti-union message of Waiting for “Superman” may have turned off Oscar voters, many of whom are as actors, directors, and screenwriters, union members themselves.
ONE MORE THING: I attempted to be measured in this last assessment of a film I spent much more copy on than I intended. However flawed, it earned its place in an important national discussion. It was never personal. The same cannot be said for the song that accompanies the end credits. John Legend‘s syrupy, manipulative, detestable ballad “Shine” also failed to grab an Oscar nod, and I’ll be spinning this playlist all night.