Davis Guggenheim wants to change the public education system in America. The only problem is that he’s not a national education czar or local school board member, he’s not a principal or even a teacher – he’s a Hollywood filmmaker.
I attended a screening of Guggenheim’s latest project, called “Waiting for Superman,” which will hit local theaters October 1. The documentary is a sad tale of decline and decay – not just of buildings and systems but of the lives and minds of young people. Guggenheim hopes it will have a similar effect as his previous film, “An Inconvenient Truth” – it will upset you and prompt you to take action.
Guggenheim, who’s married to actress Elisabeth Shue and has three kids of his own, was inspired by the Teach For America program and says he had one goal in making the movie – “to get people to care about other people’s children.” While filming he says he had a breakthrough – he learned the system only works for the adults involved.
“Waiting for Superman” weaves facts and statistics into interviews with education reformers and clips of the daily lives of public school students. We get to know six children well, and we see their struggles to pull themselves up and make it to college. The final moments of the film are suspenseful, as the kids and their parents wait to hear their number called in a lottery for acceptance into better schools in their districts. There are reformers creating successful learning environments in urban areas all over the country, but there are usually ten kids on the wait list for every spot that becomes available. Guggenheim uses the lottery is an effective metaphor for the hit-and-miss selection of which kids make it and which fall off a steep cliff.
In the Q&A after the screening, Guggenheim said he wouldn’t give away the meaning of the film’s title, but it references a comment by Geoffrey Canada, who has worked to revitalize schools in Harlem (you may have seen his American Express commercial about changing “one block at a time”). When Canada learned as a child that his comic book hero wasn’t real, it was even worse than learning the truth about Santa. If there is no Superman, then “no one is coming to rescue us.” Guggenheim hopes viewers will want to rescue America’s schoolchildren by insisting on changes in the educational system the way they’ve adopted changes in protecting our environment – one child and one water bottle at a time. Mark your calendar for the film’s official debut October 1.