By Valerie Strauss
The snub to Davis Guggenheim’s tendentious film was well-deserved, given that classic documentaries are factual and straightforward, and don’t, as did "Superman," fake scenes for emotional impact.
Academy Award nominations are heavily political, yet this film didn’t make the cut even though President Obama called it “powerful” and welcomed to the White House the five charming students who starred in the film.
Advertising campaigns have been known to vault films into Academy contention, but not even a $2 million grant provided by the Gates Foundation to market “Superman” worked.
Though "Superman" was on the shortlist for an Academy Award in the feature documentary category, apparently the people who vote on the nominations -- people who actually make documentaries -- saw too many problems with “Waiting for Superman.”
And there are many, large and small.
Guggenheim edited the film to make it seem as if charter schools are a systemic answer to the ills afflicting many traditional public schools, even though they can’t be, by their very design. He unfairly demonized Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and gave undeserved hero status to reformer and former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. Guggenheim compared schools in Finland and the United States without mentioning that Finland has a 3 percent child poverty rate and the United States has a 22 percent rate.
One scene showed a mother touring a charter school -- and saying things such as, “I don’t care if we have to wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning in order to get there at 7:45, then that’s what we will do” -- that turned out to be staged; she already knew her son didn’t get in, according to The New York Times.
Then there was the case of one of the five students featured in the film, Emily Jones, who lives on the suburban San Francisco Peninsula and who, according to "Superman," was desperate to escape her traditional public high school, Woodside High, where she would be doomed to mediocrity.
Except that it wasn’t true. In an interview with John Fensterwald of the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, she said that Woodside “is a great school” that she really liked; she just liked Summit Prep Charter School better.
Late last year, in a piece on Movie Line’s Web site, editor S.T. VanAirsdale asked whether education historian Diane Ravitch’s scathing review of Superman in The New York Review of Books would derail the movie’s chances of nabbing an Oscar.
Just maybe it did.
And maybe this will help persuade those who believed that "Superman" unflinchingly showed reality that, in fact, it didn't, and that it is time to take a new look at public education that doesn't demonize teachers and traditional public schools.
(For the record, the films that did get nominations in the feature documentary category are: Exit through the Gift Shop,Gasland, Inside Job, Restrepo and Waste Land.)