In 1906, young socialist Upton Sinclair rose from obscurity with the novel The Jungle, his expose of American meat packing. Sinclair’s version of the “Great American Novel” shocked the world with its gut-wrenching description of unsafe, unsanitary, and generally sickening practices of the meat packing industry (e.g., rat droppings and diseased meat jammed into sausage grinders, disgusting floor filth and innards packaged as “potted ham,” and employees losing extremities on a daily basis to the unforgiving teeth of dangerous machinery).

The novel was so poignant, in fact, that it facilitated government action before even being released to the general public: upon reading an advance copy, President Theodore Roosevelt, the original progressive president, called for a Food and Drug Administration. Without delving into more detail on the book itself, suffice it to say that the book shook the foundation of American thought on an industry.

In 2010, a widely successful documentary offered a similarly harrowing view of an American industry; this non-fiction elucidation exposes a corrupted system tantamount in importance to Sinclair’s meat packing. But the film’s subject matter, and the solutions it proposes to deal with the presented problems, may shock the reader unaware of the film.

Amazingly, the film does not attack a private-sector industry. It does not call for sweeping government intervention or advocate for union rights. It was not made by Michael Moore; the description of the documentary as “widely successful” and “non-fiction” should tip off the reader that the film is not a work of Moore. No, the 2010 film Waiting for “Superman” exposes the human toll of our potential-ripping public school systems. The rollicking documentary is directed by Davis Guggenheim, the chief collaborator on America’s first masterful documentary of the 21st Century, An Inconvenient Truth.

Guggenheim demonstrated his Oscar-winning talents once again, this time in exploring the dire conditions of American public schools. The exposition follows five grade-school students from Los Angeles, Palo Alto, New York City, and Washington, D.C. in their journeys through inferior (but all too typical) urban public schools. It shows the dismal state of public schools, a fate brought on chiefly by governmental ineptitude and crippling teachers unions. Guggenheim explores the reasons behind our ineffective public schools by showing the brimming but ultimately wasted potential of the five students.

As the film progresses, the watcher is shocked by the huge detriment public school education brings to the average student. If a schooling system that ultimately stifles the learning potential of students does not qualify as eye-popping irony, I don’t know what does. Most importantly, “Superman” fingers the unwise labor situation that the government has entrenched itself in as the main culprit in the education debacle. According to Guggenheim and his host of all-star experts, experts deeply involved in the very system the film analyzes, teachers’ unions debilitate the system by fighting for unaccountability for its members.

Amazingly enough, Guggenheim and his crew were not on hand at the recent 83rd Academy Awards. Despite the huge success of the film, “Superman” did not garner a nomination for Best Documentary from the Academy of Motion Pictures; apparently the academy deemed the spots better filled with unwatched and unsuccessful expositions on capitalist greed and villainous banking. Astoundingly, the very same academy that fought for free speech and labor rights in the era of McCarthyism and blacklisting denied even acknowledgement to a harrowing film that challenged major political ideas. To quote Comedy Central’s South Park: “If irony were made of strawberries, we’d all be drinking a lot of smoothies right now.”

One may wonder why the documentary has not prompted an outcry for school reform, as The Jungle did for food service reform. “Superman” has not received the same advantages afforded to Sinclair’s work. Despite two major producing studios (Paramount Vantage and Walden Media) and a big-name director tag (Guggenheim), the film garnered very little media attention in the months leading up to its release. Even after its release, media outlets like the failing NBC family of networks spent more time attacking the school reformers interviewed in the film. The brunt of the criticism was aimed at former Chancellor of Washington, D.C. public schools, Michelle Rhee; in one particularly visceral and (to use the Dem word-of-the-year) vitriolic attack, Natalie Hopskin of the failing The Atlantic magazine accused Miss Rhee of fear-mongering and, of course, racial discrimination. Apparently, the very thought of taking a business approach to improving an ineffective and broken public industry makes a dedicated reformer an evil capitalist pig.

The “unbiased coverage” rarely touched on the film’s content or mentioned the major problems in a public school system that ranked twenty-fifth out of thirty developed countries. The circular reasoning employed by liberal commentators in discussing the merits of the film may flabbergast the unwitting reader, and understandably so, as coherent arguments against the film are hard to come by. This can be expected from new-wave editorialists who prove perfectly content with using character attacks and twisted emotional appeals over logical arguments in their assessments. The snub from the Academy of Motion Pictures, however, must shock even the casual supporter of free thought.

The Academy that once supported blacklisted actors and directors and, more recently, took the lead in promoting a global awareness of global warming turned its back on this challenge to a decaying system. By refusing to even nominate “Superman” for best documentary, the Academy deemed the exposition, not untrue or irrelevant, but undeserving of any recognition or acknowledgement. In its cold-shoulder, the Academy essentially declared that it does not accept free thought that challenges the far-left Overton window that Hollywood only wishes we ignoramuses of the rest of the world would accept.

Now, one could progress further in an attack on the Academy, but such digression would only take away from the shockingly poignant “Superman.” And, as no amount of fine summation could precisely illuminate the problems exposed in the masterful film, this writer will go no further in recapitulating the movie. The only way for one to fully appreciate the work is to see Guggenheim’s masterpiece and to interpret for himself its contents. In observing the film with an open mind and resilient gag reflex, the disinterested observers can assess the academic merits of the work, independent from the swaying of the Academy. Indeed, only with honest and open discussion of the public school debacle can the student once again be the primary focus of the classroom.



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  • Will Fonseca ’12

    First, I’m gonna be obnoxiously picky with you, Clark. On a production budget of $6 million, Fahrenheit 9/11 grossed $119,194,771, over three times the combined profits of both An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for Superman. Regardless of his politics, that we can drop the name Michael Moore in conversation and expect people to pop their heads up speaks to his success.

    As for the thesis:
    Valerie Strauss on the Washington post education page blogged her read of the snub:—.html
    While she’s undeniably left-leaning and supportive of teachers unions, and while the post thus has some “told-you-so” sarcasm over the academy’s snubbing WFS, most of her argument is objectively logical – the obvious controversy over the mom who already knew her son didn’t get into the charter school, the Finland-U.S. comparison and the Palo Alto girl who thought her own public high school was a “great school,” among others

    Like you and a lot of other people, including the Pres., I thought the movie was reeeally good. It’s been one of the few things in the last few years that a lot of the left and right agree upon – both the liberal Huff. Post and the conservative NYPost gave pretty glowing reviews. That being said, the movie is just that: a movie to be reviewed. A movie that sparks controversy the way it has. I’m not expert on academy decision-making, but I think the active documentarians who vote for the nominations are. And barring some large-scale anti-WFS conspiracy to keep the movie out, I think they got it right.

    Needless to say, though, good article.

  • Will Fonseca ’12

    And also, I think it’s a little absurd to dismiss the existence of “any coherent argument against the film.” Diane Ravitch wrote a really scathing review of it for the NY Review of Books a few months ago, to list one. As a pretty respected historian of education and professor at NYU with a Ph.D. from Columbia who writes for one of the most established and most decorated magazines in our country’s history (etc… etc…), Ravitch makes lots and lots of coherent arguments, and lots and lots against the film. (I know the credentials argument can be lame, so heres the original article: )

    The film presents a thesis, and is thus argumentative, and thus will have its opponents, and so on. To have a high opinion of the film is fair, but to elevate it to a divine and objectively perfect status is unfair.