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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 01/25/2011

Why Oscar snubbed ‘Superman’ -- deservedly so

By Valerie Strauss

The documentarians who select the films for Academy Award nominations in the feature documentary category got it right: “Waiting for Superman” was not good/accurate enough to be selected.

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.)


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By Valerie Strauss  | January 25, 2011; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Diane Ravitch, Michelle Rhee, School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  academy award nominations, academy awards, davis guggenheim, diane ravitch, documentaries, feature documentaries, films that were snubbed, inside job, michelle rhee, movies snubbed, oscar nominations, oscar snubs, oscars, randi weingarten, superman, waiting for superman  
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Next: Obama’s faulty education logic: What he said and failed to say

Comments

Good.

What about the Pat Tillman film?

Posted by: edlharris | January 25, 2011 10:53 AM | Report abuse

Documentaries are like belly buttons. We all have one to show. While that may sound trite, showing a documentary in one city expecting it applies to another city shows the myopia of the documentor.

That method got us where we are. Trying to keep up with the Jones' only caused the Jones' to buy more, put others at financial risk, and gained nothing on the overall.

Consider we develop a plan for children with challenges but "normal" children and their parents are not prepared. Consider 50% of all kids are "at or below" average. Consider 50% of all kids are "at or below" the average learning rates.

Yet, we shoehorn them into schools ignoring the data.

Posted by: jbeeler | January 25, 2011 11:44 AM | Report abuse

also check out my Huff Post piece, Fact-checking Waiting for 'Superman': Documentary or Urban Myth? at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/leonie-haimson/factchecking-waiting-for-_b_802900.html

Perhaps the tide is turning, and reality-based thinking on education reform is coming forward for a change.

Posted by: leonie1 | January 25, 2011 11:49 AM | Report abuse

Don't be ridiculous, Leonie. It's a long way from a 'turned' tide regarding education.

Posted by: peonteacher | January 25, 2011 12:21 PM | Report abuse

This is the best news of the New Year! Not only did Gates put up millions to promote the film, but offered free tickets and that couldn't get the box office going.

Every editorial, every media host who spotlighted this film have just learned they cannot influence everyone. Rhee is not a warrior. Duncan and Klein are not heroes.
Maybe it's time to book Diane Ravitch to find out what went wrong!

Posted by: Schoolgal | January 25, 2011 12:25 PM | Report abuse

I was hoping that Valerie Strauss, or anyone else knowledgeable in the facts, for that matter, could comment on how 'The Lottery' sizes up against 'Superman,' and why it might not have received a nomination for the Academy Awards.

Posted by: bAmbler | January 25, 2011 12:53 PM | Report abuse

How refreshing to see that at least the Academy Awards folk recognized the myriad fallacies of Waiting for Superman. Poor Davis, he must be beside himself. I imagine he and his corporate backers thought the film would be a shoe-in.

Posted by: PGutierrez1 | January 25, 2011 1:14 PM | Report abuse

I'm glad Superman wasn't nominated and I'd like to think it's because the Academy thought it didn't qualify, but I'd have to hear it straight from the raters to know that it was turned aside because it was not truthful.

It makes me very sad to know that 2 million dollars was thrown away on a PR campaign for the movie. Just think of what all that money could have done for children.

Posted by: efavorite | January 25, 2011 1:55 PM | Report abuse

So...judging by the author's criteria, the Academy would have snubbed "Bowling for Columbine" as well, or any of Michael Moore's movies for that matter. As the author said, nominations are very political in nature; however, I guess that this movie is on the wrong side of the Academy's proclivities.

Posted by: seegary4 | January 25, 2011 2:06 PM | Report abuse

If that's all people have on "Superman" then it certainly should have been nominated if Michael Moore's error ridden, deliberately misleading, reshot at times, documentaries with flat out intention lies can not only get nominated but also wins.

Posted by: snakeiz | January 25, 2011 2:07 PM | Report abuse

Today in the Los Angeles Times, a letter writer had this to say:

"Those who speak lies to the powerless are rewarded, but those who speak truth to power are silenced."

And oh, 'tis true, 'tis true!

We have known for over fifty years that the greatest factor contributing to the overall education of the child (not just in school) is the influence of the family. The "reformers" know this well and take great care with the education of their own children while advocating KIPP for the poor kids. The rest of us know it too as we carefully comb the suburbs before buying in the "right" neighborhood. If the neighborhood isn't "right" we search for alternatives, even if it means sending Junior to live with Grandma until a satisfactory school can be found.

For the poor and powerless there is this big, fat lie:

If your impoverished child just has a good teacher, he will do just as well as his advantaged counterpart in Scarsdale or Beverly Hills.

Until recently the press has supported this lie, possibly because of ties to Big Business (e.g. Kaplan and the Washington Post) but now more and more journalists and others are speaking out, thank goodness.

Waiting for Superman DID highlight one important truth: A dedicated, involved parent will do almost anything to obtain a good education for his child and that child will likely succeed as a result.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | January 25, 2011 2:38 PM | Report abuse

What nonsense. Snubbing this film is so obviously is just lefty Hollywood striking back. But their influence is waning. This movie made a lot of people nervous. Including this blogger. To the good teachers: You deserve to make six figures. To the bad ones: Get out. Now. To urban families: Help is on the way. And to the excuse makers, several of whom are commenting here: YOUR influence is waning too. The governor of New Jersey wants to be president. This is bad news for you. Very, very bad.

Posted by: Craig_Colgan | January 25, 2011 4:03 PM | Report abuse

BIG HOLLYWOOD| No Surprise: ‘Waiting for Superman’ Snubbed By Oscar
http://bighollywood.breitbart.com/jjmnolte/2011/01/25/no-surprise-waiting-for-superman-snubbed-by-oscar/

Posted by: StewartIII | January 25, 2011 4:27 PM | Report abuse

A HUGE victory for Strauss/Ravitch/Weingarten. Way to take it to the Gates, Buffett, Zuckerberg, Oprah, Bloomberg, Clinton, Duncan, Obama, NYT, Newsweek, Ivy League crowd!

Posted by: frankb1 | January 25, 2011 4:35 PM | Report abuse

"It makes me very sad to know that 2 million dollars was thrown away on a PR campaign for the movie. Just think of what all that money could have done for children.

Posted by: efavorite"

A lot of library books.

Posted by: edlharris | January 25, 2011 4:47 PM | Report abuse

It's easy to ascertain which citizens are most concerned with the education of poor children: Just find out who is showing up each day to teach them! As for the "bad" teachers, don't worry. Most don't last until October! If they do, they're gone during their first five years. Teaching is by far the most self-selective of all the professions.

Teachers have been advocating for the poor for many, many years but politicians are just beginning to hear us now (even if it's just to prepare for the next election). See this interview with Rahm Emanuel:

http://www.myfoxchicago.com/dpp/news/elections/rahm-emanuel-chicago-mayor-issue-stance-on-education-20110125

It will be very interesting to see what President Obama has to say about education tonight. I'm predicting a lot of references to "working with teachers" and "working with parents and teachers." Also, look for "social supports," help for teachers, preschool and the "integration of various services." These are all strategies that teachers have lobbied for for many years.

As one of the posters above said, it's time to do away with excuses. Let's get that poor kid a good teacher AND a pair of eyeglasses! We can do it!

Politicians have probably learned one thing from Waiting for Superman, DCPS, and California: Don't take a position against the schoolteachers of America if you expect to win an election.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | January 25, 2011 5:11 PM | Report abuse

I'm overjoyed that the Academy could tell the difference between a documentary and an advertisement.

Let's hope that history will record this despicable propaganda film, as well as those who created it -- the smug mendacious hipster Gugenheim, and his reactionary backers including Bill Gates and Bircher Philip Anschutz -- as the sad result of what happens when plutocrats try to deceive the public.

Posted by: rdsathene | January 25, 2011 5:12 PM | Report abuse

Glad to see this was snubbed. The Peterson biases were only too easy to see for anyone who cared to look twice.

Posted by: BenedictAtLarge | January 25, 2011 6:01 PM | Report abuse

Some have thought that is was "lefty Hollywood striking back." And others had claimed that the movie was "on the wrong side of the Academy's proclivities." And Strauss thinks that it had to do with the "too many problems" that were in the film.

I personally like to think that the film was not as good as the other contenders. I've only seen Gasland and Inside Job, but both were much better in substance and design than Superman. You can also look at their Rotten Tomato scores. There's no real secret there. Both "top critics" and "all critics" think so as well.

Posted by: DHume1 | January 25, 2011 6:15 PM | Report abuse

I have seen them all. Gasland is by far the top film in terms of documentary craftsmanship. Waiting for Sup. was decent but just a polemic, nothing more.

Posted by: axolotl | January 25, 2011 7:12 PM | Report abuse

We have lost focus, I am disappointed in this Oscar snub too perhaps the unions felt personally threatened?
Lost is the opportunity to keep the issue of educating all Americans on the forefront.

'Waiting for Superman' is a painful and a familiar portrayal of a crumbling system.
Certain schools are like holding pens for livestock until the next stage, the criminal justice system or worst.
'Waiting for Superman' represents children are suffering so early in their lives, these young students are destined for failure and these same children are our future.

The business of education is such a huge old unpleasant problem that using 'creativity' to pull in the general public is de minimis.

You may disagree with the stringent accuracy of this film but, it is a film and it does have some entertainment value.
The director highlighted and exposed severe problems he then offered solutions without attacking anyone.
Too bad about petty egos attempting to slam Guggenheim's efforts.

'Waiting for Superman' has ignited a national dialogue about a sick wasteful bureaucratic system that's on life support!

Posted by: Schooled | January 25, 2011 7:40 PM | Report abuse

We have lost focus, I am disappointed in this Oscar snub too perhaps the unions felt personally threatened?
Lost is the opportunity to keep the issue of educating all Americans on the forefront.

'Waiting for Superman' is a painful and a familiar portrayal of a crumbling system.
Certain schools are like holding pens for livestock until the next stage, the criminal justice system or worst.
'Waiting for Superman' represents children are suffering so early in their lives, these young students are destined for failure and these same children are our future.

The business of education is such a huge old unpleasant problem that using 'creativity' to pull in the general public is de minimis.

You may disagree with the stringent accuracy of this film but, it is a film and it does have some entertainment value.
The director highlighted and exposed severe problems he then offered solutions without attacking anyone.
Too bad about petty egos attempting to slam Guggenheim's efforts.

'Waiting for Superman' has ignited a national dialogue about a sick wasteful bureaucratic system that's on life support!

Posted by: Schooled | January 25, 2011 7:40 PM | Report abuse

Thank you, Oscar nominating committee for seeing the fraud and lies in this "documentary." I wish more people had your critical thinking skills. A movie that should be nominated is "August to June." Please google it and watch the trailer. You won't be disappointed.

Posted by: chicogal | January 26, 2011 1:42 AM | Report abuse

It's hard not to be caught up in the drama of the film, but my take-away was that there are poor families that truly care about their kids education. (Duh!) People should know that there are kinks and bugs in any startup, and beginning over is no guarantee that charter schools are the answer. After reading Ravitch's review I know how Oprah felt about Jsmes Frey fabricated protrayal of his recovery from addiction.

Posted by: vickicobb | January 26, 2011 10:20 AM | Report abuse

The movie reviewer for WaPo who praised this movie to the sky and gave it four stars is now officially an idiot. Keep this person away from documentaries.

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | January 26, 2011 12:34 PM | Report abuse

The film is a fraud because the charter school movement is just a money making scheme for those abusing political office to make an extra buck by privatizing education. Chris Christie's corporate ties will earn him millions when your tax dollars pay for charter and private schools. Bloomberg will cash in on the standardized test frenzy by creating his own brand of standardized test materials.

Posted by: LastNJPoet | January 26, 2011 2:22 PM | Report abuse

Do you want to see a dirty, filthy and airless charter school? Go to YCCS Youth Connections (Sullivan House) on the south side of Chicago. It's the first charter school Arne Duncan opened, and it is in an appalling state.

I noticed neither Arne Duncan or Barack Obama has ever said anything about Sullivan House? I wonder why?

Posted by: educationlover54 | January 26, 2011 6:18 PM | Report abuse

CREW should investigate how federal education officials are working with film makers, billion dollar foundations, TFA, for-profit vendors, lobbyists, progress monitoring tech wizards, unqualified chancellors, testing conglomerates, reformers, hedge fund managers and charter gangs to dismantle K-12 public education for personal profits. What groups and vendors are receiving the multimillion dollar RTTT grant funds?

Read the documents at this link: http://www.citizensforethics.org/crew-demands-investigation-into-wall-street

”Documents uncovered by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) through a lawsuit against the Department of Education show that Wall Street investors have been working with high-ranking Education officials to craft regulations, allowing them to net millions of dollars through the short sale of for-profit college stocks. Even more disturbing, these newly discovered records reveal senior Education officials knew these investors - with no policy expertise - were pushing regulations for their own personal financial gain, but continued to work with them anyway.”

"As a result, CREW has asked Education Secretary Arne Duncan to investigate the improper role hedge fund managers and outside interest groups played in Education's formulation of highly contentious regulations governing the for-profit education industry."

"While certainly, there is reason to be skeptical of regulations crafted by Wall Street investors with no policy expertise working arm-in-arm with federal officials, the bigger question is where else is this happening?" Ms. Sloan said."

Posted by: nfsbrrpkk | January 26, 2011 10:29 PM | Report abuse

I renew my assertion from before that no one cares to address. The point of this article is that WFS was snubbed, because it was disingenuous in its attempts to produce a documentary...period. People keep try making the point that this was not a good film, and that is why it was "snubbed." I fear that these folks offer their comments, because they don't want to address my assertion, again, that is: If the author's key point is a legitimate criterion for discounting documentary nominations, Michael Moore's movies should not have been nominated either. I realize that the folks who support the Academy's decision for the reasons offered by the author are either public school teachers or left-leaning.

That said, I'm sure that that is why no one will challenge my assertion. Their silence speaks volumes on the hypocracy and disingenuity of both the Academy and the entire genre of documentarianism.

Posted by: seegary4 | January 27, 2011 12:49 AM | Report abuse

Yet folks it is true that we spend lots more on our children for lots less results.

And we include all kinds of stuff in our schools that isn't really about educating our kids to be knowledgable, capable, innovative, and responsible.

True, we have cultural issues that impede the progress of children, and these cultural issues coincide with poverty.

Please don't confuse correlation with causality. Poverty historically has not caused poor educational outcomes where good educational opportunity is provided, it is only in recent history that poverty coincides with poor educational outcomes.

We need to reward hard work and success, and need to examine in what ways we as a culture are enablers of dysfunctional cultural values that cause students in that culture to be doomed to likely educational failure.

Posted by: daveg70 | January 27, 2011 10:21 AM | Report abuse

Dave, you are correct that correlation is not causation. But, the research shows that poverty has had a huge negative impact on kids in the last 30 years. The correlation is so strong, that researchers have decided poverty is the cause.

Enough with bromides "correlation is not causation." We know. And we are not saying that there is a slight correlation. The correlation is huge. So huge, in fact, that you can see it geographically--by zip code.

Perhaps the correlation should be taken seriously instead of ignored and belittled?

Posted by: tfteacher | January 27, 2011 4:42 PM | Report abuse

Dave, you are correct that correlation is not causation. But, the research shows that poverty has had a huge negative impact on kids in the last 30 years. The correlation is so strong, that researchers have decided poverty is the cause.

Enough with bromides "correlation is not causation." We know. And we are not saying that there is a slight correlation. The correlation is huge. So huge, in fact, that you can see it geographically--by zip code.

Perhaps the correlation should be taken seriously instead of ignored and belittled?

Posted by: tfteacher | January 27, 2011 4:43 PM | Report abuse

daveg70,

Only a recent phenomenon? Really? You need to read your history, brother.

Posted by: DHume1 | January 27, 2011 7:45 PM | Report abuse

Ms. Strauss,

You and Diane Ravitch are GREAT Americans. Thank both of you for all your hard work and insight.

Posted by: bbbbmer1 | January 28, 2011 10:45 PM | Report abuse

I would argue that not all documentaries that are nominated would be 100% factual information. Michael Moore and Al Gore both have "factual" information in their Academy Award nominated movies that can be disagreed with. Waiting for Superman was an amazing documentary that makes us want to make our schools better for our children. There are amazing teachers in every school. There are also teachers and administrators who have no right to be there - And in a different job would have been fired YEARS before. Can ANYONE, EVER in their life remember a teacher being fired for not doing there job? I am 41 years old. I have known people who have been fired, laid-off etc... for most every type of job in America - but teachers... I have NEVER known of one???

Posted by: leighbowe | January 31, 2011 9:48 AM | Report abuse

Ms Strauss,

Unions not teachers are the problem. The fact that Waiting for Superman did not get nominated is the result of Hollywood unions not wanting to embarrass the teachers unions and to shine a light on the inefficiencies and the lack of fairness built into most union contracts.

Shame on Emily Jones? Why for wanting to go to a better school? What exactly is the threshold for a child to legitimately want to leave his/her school if not for academic opportunity? Why are the teachers unions so afraid of school choice/competition? I think they are worried about the possibility of empty schools.

Its really outrageous how the liberal elitists condemn the poor and lower middle class to long-shot status in our society. While their children attend the best private schools or top tier public schools ie Fairfax Co VA or Montgomery Co MD.

Every American parent/child should have the choice to pursue the best possible educational path available. Why shouldn't we insist on excellence? We are #25 in education in the world and sinking fast. The reality of our failing educational system requires us look outside the box. That is exactly what this documentary, Waiting for Superman has done.

Posted by: web1099 | February 1, 2011 12:36 AM | Report abuse

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