August 20, 2010

“Wanting to be an astronaut seemed as far as the moon.”  Amidst the multitude of ideas and educational philosophies present in director/producer Madeleine Sackler’s documentary The Lottery, this sentiment from public charter school parent Karl Willingham best encapsulates the film’s heart.  Even in the face of the unacceptable facts upon which its foundation is built (i.e. Nationally, 58% of African-American 4th graders are functionally illiterate), Mr. Willingham’s reflections on his own lack of educational opportunities reverberates the failures of many American public school systems in a way that facts and percentages could only dream of.

Emotionally charged, painfully poignant, and convincing throughout, Sackler’s documentary garnered recognition from the festival circuit (it was an Official Selection of the Tribeca Film Festival) but received only limited theatrical release in May of this year.  With any luck, the film will enjoy greater exposure via its DVD release as the heartbreaking journeys on display here document an injustice that is every bit as devastating to the United States as far more discussed issues such as the economy, health care, illegal immigration, and/or the number of mosques located within the general vicinity of Ground Zero.  Hit the jump for my review of The Lottery DVD.

Via its namesake, The Lottery revolves around four families who have entered their respective children into a lottery held by the Harlem Success Academy.  Their goal is simple: for their children to be able to attend the public charter school known for its academic excellence.  However, the means by which this end is achieved (a public lottery mandated by law) is arbitrary by definition.  As such, a heartbreaking sympathy is instantly established for each of the four families by virtue of the fact that the quality of education their children will receive is truly out of their hands.  Many people pick up daily lotto tickets with the hopes of striking it rich and splurging on an island or two.  Is it a bummer when they lose?  Maybe.  In spite of the loss, will their children still have the opportunity to receive an education that will prepare them for success rather than prison?  Most likely.  Of such heights are the stakes for families like the four represented in the film.

Also at the forefront of The Lottery is Success Charter Network (which runs the Harlem Success Academies) founder and CEO Eva Moskowitz.  In between sequences of the four previously mentioned families explaining how they got to Harlem and why their children’s placement in the Academy is of the utmost importance (it’s mostly due to the vastly under-achieving public school system), Moskowitz’s own documented struggles with overseeing Harlem Success are equally intriguing.  When juxtaposed against the verbal assaults spat her way at a town hall meeting regarding the possible expansion of the Academy and the blatant disrespect she receives from a city council member who questions whether or not Moskowitz is really from Harlem (Hint: It’s not because she’s a Democrat), her day-to-day duties such as visiting parents houses to make sure their children arrive to school on time seems like a cake walk.

With the above-mentioned arcs pushing the story forward, the film does a great job of framing two primary questions: (1) Should public schools that routinely fail their students be held accountable/shut down?  (2) Should parents who cannot afford to send their children to private schools have the alternative choice of sending their child to a public charter school like Harlem Success Academy without having to romance Lady Luck?

As most issues of public importance generally are, both questions face resistance via a predominantly political gaze (Note: It is quite clear which side of the debate Sackler’s film resides).  Thus, while Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education Joel Klein may justify shutting down failing public schools by “viewing the school system as an education system for our children rather than a job system,” the labor unions which protect many of the employees of said schools see things a little differently.  In regards to the second question, as they are publically funded entities just like their public school counterparts, public charter schools such as Harlem Success face similar monetary/budget issues.  In short, while they suggest that they would be glad to accept each and every child who applies, space restrictions/limitations prevent them from doing so.  As a result, the demand far outweighs the supply (the film points out that approximately 365,000 children are currently waitlisted at charter schools nationwide), making necessary the annual lotteries like the one on display here.


There isn’t a ton in the way of available extras.  That said, a Q & A panel from the Tribeca Film Festival featuring director Madeleine Sackler, Eva Moskowitz, and Chancellor Joel Klein, is the jewel of the bonus materials which also include approximately 8 minutes of deleted scenes/interviews, press on The Lottery from publications such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Daily News, and the film’s theatrical trailer.


I should be clear.  If you’re looking for 80 minutes of escapism, The Lottery should not be your first choice (or your second…or third…you get the picture) for movie night.  Make no mistake, the film provides a thought provoking, emotional journey that forces you to contemplate the sociopolitical consequences of revamping the public education system as we know it.  Moreover, if you’re looking for a cable news-esque “fair and balanced” approach, you will not find it here (you won’t find it on cable news either, but I digress).  The debate itself is viewed almost entirely through the eyes of those who champion the spread of public charter schools save for when its opponents are caught acting generally unreasonable and, at times, overly aggressive.

Conversely, if the prospect of learning more about an immeasurably important issue that often loses camera time due to a nauseating amount of sensationalist partisanship seems interesting to you, The Lottery is definitely worth your time.  Furthermore, while Wolfgang Head’s cinematography (Brüno, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster) does a great job of depicting the all-too-often latent beauty of the Harlem/Washington Heights area, the stirring score (provided by experimental rockers TV on the Radio) really strikes a perfect balance recreating the reserved hope and utter helplessness that surrounds many of the film’s participants.

As I’m not in the business of delivering spoilers, I’ll refrain from discussing what happens to the four families who wish nothing more than for their children to have an opportunity to learn regardless of their zip code.  I will only say that, in many ways, the struggles and ideas that permeate The Lottery are ongoing with the film acting as more of a catalyst for debate than an “open-shut case.”  How the story of public education in America will play out really is anybody’s guess. At its best, The Lottery simply points out that, regardless of the outcome, it shouldn’t be left to the luck of the draw.

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