The Harlem Success Academy is a charter school that holds a lottery every April. Thousands of people apply for their children to matriculate but only a handful will get accepted. The Lottery is a documentary that follows four families as they prepare but ultimately wait for that day in April when they'll learn if they can enroll or not. Director Madeleine Sackler never reveals how that lottery actually works. I suppose Eva Moskowitz who runs the Academy just randomly picks names out of a hat. The Academy may base its decisions on some kind of criteria but the audience is never privy to that.
The movie turns out instead to be a sympathy piece, which without much effort makes us feel sorry for the children in this area. Sackler starts with two startling statistics like "58 percent of black 4th graders are functionally illiterate" and the fact that of the children attending 23 zoned public schools, "Nineteen [schools] have fewer than 50 percent reading at grade level." This is clearly an epidemic.
As a sympathy piece, yes, Sackler shows us the victims and even presents possible villains like Randi Weingarten or the organization known as Acorn. The teachers' union and those who are against school vouchers are the bad guys and those who get aroused by charter schools are the heroes, and, according to this film, poor-performing schools should be shut down and teachers within them need to be fired immediately.
On Saturday Night Live on October 2nd, 2010, Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman participated in a skit that brought up the subject of education. Freeman starred in the 1989 film called Lean on Me. In that film, he played a real-life principal who went into a troubled school in New Jersey that was poor-performing and improved its conditions. Yes, his methods were controversial but he got results.
The premise of this documentary would seem to suggest that what that principal did in New Jersey is impossible in any of these schools in Harlem and that it's a foregone conclusion that these schools are horrible and will always be so. Therefore, they should be closed and charter schools, which allegedly perform better, should be bolstered.
The profiles of the four families are very well done. The interviews and the way they were edited are emotional and affecting. The commentary from various advocates and insiders paint a portrait of the problem. All of it creates a sense of fear and frustration about the entire situation. Even the music from Tunde Adebimbe was perfect. His song "Together in Line," which plays during the end credits, should get an Oscar nomination in my opinion.
The most interesting and dramatic moment is the testimony from Eva Moskowitz during a city council meeting. She simplifies the argument and makes a great case for her charter school. What she says here goes to the heart of what the movie is trying to do. Yet, the doc includes an interview Charlie Rose did with Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, and in that interview Rose brings up the idea of evaluating teachers. Weingarten didn't think standardized test results should be a gauge for evaluating teachers, but she only briefly went into what should be a gauge.
What this movie needed was more of an examination of those gauges. Despite Weingarten's insistence on Charlie Rose that there is accountability within the teachers' union, there is this perception as Rose states that actually there isn't. What this movie could have used is a look at that accountability because without it, many people are left just as the people in this documentary are left, waiting for their names to be called out of a hat.