Advocacy to the point of propaganda, “The Lottery” takes on this year’s documentary topic of choice — education — and creates a virtual PSA for charter schools in general, and New York’s celebrated Harlem Success Academies in particular. There’s no lack of drama in helmer Madeleine Sackler’s character-rich docu, despite its conventional structure: The statistics are dire, the reformed schools perform miracles and children’s destinies ride on a figurative roll of the dice. But despite the universality of its subject, “The Lottery” is a tale lopsidedly told. Exposure, including a theatrical tour that kicked off June 11 in Gotham, will be limited.
It’s hard to fault a film that campaigns on behalf of children, especially children as ill-served as the ones trapped in the New York school system depicted here. In the city’s entrenched bureaucracy — portrayed as the Frankenstein monster of collective bargaining — two factors predominate: the teacher’s union and race. Fifty-eight percent of black fourth graders are illiterate, we’re told (just one of the many troubling figures). And in 2008, the year in which the film takes place, only 10 out of 55,000 tenured teachers were fired. Given the first factor, the second seems ludicrous, but as one educator explains, the 600-page teacher’s contract is the controlling document for the city school day, and firing a bad teacher ends up costing the city $250,000. The result: stasis.
So it’s no surprise that the Harlem Success Academies, with their sterling record of academic achievement, attract 3,000 applicants for the 475 places available. It’s an imbalance that forces the lottery of the title, in which some hearts will sing, and others will be broken. As in Davis Guggenheim’s upcoming (and far better, more balanced) “Waiting for Superman,” we meet a selection of tiny scholars-in-waiting and the anxious parents peering over their shoulders. As your mom used to say, someone’s going to get hurt.
Sackler also gives us mini-profiles in courage among the crusaders for reform, notably of Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO of the umbrella Success Charter Networks. Possessed of an uncannily even temperament and sharp intelligence, Moskowitz has to deal with stupidity, corruption, community resistance to what’s perceived as the gentrifying influence of her schools and, in some cases, pure racism: Appearing before the New York City Council, she’s practically asked to apologize for being a white woman living in Harlem.
But Sackler is so obviously on Moskowitz’s side, and assumes we are, too, that she neglects to explain what political concerns (such as union support) are motivating Moskowitz’s enemies (none of whom are interviewed here); nor does the director clearly explain other issues that come to the fore. An attempt by the overcrowded Success schools to take over an underpopulated Harlem school building is met with fierce resistance during a public meeting, with some of the anti-Success crowd virtually foaming at the mouth. (You want their children, if they have any, taken away immediately.) It’s unclear what their point is, or whether they even have one.
The sentiments of “The Lottery” are so obviously skewed toward the Harlem Success version of educational reform that you start to question everything — which is too bad, because the charter-school advocates are clearly devoted to fixing something that’s obviously broken. Sackler thinks they need a lot of help, but they probably need less than she provides.
Production values are first-rate, notably the work of d.p. Wolfgang Held.