Waiting for Superman, a new documentary film about the public school system in the United States, opens with plenty of hype and media buzz. The provocative film is directed by Davis Guggenheim, who made both Barack Obama’s short for the 2008 Democratic Convention and Al Gore’s Academy Award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth.
Billionaire Bill Gates recently included a stop at the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Toronto International Film Festival on his media tour to promote the film. Gates and other supporters of the film have challenged the public to visit the movie’s website and pledge to see the film. Nearly 100,000 people have pledged to see the film across the U.S.
Waiting for Superman joins a long list of documentaries that have drawn attention to social issues with the hope of influencing public opinion and generating public discourse. Here are three top documentaries that have had an important influence upon the common culture:
When Errol Morris released his film The Thin Blue Line in 1988, it opened in only one theater. However, the film about Randall Dale Adams went on to become one of the highest-grossing and most influential documentary films of all time. While conducting research on Dr. James Grigson, a psychiatrist who testified in more than 100 death sentence trials, Morris became suspect of Randall Adams’ guilt in a Texas murder. In interviews with Morris, five witnesses in Adams’ trial admitted to committing perjury. Adams was released from prison less than a year after the film’s release. The film is widely credited with creating the format for crime scene investigation dramatizations and reenactments wildly popular in television programs and movies today.
The film received a 100 percent fresh rating from the website Rotten Tomatoes and won Best Documentary honors from the New York Film Critics Circle, National Board of Review, and the National Society of Film Critics. The film also won Morris a MacArthur Fellowship Genius Grant and placed #2 on the International Documentary Association’s list of the Top 25 Documentaries of All-Time.
As loved as he is loathed, documentary filmmaker and social critic Michael Moore attracts attention even in a room filled with the Hollywood elite. His 2002 film, Bowling for Columbine, about the Columbine High School massacre, attracted hoards of media buzz before opening nationally. Scenes of Moore receiving a gun after opening a deposit account in a bank and attempting to receive a refund from K-Mart for the bullets still lodged in victims’ bodies from the massacre shocked audiences worldwide. The film sharply criticizes a thread of institutionalized violence and racial bigotry that permeates the national character of the U.S.. The film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary, the 55th Anniversary Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and placed third in the International Documentary Association’s Top 25 Documentaries of All-Time list.
Few films have had as much influence on global geopolitics as Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series of propaganda documentary films. Capra was commissioned by the U.S. government during WWII to create a series of films that demonstrated to U.S. soldiers the purpose for war. The films were a direct response to Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. After President Franklin D. Roosevelt saw the first film, Prelude to War, he ordered the films be distributed to the American public. Over 54 million Americans had seen the films by the end of the conflict.
Each film ends with a quote from George Marshall saying “no compromise is possible and the victory of the democracies can only be complete with the utter defeat of the war machines of Germany and Japan.” Lowell Mellot, a Roosevelt aid who oversaw the project, raised concerns that the films might be dangerous-that the hysteria promoted in the films could echo through the American public without restraint.
An Even More Inconvenient Truth, Wall Street Journal
Waiting For Superman.com
Heather Bosch, Bill Gates wants better schools, KIRO Radio
International Documentary Association
Why We Fight at Internet Archives
Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black, Hollywood Goes to War, University of California Press