The Lottery (2010) – By Cary Conley

Imagine for a second that your 5-year-old child was entered into a lottery. If the child wins, he or she will be lavished with attention and rewarded generously. An excellent education and terrific job prospects are virtually guaranteed. However, if your child is not one of the chosen few, then he or she will be relegated to the streets, virtually forgotten, with few realistic chances at improving his or her life. Is this lottery the latest demented idea from Stephen King or Wes Craven or the hot new screenplay that has just been picked up by a major Hollywood studio?

The answer is, unfortunately, no. The lottery is real and is played out in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood every summer just before school starts. While New York City’s gargantuan public school system has been in a famous state of disrepair for decades, Harlem’s public schools have consistently ranked at the bottom rung of the city’s school ladder for so long it has almost become a tradition. Enter Eva Moskowitz, founder of a very successful charter school in Harlem. While 37%–or less—of Harlem’s public school children are reading on grade level, Moskowitz’s school boasts a 100% pass rate on state exams. It’s no wonder that nearly 3,000 Harlem families enter the charter school’s lottery each year even though less than 10 percent of these families will be chosen.

The Lottery is a documentary that follows several families for nearly a year as they await the upcoming charter school lottery event, hoping and praying that fate will intervene and allow their children to attend a successful school instead of one of the local public schools. Four families are followed: a single mother who is deaf and her daughter; an immigrant from the Ivory Coast and his son; another single mother and her son, whose father is serving life in prison due to New York’s “three strikes” law; and a family whose son may suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder and who know that attending the public school likely spells a death penalty for his education. All are black and all could be characterized as lower-middle class or even poor on the socioeconomic scale.

Director Madeleine Sackler does a terrific job of portraying each family without using heavy-handed sterotyping. All of the families that are being followed are African-American and obviously not wealthy. None of the adults have graduated from college. There are some single-parent households as well as one broken by prison. But each family is loving and each family cares deeply for the other members. While the adults might not have had many opportunities presented to them, they want their children to have better choices. The message is clear: wealth and color don’t have to be chains that bind; if these families, with all their warts, can love their children and fight for a better future for them, then something else must be wrong with the American education system.

Mixed with interviews with these four families as they await their fate are interviews with Moskowitz, state and local policymakers, and both public and charter school teachers. The issue is a lightning rod for controversy in Harlem. On the one side are the advocates for charter schools that point to failed reform after failed reform and abysmal performances by the public schools for decades. It is a pattern of failure that these people blame on a system that has become too large to drive effectively. Others see the charter schools as an attack on “the system,” a system that they feel has generally worked for well over a hundred years. They view the charter schools and their advocates as enemies bent on destroying Harlem from the inside out. It doesn’t help that Moskowitz, as well as the majority of the teachers at the charter schools—are white.

Both sides are passionate as they defend their viewpoints, and director Sackler does a good job of trying to keep the film objective, presenting both sides of the story. But in the end, it is hard to defend the advocates of the public schools. Their arguments are shallow (teachers will lose their jobs; we take everyone, the charter schools get to choose their students, etc.) and their attacks are spiteful. During an intense scene, the neighborhood comes together for a community meeting that will determine whether a newly closed (for poor performance) public school will be given to the charter school system. The city council hears heated testimony. The public school advocates shout and scream and stomp their feet while the charter school advocates speak quietly and eloquently, often near tears. Moskowitz is attacked by members of the city council who find her comments that the public school “deserved to be closed” offensive. She is even accused of lying by one council member when she states she lives in Harlem. As a director, no matter how hard one tries to be fair and balanced, sometimes one side can’t help but expose itself as a poser.

The argument between these two factions has been a long one and is taking place in communities across the country. It is a timely topic as we hear Obama continuously calling for an expansion of charter schools in the U.S. But regardless of which side you choose, this is a fascinating and heartrending film as we watch the families of these children fighting desperately for their kids. The Lottery is a must see for anyone who already has children or grandchildren—or plan to—in school.