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Case Number 19513: Small Claims Court

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The Lottery

Great Curve Films // 2010 // 80 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // August 19th, 2010

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All Rise...

A documentary about public education may sound tedious, but Judge David Johnson was floored by this film.

The Charge

Right now, your zip code determines your destiny. It shouldn't be that way.

Opening Statement

Heartbreaking and illuminating, The Lottery will change the way you think about public education.

Facts of the Case

I apologize for the framing of that previous sentence. "Change the way you think" is an annoyingly overused cliché and the first sign that the writer is looking for some DVD cover quote loving…but it absolutely applies here.

Four families have entered "The Lottery," a drawing that provides the winning kids entry into a Harlem charter school. The families' lives are juxtaposed with a look at the political and cultural fallout that surrounds the charter school movement, specifically Harlem Academy, a successful educational enterprise that has both excited and angered residents. In addition, Director Madeliene Sackler takes a holistic look at the ails of the broken public education system.

If the results don't piss you off, then you probably work for ACORN.

The Evidence

On the surface, a documentary about charter schools may not sound sexy, but The Lottery peels back some interesting—and frankly upsetting—stuff. Sackler certainly comes down on the side of charter schools, though to her credit, she gives the other side ample time to state their case. They may hang themselves with their words and actions, but it doesn't look like anything was ripped out of context. My favorite: an assemblywoman embarrasses herself by questioning whether the charter school spokesperson actually lives in Harlem, and demands that she provide the street address.

What are charter schools? Public-funded alternatives to traditionally zoned public schools. Charter schools like Harlem Academy are given finite timelines to deliver results and held accountable; if they fail, they're out of business and everyone is out of a job. If a teacher sucks, he's gone. And—this is the kicker—the teachers and administrators do not belong to the union. This seems to be the thorn that's really getting politicians and protestors ticked off.

Teacher's unions take a monster beating in The Lottery. From a successful lawsuit that prevented Harlem Academy moving into a dilapidated public school (thus preventing more kids from getting in through the lottery) and the busing in of bleating protestors represented by the now-defunct ACORN, to the vocal representation that shows up on their behalf at public hearings and scream emotional nonsense, these unions are about as sympathetic as Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) in No Country for Old Men.

Good on The Lottery for kicking these guys in the balls. And good on Democrat Newark Mayor Cory Booker, as he forcefully endorses charter schools, educational reform, and the rest of the spotlighted politicians and activists who risk alienating a powerful political force. I was pumped by this movie. As you may infer, I'm not a huge fan of teacher's unions and dig the charter school concept with full-throated support. Teaching at the high school level, I was privy to the kind of dead weight that littered the classrooms because it's near impossible to fire a crap teacher (according to the film, the average taxpayer cost is $350,000 to execute a severance).

But no interview, public hearing footage, or text crawl can tell the tale of a malformed education system and the allure of the charter school like the film's final sequence with hundreds of families packed into a gymnasium hoping beyond hope their name is called in the lottery. Absolutely gut-wrenching.

The DVD sports a clean 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, stereo sound, deleted scenes and footage from the Q&A panel at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Closing Statement

I don't care what side of the ideological aisle you may reside: The Lottery will hit your preconceptions of the public education bureaucracy with a sledgehammer. A fantastic documentary.

The Verdict

Not Guilty. Court adjourned.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 96

Perp Profile

Studio: Great Curve Films
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 80 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary

Distinguishing Marks

• Deleted Scenes
• Featurettes


• IMDb
• Official Site

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