Often effective on its own terms, which are frequently those of a feature-length infomercial, The Lottery insufficiently dares a more probing documentary approach in addressing the crises surrounding inner-city education. In profiling New York “public charter” school Harlem Success Academy, director Madeleine Sackler weaves a multi-strand narrative that hardly attempts to bore into the nuts-and-bolts of charter-school operation, aside from fleeting mention of lengthier teacher prep time and parental commitment to read six books a week to an enrolled child. Unlike Frederick Wiseman’s observant cinema vérité, nearly all the information here is in graduation-rate data titles and professional talking-head pitches for one system or the other.
The lottery of the title is the mandated means for Harlem Success to winnow the half-dozen applicants for every open student seat, a public springtime drawing that makes for readymade suspense and genuine heartbreak at the climax. But though the four first-grade hopefuls followed by Sackler’s camera are ingratiating, and their families engaging, the households are too briefly sketched with a few identifying characteristics (hearing-impaired mother, Ivory Coast-immigrant father, another dad incarcerated and remorseful) to register as more than edited-for-typecasting enclaves. Aside from parents’ expressions of fear that a new generation will be lost to a subpar education in Harlem’s traditional, statistics-damned public schools, most of the passion onscreen generates more heat than light. The charter school’s CEO Eva Moskowitz makes a persuasive case for the results of her publicly financed but independently run project; if her previous political career in the New York City Council, and oft-stated ambitions to be mayor, don’t de-legitimize her argument, why does the film ignore that background? (It would’ve clarified a Council hearing scene where Moskowitz is accused of lying about having Harlem roots by a Latina politician.)
The doc also sets up the non-union-contract working environment of charter schools as a heroic alternative to stasis perpetrated by the powerful United Federation of Teachers (whose tactics are labeled “thuggish”), but aside from some interview clips sliced up for comic effect, UFT allies are given little voice in rebutting charges that the union “protects academic failure.” Neighborhood skirmishes over Harlem Success inheriting a school building are similarly limited to sloganeering and shouting at a public hearing—ACORN even makes an appearance—as The Lottery manages to lose sight of the children at risk far too often.