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Review: “The Lottery,” where winning really is everything.

Review: “The Lottery,” where winning really is everything.  (photo)

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Reviewed at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

If there’s one political issue that should be simple, it’s education. Everyone is for education; everyone agrees children deserve the best education possible. But trying to determine just how to give children that education is a sore subject, and that’s where the problems begin. The troubling documentary “The Lottery” shows how just how many sides to a one-sided issue there can be.

The titular contest in question happens every year in Harlem (and, I imagine, other areas like it around the country). Charter schools, like the one in the film named Harlem Success Academy, offer children in their area the opportunity for a better education and boast a higher literacy rate and better test scores than than the public schools in the same area.

Their technique, as one person describes it, flips the conventional educational model on its head: instead of a variable amount of achievement in a constant amount of time, the school makes time a variable (by extending both the school day and the school year) in order to make achievement the constant. The results, as bragged about many times throughout the film by Harlem Success founder Eva Moskowitz, speak for themselves.

However, space is limited, so the school holds a lottery every year to randomly select its incoming kindergarten class. If your name is chosen, you’re on your way to a great primary education, which then increases your chances to get into a better middle school, and high school, and college, and so on. If your name isn’t chosen, your chances at all of that decrease dramatically, all before you ever learn to read and write.

04302010_Lottery3.jpgShockingly, Harlem Success holds their lottery in a gymnasium where candidates come and watch the results announced live. If you’re lucky enough to be called, you come onto the stage receive a certificate (a literal and figurative golden ticket) and celebrate with the Harlem Success faculty. If you don’t get picked, you have to sit in the audience and watch your dreams die as other people gloat and celebrate.

Imagine having to find out if you got into your dream college in public, then multiply the potential anguish by a thousand times because these are five-year-old children getting their hopes crushed, in a system that is totally random and not based on merit. It’s pure insanity. Why rub the unlucky kids’ noses in the success of the winners? Why not just mail acceptance letters to the students who get in?

“The Lottery” follows four families with young children entered in this year’s lottery. Three live in one-parent homes. One has a father in prison; another has a mother living in Africa. Despite their circumstances though, all four kids seem bright, sweet, and full of potential, and that may be both the greatest tragedy and most powerful element of this film: watching it, we know that some or all of these children won’t win this lottery and the rest of their lives will be profoundly affected by it.

Director Madeleine Sackler contextualizes the contest by interviewing experts on education, including NYC Department of Education Chancellor Joel Klein and Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and takes us inside the roiling community meetings where Harlem residents argue passionately for and against charter schools. Most agree the system is deeply troubled.

So how to fix it? Sackler sides with the charter schools and with Moskowitz, who is portrayed as a crusading reformer, and comes down most heavily against the powerful United Federation of Teachers, the public school teachers’ union in New York City (which, full disclosure, my wife is a member of).

I don’t agree with all of Sackler’s arguments — my wife taught in Harlem for several years, and I don’t know that a charter school is any more well-equipped to handle many of the problems she faced than a public school — but she captures the passion and heartache of her four main subjects with empathy and clarity.

You may or may not agree that the public education system in this country is broken, but by the end of “The Lottery” there’s a very good chance your heart will be.

“The Lottery” will have a limited run on June 8th.

[Photos: “The Lottery,” Variance Films, 2010]

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Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

via GIPHY

Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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