An Analysis of The Lottery

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The Lottery is a compelling and thought-provoking documentary directed by Madeleine Sackler.  It came out in 2010 and since then has generated a large amount of controversy and debate.  The film follows four families from the Harlem and Bronx who have entered their child in the charter school lottery. The charter school that is highlighted is the Harlem Success Academy, which has gained recognition in the New York City area due to its impressive results. Charter schools must be tuition-free and accept children based on a lottery system to ensure that everyone has an equal chance of being admitted. Harlem Success Academy has two schools (named one and two, respectively), but because of a limited number of seats many more children miss out on receiving this unique charter-school experience. The Lottery begins by introducing these four children and their families, and then segues into the work of Eva Moskowitz, the founder of the Harlem Success Academy, as she attempts to expand the Academy into more low-income communities and the challenges she faces while doing so. The film also goes into detail about the strained relationship between teacher unions and charter schools, as well as those who are against allowing charter-schools to be a publicly funded alternative to traditional district public schools. There are many interesting interviews with charter-school advocates and employees of district schools.

The overarching theme of The Lottery is the importance of equal education for all children, regardless of race or socioeconomic status. The film highlights the substantial achievement gap between African American children and white, upper to middle class, children. It is clear that Sackler created this documentary to expose the problems that exist within public schools systems and the strict regulations that they are force to follow. It is fervently against teachers’ unions, and portrays them as one of the major obstacles holding back student achievement on all levels. One particularly compelling moment in the film begins at 20.15, when then union president Randi Weingarten is interviewed on Charlie Rose. When asked if the statistic that out of 55,000 teachers working in the education sector, only 10 were fired, is true, she denied it on all accounts. There was a clear disconnect between the interviewer and Weingarten, which was highlighted by Sackler’s directive touch. After the short segment, the screen shifted to black and was filled by the words, “According to the Department of Education, of 55,000 tenured teachers, 10 were fired in 2008” (The Lottery 20.33), which directly contradicted what Weingarten said moments earlier. This was a powerful part of the film, and cemented it in a clearly anti-union light.

Randi Weingarten, President of the teachers' union, is interviewed (The Lottery 20.15).

Moskowitz is portrayed as the clear protagonist amongst many other people that come in and out of the film advocating for charter schools. The obstacles she faces as the leader of the charter school movement are carefully depicted throughout the film. At 29.44, a segment begins with Moskowitz speaking at a public hearing in order to try and move Harlem Success Academy 2 into the space of PS 194, which had recently shutdown and labeled due to its failing status. She is attacked by several community members who do not want a charter school to move into the neighborhood, as well as local politicians who question whether she is actually a resident of Harlem. Sackler carefully constructs this segment to portray Moskowitz as the victim who is confronted by challenge after challenge, all because she wants to implement a school that educates students no matter what the circumstances are.

There is no doubt that The Lottery is extremely one-sided in its take on the hype surrounding charter schools.  It is opinionated and conveys the message that the underlying solution to the problems facing education is charter school implementation. The film’s final plea to its audience is to support great schools in the community, and to Sackler great schools come in the form of charter schools. One of the most profound quotes within the film that illuminates the importance of charter schools comes at 46.37 when Cory Booker, elected mayor of Newark, New Jersey, states that we should “make time the variable and achievement the constant,” (The Lottery) as charter schools do with their lengthened school day and year. The Lottery is uplifting in the sense that it provides a promising solution to public school education and establishes a clear villain—teachers’ unions. However, this biased approach naturally leaves several holes in the documentary and omits other possible solutions or problems that contribute to the large achievement gap and low graduation rates within inner-city schools.

The film fails to mention the negative results of charter schools, or what the possible effects of planting a charter school in the middle of a traditional neighborhood could be on the surrounding community. The problems that having a lottery system that admits students and essentially determines their academic success is problematic as well, and a theme the film only briefly mentions. The portrayal of the union as the enemy is also complex. Though the limited evidence the film brings up is interesting and undeniably supports charter school implementation, there are other issues that contribute to failing public schools. Insufficient funds, unsatisfactory teachers, and larger policy-related issues are not addressed, as William Tate addresses in his review of the film. He states that, “While no studies are presented in the documentary, there are plenty of descriptive statistics tossed about” (Tate 2). There is a lack of research and studies that support Sackler’s claims, and while testimonies are incredibly moving, it is easy to see how The Lottery generated so much debate when it was first shown. The depiction of the Harlem Success Academy is unbalanced, and we are shown very little of the success or results of these charter schools compared to their district counterparts.

Works Cited:

Tate, William. Rev. of The Lottery, directed by Madeleine Sackler. Web. 2 Feb. 2013

The Lottery. Dir. Madeleine Sackler. Great Curve Films, 2010. Online.

2 thoughts on “An Analysis of The Lottery”

  1. Hi Lydia,

    I appreciated your post. I wanted to comment on a line that you included: “The overarching theme of The Lottery is the importance of equal education for all children, regardless of race or socioeconomic status. The film highlights the substantial achievement gap between African American children and white, upper to middle class, children.”

    In the film that I watched, Race to Nowhere, there is a particular scene where one teacher mentions her desire to break the barriers that arise because of Socioeconomic status (SES) and to allow her students to realize their full academic potential. This was important because her personal education philosophy was being clouded by the goals and demands of the school district. I believe that educators who genuniely believe in their students can help to close this achievement gap. Students who feel that they are cared about in the classroom are more willing to ask questions, interact with peers and not shy away from concepts that they do not understand. Good teachers, especially those who are members of unions, should not be vilified because of their professional memberships, especially if they are making strides to instill a love of learning into their students.


  2. This video analysis offers several thoughtful insights into key scenes in the director’s construction of The Lottery (particularly the Weingarten and Moskowitz scenes), as well as the portrayal of a “clear villain” without deeper thought into the broader consequences of charter schools. The external source by William Tate is very appropriate, but the incomplete citation does not supply sufficient information for a reader like me to find the original.

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