Lean on Me (1989)

Before the movie Lean on Me begins, there is a prologue.  This one, however, is not exculpatory, just a statement to the effect that what we are about to see is a true story.  When the movie proper starts, we see Joe Clark (Morgan Freeman) teaching class at Eastside High School in 1967. His students are intelligent, well-groomed, and well-behaved. The boys wear dress shirts with neckties.  He quits because the teachers union has sold out to the school board or something vague like that. Twenty years later, he is the principal of a grade school, where gum stuck under the desk is what passes for a discipline problem.  Back at Eastside High, however, the situation has become so bad it makes the one in Blackboard Jungle (1955) look like the Blackboard Tropical Rainforest. The students are the meanest, most vicious bunch of high-school hoodlums ever displayed on the big screen.  So, whereas in Blackboard Jungle, there was a contrast between two different schools at the same time, here the contrast is between the same school at two different times.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention one more difference:  much like the good school in Blackboard Jungle, all the clean-cut, intelligent students in Eastside High in 1967 were white; most of the students in the school twenty years later are black, many are brown, and a mere handful are white.

When I first started watching this movie, I wondered if the movie had been produced by the Ku Klux Klan, because it comes across as a racist’s worst nightmare, a depiction of what happens when you let those that aren’t white take over. But since the story is true, I guess those were the facts, and the people making the movie just went with it. And it helped that Clark was African American himself, which offset the racist implications. And while we are on the subject, you know that grade school with the bubblegum problem?  All those children were white as well.

Anyway, when Clark is asked to become the principal to help improve the students’ test scores, I wondered how he could possibly do anything with them. Well, I don’t want to take anything away from Clark, but not only does he have a bunch of burly security guards with him when he arrives, but on the second day, he also expels all the troublemakers. Anybody could straighten out a school with dictatorial powers like that. Think how much Dadier could have accomplished in Blackboard Jungle if, backed up by his own goon squad, he could have expelled West and his gang on the second day of class. And teachers that don’t do exactly what Clark tells them to do are suspended or fired at will.  By the time he is through, this school doesn’t even have a bubblegum problem.  In the end, the remaining students, who are still mostly black and brown, are seen to be basically good students that end up doing well on their test scores.  This counteracts any suggestion there may have been that the problems with Eastside High was that the students were no longer white.  But if the movie has ceased to be an argument for white supremacy, it has now become an argument for fascism.

Toward the end, a girl tells him she is pregnant, and he tells her he will talk to her about it later. We never hear that conversation or find out what she did about it. That way those who are pro-life can imagine her keeping the baby or giving it up for adoption, and those who are pro-choice can imagine her having an abortion. Hollywood has always known how to have things both ways.

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