When Lean on Me starts, we see Joe Clark (Morgan Freeman) teaching class at Eastside High School in 1967. His students are intelligent, well-groomed, and well-behaved. He quits because the teachers’ union has sold out to the school board or something vague like that. Twenty years later, the school 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.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention one more difference: all the clean-cut, intelligent students in the school in 1967 are white; most of the students in the school twenty years later are African American, with some Latinos, and a mere handful of whites. When I first saw this, I wondered if the movie had been produced by the Ku Klux Klan, because it comes across as a racist’s worst nightmare. But since the story is true, I guess those were the facts, and the people making the movie just went with it. I guess it also helped that Clark was African American himself, which offset the racist implications. 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 a whole bunch of students. Anybody could straighten out a school with dictatorial powers like that. Think how much Glenn Ford could have accomplished in Blackboard Jungle if he could have expelled Vic Morrow and his gang on the second day of class. Of course Clark succeeds with the remainder of the students, and all is well.
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. Very clever, Hollywood.