Sunday 31 July 2022

Movie Review: Lean On Me (1989)

A high school biographical drama, Lean On Me is the story of one educator doggedly determined to make a positive difference.

In a prologue set in the late 1960s, Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey is a well-respected school. But idealistic teacher Joe Louis Clark (Morgan Freeman), also known as Crazy Joe, quits in disgust when accountants start influencing academic decisions.

Twenty years later, Eastside is a graffiti-covered hellhole of an inner city school beset by indiscipline and crime, with a high failure rate on state exams. Fearing political heat, Mayor Don Bottman (Alan North) reluctantly agrees with school superintendent Dr. Frank Napier (Robert Guillaume) to bring back Clark as Principal, with a mandate to improve academic performance.

Confident in his methods and deploying unbridled energy, Clark imposes a strict regime of discipline, kicking out all students involved in crime. He chains the side doors to prevent unauthorized entry, and demands unwavering adherence to the school's traditions and a focus on academic achievement. He gradually makes progress, but his uncompromising style antagonizes some parents and teachers, including Vice Principal Mrs. Joan Levias (Beverly Todd) and English teacher Mr. Darnell (Michael Beach). With the state exams rapidly approaching, a campaign to oust Clark gathers steam.

There is a lot of shouting in Lean On Me. The prologue hints at what is to come, with Clark expressing fury at the creeping reach of bean counters. But the volume only increases when he returns to Eastside High 20 years later, bullhorn in hand, and lets loose a demonstration of continuous hollering. Seeking results rather than admiration, Clark's leadership style is uncompromising, sparing no ears: students, teachers, parents, administrators, and politicians are all on the receiving end of his badgering. Some respond well, others buckle, and a few seeth.

Writer Michael Schiffer uses Clark's loud presence to push back against a seemingly hopeless situation. The principal's rescue mission appears impossible, but this is an underdog story, a specialty of director John G. Avildsen. As Clark gradually turns the school around and earns begrudging respect, Avildsen steers towards an unnecessary Hollywood ending, complete with dastardly villains and a large cheering crowd. The crowd-pleasing antics are juvenile and a disservice to the drama.

But thankfully, the story's underlying spirit rises above the embellishments, and the social subtext is powerful. With only a couple of exceptions Schiffer focuses on the collective rather than individual students, allowing Clark's achievements to carry far-reaching influence. Clark's man-on-a-mission intensity is fueled by an understanding of racial math. He uses society's low expectations to urge his underprivileged students (most of them Blacks or Hispanics) to rise above and give themselves a fighting chance for a better future in the world outside the school's walls. 

The enduring image of Lean On Me is of Morgan Freeman standing tall, bossing the halls, and dragging a once proud institution back to relevance by force of will. One man can make a difference - a bullhorn just makes the job easier.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here. 

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