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Lean on Me [Movie Review]


Lean on Me is a 1989 film about Joe Clark, a high school principal who was put in charge of a school that was underperforming academically while also struggling with multiple other issues. Morgan Freeman stars as Clark, a fictionalized version of the real-life principal of Patterson, New Jersey’s Eastside High School. In the 1980s, Clark gained notoriety for the disciplined and almost tyrannical methods that he used in an attempt to turn the school around.


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Show Notes

The film opens in 1967 at Eastside High, which at that time appeared to be a predominantly White school. Clark is leading his class in a trivia game based on history and civics and the students are very engaged. The school looks very clean and well put together from the exterior and the interior looks well maintained. It looks like a normal school. Unfortunately, there’s an issue between Clark, the other teachers, and the union that leads to him walking off the job.

Fast forward about 20 years to the 1980s and the school is in terrible shape. The hallways are dark and dank and there’s graffiti all over the walls. Many things are broken down and the school overall looks poorly maintained. As the camera moves through the school it becomes clear that the school’s demographics have largely changed. Most of the students are Black with some Hispanic and White kids mixed in.

The cafeteria looks like something you see in prison movies and there are multiple instances of violence. A teacher is viciously attacked while trying to break up a fight between students. There’s an incident in the dilapidated girls’ bathroom where a White or Hispanic girl is in the bathroom and a group of Black girls come in and begin beating her up before ripping off her clothes and forcing her to run out into the hallway. These scenes help to drive home the point that in 20 years the school has undergone drastic changes to its student body and the school environment itself.

I’ve seen Lean on Me multiple times but this is something that I only noticed this time around. During previous viewings, I don’t think I’d seen the first few opening minutes but rather from the point in the 80s when the school was a mess. This is realistic in the sense that some schools would have undergone this change as communities changed during this time. Especially because this was a public school where the student body is largely composed of the students that live nearby.

I don’t know what it’s called in other areas but when I was attending school in New York you had what’s referred to as your “zone school”. This is the local public school to which you would be assigned based on your home address. For most kids, your home address would determine what schools you would attend from elementary through at least junior high. Students could attend their zone high school but also had the option to apply to other schools around the city based on their interests and/or performance on the science high school exam. I only attended a zone school during elementary as I attended a private pre-school and my mom was adamant that I attend specialty schools outside of my neighborhood for junior high and high school.

From the 60s to the 80s and even probably before that, you would have had some changes with regards to the race and ethnic makeup of communities. Around the country, White flight resulted in some neighborhoods that had been primarily White becoming more diverse or even primarily Black. In more recent years gentrification has changed the demographic makeup of some formerly predominantly Black neighborhoods. Given the period in which Lean on Me takes place, it’s therefore believable that these changes in the student body could have occurred.

But what I take issue with is the idea that not only has the student body changed but the school has gone from a seemingly nice place to send your kids in the 60s to a rundown hellhole in the 80s. You’re shown the dramatic shift in students and the school building without any real context. Nothing is explicitly stated or explained at the outset but instead, the viewer is left to come to their own conclusions.

My frame of reference is New York, Brooklyn to be exact, and there were what we referenced as “bad schools” (ex: Prospect Heights, Clara Barton, Erasmus, etc.). I have family members who attended these schools in the 1980s and 1990s and have heard the stories of these schools and others being very wild at the time.

Maybe my perspective is skewed but I found it hard to believe that a school would be an around-the-clock war zone as shown here. As I watched, the overall story wasn’t beyond belief but I still had a hard time believing that some of the details happened. But then I started thinking about my own experiences and things I’ve heard from others. The real story of the school was bad but I assume that some liberties were also taken.

I’ve heard from family members about students bringing box cutters, knives, or a gun to school. And I remember my classmate bringing his grandfather’s gun to school when we were in the 3rd or 4th grade. (Not that it makes it any better but his intent wasn’t to threaten or harm anyone but rather just to show it to the other boys and shoot cans. It could have resulted in a very unfortunate accident but luckily nobody was hurt.)

The opening scenes seemed like something out of a prison movie. And even prisons aren’t in a constant state of rioting. With no context, I raised an eyebrow at what was being implied about the school’s condition since its change in demographics. Honestly, what are you trying to say? I was less curious about the what of the school’s condition and more concerned with how it became so run down.

I could believe that you might have kids who are drug dealers and/or selling drugs in school. But the young man dealing drugs (and I use the term “young” loosely) doesn’t look like any high school student I’ve ever seen. He looks like he’s lived a long and full life and probably should have graduated several years ago. I went to high school with a few guys who had full beards. But this drug dealer guy looked like a grown man.

Maybe it’s a matter of casting movies where characters who are supposed to be teenagers are played by adults skewing what we think people should look like at particular ages. Thus you end up with this weird thing of teenagers looking incredibly old. If he is then selling drugs for the older guy in the suit, why would that guy need to enter the school? If he’s not there about a particular student, wouldn’t the older dealer look out of place with his suit and briefcase?

Some of the kids aren’t misbehaving but they are struggling academically. Yet, the behavior of others is disruptive. And it goes beyond just constantly starting fights. I know several former classmates who work in education but I have never worked in that field. I don’t fully understand how school boards function or the typical procedures for expelling students. But I imagine that it would likely be a lot easier to manage these poorly performing schools if you could round up the problematic students and kick them out with the stroke of a pen. I highly doubt it works like that in reality.

Let’s say that some of these students have been at the school for five years. Being able to cherry-pick and dismiss your problem children within just a few hours or even days of taking over a school would make teaching and keeping the school secure a lot easier. But that’s not how things work in the real world. I would then question what happens after you expel these kids? What will that do to the community when you have this mass of kids who were causing trouble in school but they’re now running around the neighborhood unsupervised?

And before anyone starts complaining, I do acknowledge that Black people in America have been disadvantaged, underserved, and discriminated against. Poverty and a lack of resources for communities and public schools contribute to a lot of the problems that we see. I give kids some leeway as they typically lack maturity due to a lack of life experience but none of these factors excuse an individual’s bad behavior. It might explain why they’re getting into trouble but doesn’t absolve them from accountability for their actions.

At the same time, Lean on Me was a bit too simplistic in its handling of these issues. There are a lot of problems going on at the school and the students should be doing better. Yet, Lean on Me focuses on the what and fails to explain how and why the school deteriorated so drastically. There seems to be some initially unspoken commentary going on here as the school is shown in contrast of being predominantly White versus predominantly Black. Without providing context, it seems to be saying that the school building was pristine and its academic performance was excellent when the students were White but that all changed when the student body became mostly Black.

I’m not saying that the school doesn’t have problems or that the kids should just be allowed to run wild. But rather that the presentation of these issues is problematic. Back in the 60s when there were seemingly only White students, the school was clean and the kids were well-behaved and engaged. Fast forward to the 80s when the student body is now predominantly Black and it’s “Welcome to the Jungle”. The kids are causing all kinds of raucous and it’s like the inmates have taken over the asylum.

Tasked with whipping the school and students into shape, one of Clark’s first acts of business is dismissing the students who have been identified as the real trouble makers. These are the kids who are selling drugs, being violent, or otherwise being incredibly disruptive. While meeting with the teachers and administrators, Clark explains how things will function under his regime.

It turns out that the real Joe Clark was a former military man which explains his demeanor and communication style being reminiscent of a drill sergeant. He makes it clear that this is not a democracy but rather a dictatorship and the staff is expected to follow his orders. Clark then holds an assembly during which he dismisses the students who have been identified as especially problematic.

Another indicator of the school’s change in direction is that Clark orders the removal of the security gates and barricades. He explains that it’s essentially caging the students and treating them like animals will encourage them to behave like animals. It’s a valid point. If the school environment looks ominous and dangerous. Who would feel motivated and optimistic in such a setting?

But then at the same time, you get up on stage and tell the kids that if they fail in life it’s not their parents’ fault, it’s not the White man’s fault, it’s their fault? I both agree and disagree with that statement.

It’s true when you’re in school wasting time and not taking getting an education seriously. A lot of kids focus on having a great time but fail to realize that in many cases getting an education plays an important role in your future. Sure you can go to school and get an education but things happen and life doesn’t go according to plan. Life is hard and expensive, thus people, especially Black people, need all the advantages and opportunities they can get. You’re doing yourself a great disservice by choosing to pass up the opportunity to get an education, especially if it’s free. This is a message that I’ve seen in quite a few movies.

Looking at Lean on Me and the name of the screenwriter I had a feeling the person who wrote the script wasn’t Black. I got what they were trying to do by showing the school’s turnaround versus where it started. But through this commentary, it’s clear that there is an agenda being pushed here. I gave Lean on Me a bit of a side-eye as this is a predominantly Black school yet this is the approach that is being taken to address these issues at the school.

I get holding the kids responsible for getting their school work done and not being disruptive. But this also seems to be absolving the parents, school system, and the broader community for their lack of involvement. It seems to be stating right off the bat that this is not a racial issue. And maybe it’s not. But I was still curious to know how this school with predominantly Black students wound up in this condition.

The mayor was concerned about the school underperforming and causing issues with his budget. But the school didn’t develop all of these issues in a year. What has been taking place or had not been taking place in those 20 years to result in such a drastic change? How did the school come to be like this? There’s no conversation about that. Much of Lean on Me is like after-school special territory. It came across as though an agenda was being pushed and I wasn’t buying it.

These kids go home and what do they tell their parents? If they ask why you’re at home in the middle of the day, you might have to tell them you’ve been kicked out of school. We don’t know what’s going on in these kids’ homes. How engaged are the parents in their kid’s education if they’re at the point of being flagged for expulsion? Are the parents having issues themselves? Are these kids raising themselves? It’s a mass of students so we don’t know their individual situations as far as what is going on that’s causing them to act out in school. None of that excuses their behavior but it might offer some guidance for dealing with these issues at present and in the future.

Having met with the staff and students, later in the day he meets with the parents. Some of the parents’ concerns are valid. An important point to address is what exactly is the plan if you take these kids and kick them out of the school. It’s not enough to just say well you know these are problem children and let’s get rid of them. You can separate them from the kids that are going to come to school and do what they have to do without causing problems. But something has to be done with the problem kids as well.

It’s broken down that there are 3,000 kids at the school. 300 of those kids or 10% of the students are the real trouble makers. The other 2,700 or 90% aren’t causing any real problems but a relatively large percentage are struggling academically. You can’t allow 10% of students to disrupt the school and make it difficult for the 90% to get an education. Thus I can see the logic in identifying and separating them. But some type of conversation still needs to be held about what happens with those students who have been identified as being problems. Kicking them out of the school resolves some problems for his specific school but not the school district or community.

Imagine you’re a teacher with 30 students in your class and behavior-wise, most of the class isn’t a problem. But there are three students constantly disrupting the class by playing, talking, throwing furniture around, and bullying other kids. You can’t allow that handful of students to disrupt the learning experience for the rest. The needs of those 27 kids can’t be sacrificed for these three problematic children. In that instance, I understand them being pulled out of the class. If you are being a disruption we have to consider the greater good for the class and what would be beneficial to most of the kids. That might mean suspending you, suspending you until your parent comes in, or even expelling you.

But there’s a process for all of that and a conversation would need to be had about what is going to happen. Thus there should have been a conversation beforehand or even just a plan for what would be done with the 300 kids who have been expelled. To be clear, I’m not saying don’t pull them out of class or even expel them from school. But what’s the plan for them going forward as they are still students within the school district.

Where I did take issue was with Clark making assumptions about the kids and their parents. I could see pointing out to the parents that they seemed unconcerned when their kids were carrying on and only got involved after their kids were kicked out. But that’s assuming that administrators and/or teachers were at least attempting to provide progress reports and have meetings with the parents. As a parent, you need to be involved with your kids’ education and know what’s going on with them at school. Are they doing their homework? Are they going to class? Are they doing what they need to do in school to ensure that they’re getting a proper education? If a parent is falling short in being engaged these are perfectly valid points to make.

But where I drew the line was Clark telling the parents that they need to get their families off of welfare and teach their kids some pride. If you’ve just returned to this school and don’t know these kids or their parents, how do you know that they’re on welfare? Why are you making that assumption? And even if they are on welfare, you don’t know anything about their circumstances.

That says a lot about how you view these kids. If they’re on welfare it likely means that their family is going through some kind of issue and they need a bit of extra financial assistance. It’s like saying your family is poor and getting some help from the government but you need to stop accepting that assistance to teach your kids pride. That kind of rhetoric is divorced from reality and incredibly tone-deaf. It reads like something said or written by someone who has no idea what they’re talking about or is being purposefully obtuse because it fits their agenda.

That’s like telling someone you need to stop being poor so that your kids can be properly prepared for more in life. If it’s that easy why don’t you help them not be poor? It’s ridiculous to tell these parents that their kids would do better in school if they weren’t on welfare as they’d have more pride in themselves. It is a twisted way of viewing the situation. It’s completely different from stating that these kids might have low self-esteem because of being poor and the raggedy condition of their school and neighborhood. They might be playing around in school because they’re distracted by other things in their lives and/or feel like there is no point in focusing on school because they fail to realize how it might benefit them in the long term.

Clark sounds a bit like Bill Cosby and his poundcake speech and other later commentaries. They both lecture Black people about how to improve their lives by being more respectable and accountable. I do believe that the world functions better when people treat themselves and others with respect. Being responsible and holding yourself accountable to standards is part of being an adult. But I also feel like some people harp on those things as a means of shifting attention from the real issues.

These tend to come across as speeches about Black people but not necessarily with the intent of speaking to Black people. I’ve always gotten the sense that Black people are not the intended audience. This was the late 1980s where Black people were just beginning to have more consistent representation in media. But there were still fewer movies being made about Black people in comparison to White people. As White people are the majority of America’s population, most films are made with them in mind. And here you have Lean on Me with a Black man uttering the many talking points that are used to explain away the problems faced by Black people.

Now, that school song was boring but aside from that Clark was flexing and there was no real reason to fire the music teacher. But then you have Michael Beach’s character, Mr. Darnell, the football coach and I think he was also the math teacher. That unfortunate man was just trying to do good by picking up some trash during an impromptu assembly and wound up being suspended indefinitely.

This was likely the start of Michael Beach portraying these problematic characters. He was a good guy but Clark pushed him too far and the next thing you know he’s flipping over a desk in one of Lean on Me’s most memorable scenes. Some casting person likely saw that and decided from there on out that Michael Beach would be causing a ruckus in his future roles.

Clark might be a great teacher but he’s also a jerk with a massive ego. His approach is brash, abrasive, and incredibly rude. This is likely how Clark was in real life to some degree. But this persona is frequently portrayed in media. I don’t like the idea that’s promoted that this is the way you get things done. That as a leader, supervisor, or someone else with a title or power you’re supposed to be loud and browbeat people.

He seemingly has no respect for anyone as he is rude to the kids, the parents, the teachers, and the rest of the staff. I fully accept that there’s a lot of nonsense going on at the school and it shouldn’t be tolerated. No, you don’t pat the kids on the head and tell them they’re wonderful when they aren’t doing well. But I also don’t think that means you have to be disrespectful.

Even in the case of having conversations with the teachers and staff, he’s ready to go off if they don’t just blindly follow his orders. In some instances, they’re not even disagreeing with Clark but simply doing their jobs. It comes across as him having an over-inflated ego and a bit of a god complex. The idea of, “I’m the leader here and I’m the only one whose opinion matters.” But the reality is that while he might be a good teacher and have effective ideas as a principal, he can’t run the school on his own.

These teachers have likely been working at the school for quite some time. And that’s not to say that there shouldn’t be any changes and that nothing is going wrong. But to come in on the first day and just assume that you’ve got the full scope of everything and everyone is presumptuous. How much could you truly understand what’s going wrong at the school in that short space of time? From what we see the teachers are engaged so I don’t think it’s fair to automatically assume that they are slacking or otherwise being negligent in their positions.

I’ve watched Lean on Me before, and somehow I never picked up on all of this stuff. But some of the story is on par with after-school specials and is full of stereotypes about Black people. Don’t get me wrong, some of the actors gave great performances. But while a sizeable portion of the cast is Black, it feels like Lean on Me is not a movie made for Black people.

For example, Kaneesha (Karen Malina White) has some history with Clark having previously been a student at a school where he was the principal. She is doing well academically but at one point her mom wants to put her out of their home and she’s understandably heartbroken because she doesn’t know what to do. Clark and Ms. Levias (Beverly Todd) visit Kaneesha’s home to speak with her mom.

They live in a rundown apartment in the projects and her mom is a recovering drug addict. I’m not saying that you don’t have people whose lives are like this. But it seems to be implied that this is the life being lived by everyone attending the school. Kaneesha’s mother had her at a young age and has struggled to take care of her. Kaneesha is excelling at school and is one of the least problematic kids. But with her now being a teen, her mom suddenly can’t deal with the responsibility? She was taking care of her while on drugs but now sober doesn’t want her around because she hates herself? It doesn’t make sense.

Putting that aside, you take the time to try to find out what’s going on with this one kid. Likely because you know her from your previous school and she’s a good student. She’s doing well in school but has a sad backstory that you’ve taken the time to inquire about. Yet, you just make assumptions about the other parents? Her story is stereotypical but at least she has an individual storyline. Meanwhile, most of the other kids are treated like a mass of humanity rather than individuals.

There’s this repeated thing of the kids being like animals and I think at one point he refers to some of the kids as being savages. Some of the kids are indeed very poorly behaved or otherwise on absolute nonsense. But the way that he speaks about them as the principal of the school isn’t helping the situation. It seems to come from a very negative and racially motivated place. Because if this was still a predominantly White school but the students were carrying on, these kinds of terms wouldn’t be used to describe them.

There are a lot of dedicated and effective teachers and principals around the country. So while Joe Clark was a real person who led a very troubled school, I think the controversy surrounding his methods and the student demographics caught the media’s attention. It sounds like the real Joe Clark might have been equally controversial. But having the lead in this story be a Black character who says arguably racist things gives the filmmakers a bit of leeway.

If Joe Clark had been a White man but with the same personality and views in the same environment, feelings toward Lean on Me would have likely been very different. He says problematic things about the Black community but people would be less inclined to call out the character because he’s Black. It effectively gave the writers and filmmakers carte blanche to say all kinds of negative things about Black people through the character. It’s all under the guise of being tough love but there’s an agenda at play here. There are also a few too many n-words flying about in these conversations for my comfort. (God help us if there’s ever a Clarence Thomas biopic.)

I get Clark’s intent, but his manner of speaking to people is atrocious. In these types of films, the main character is rude, gruff, aggressive, and otherwise ignores social decency, especially if it’s a man. It’s one thing to be passionate but I don’t think you have to speak to people in that way to get them to do what needs to be done. You don’t have to be a pushover but there’s a healthy medium in between. There’s a way for you to be direct with people without being rude or brutal.

I still appreciated Clark’s goal of turning things around but as one of the other characters mentions, he acts like it’s a one-man effort. But for the most part, the teachers and administrators who were there when he arrived remained in place. The violence and bad behavior settled down after the mass expulsion. And once tutoring, plays, choir practice, and other programs were implemented the kids became more engaged. So you would have to ask what was really the problem at the school?

It remains unspoken that a large problem for the school seems to be a lack of resources. One of the most controversial changes (and for a good reason) is that the school doesn’t have proper security doors so Clark improvises. Most sizeable public buildings have a main entrance and other entrances. It’s easy enough to enter through the main entrance because there are usually security personnel stationed at those doors. But side and rear entrances tend to have some kind of security bar so they alarm when opened.

Yet, this school which has issues with violence and drugs has regular doors that students can open to let people in. That’s a major security risk. Clark’s solution was to put chains and locks on the doors because the school didn’t have money to purchase the type of doors with alarms. Locking the other exits creates a fire hazard but it’s that or allowing violence and drugs back into the school. He has the hallways repainted to cover the graffiti and has the cages removed. Thus almost overnight the physical school environment is transformed. But that speaks to a lack of maintenance and things likely going unrepaired for years.

Clark is very aggressive and takes an end to justify the means approach to reforming the school. Yet, he does have some good ideas one of which is getting the parents more involved. The teachers are also doing more to not just educate but also keep the students engaged. Certainly, some of the kids might have things going on in their lives outside of school but most of the problems seem to be a result of a lack of resources.

And unfortunately, as is the case with most things of this nature, politics are involved. Leonna Barrett (Lynne Thigpen) is either a member of the PTA or school board who is very involved with the school. She seems to also be the parent of a child or children at the school. There’s then the mayor who is trying to ensure that he’ll be reelected. They all have their own concerns and agendas and they’re not necessarily in line with what’s in the best interest of the students and the school.

There’s now also media attention as a result of Clark’s changes ruffling some feathers. But where was all of this attention before when the school was struggling or even back when it was just beginning its downward spiral? If Barrett can mobilize all these people and get them riled up while also getting media coverage why wasn’t she doing this before? How is everyone so passionately concerned and full of ideas about what needs to be done now but nothing seemed to be getting done before?

It’s like none of these factions cared or were paying attention. The mayor is concerned with his reelection and Barrett wants to maintain control over the school board. If you’re so powerful why weren’t you having meetings and raising holy hell before about the abysmal test scores, the school’s condition, and the violence? How are you okay with your children going to school at a place that looks like a prison when you have access to the mayor? You supposedly wield so much power in this community, why weren’t you using it before?

They couldn’t even slap some paint on the walls in an attempt to beautify the place and provide a clean and nurturing environment. A clean environment where things aren’t falling apart might change your mood. But the kids also need resources and for some, that’s in the form of books, tutoring, and extra assistance. It’s not enough to just say a few motivational words and expect that to change everything around. Because quite often we see the results of nice speeches without action.

To be clear Lean on Me isn’t a bad movie as the acting for the most part is fairly solid. There’s certainly commentary on both sides as Joe Clark does get called out for his attitude and approach. Yet, some of his being strict and stubborn are needed to a degree. But I also appreciate the assistant principal, as I low-key think she is one of the best characters in the film as was Mr. Darnell. I liked that they both supported the need for change but also stood up for themselves and pushed back against Clark’s mistreatment.

They’d been in the trenches and it’s easy for someone to come in after the fact and point their fingers about what you’re doing wrong. Especially when they have the power and authority to change things versus being in the midst of it. Not to mention when they have if not legal then political capital to do what needs to get done.

I still think Lean on Me is simplistic and skirts some obvious issues while fallings into tropes about others. But overall it’s an entertaining film that’s worthy of discussion and debate.

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