By Marc S. Sanders

The career of director John G. Avildsen is best defined by his inspirational stories of athletic prowess for the underdog, particularly The Karate Kid from 1984, and the Oscar winning Best Picture sensation, Rocky.  Both films follow similar formulas once the exposition phase is completed.  Music montages fill the screen with endless training with the protagonists giving it their all.  Avildsen’s film, Lean On Me, teeters on these conventions and it tells me one thing.  Training montages belong in the field of physical activities, not with tests of intelligence and academics.

Morgan Freeman portrays Joe Clark, or Crazy Joe Clark with the baseball bat, who singlehandedly (at least according to the film) turned around the Eastside High School of Paterson, New Jersey from a hell hole of violence, drugs and terror into a respectable institution of education.  Eastside, where the actual film was shot, is depicted as the absolute worst.  You can’t even tell the original paint colors of walls because they are covered in so much graffiti.  Early in the film, a teacher’s head is bashed into a puddle of his own blood while trying to break up a fight among the students.  Drugs are exchanged out in the open.  This is a dangerous place. How dangerous?  “Welcome To The Jungle” by Guns N Roses is playing over all of this footage. 

Worst of all, however, seems to be the last place ranking of the school’s score on state’s standardized test for basic education.  After all that I saw in the first ten minutes of the film, that is the biggest concern? 

Joe seems to be the one and only candidate to get in there and clean this mess up.  His tough exterior and reputation for not getting along with his superiors or his peers is a gamble but what other choice does the mayor have at this point.  The first move that Joe carries out is to have all the drug pushers and criminals explicated from the school immediately.  His second move is to chain every door in the school to keep this riff raff out, which only ticks off the fire marshal and a firebrand activist mother who wants Clark terminated.  While I thought the mother was needlessly a pain in the ass, only to serve as a poorly written antagonist, I can’t help but empathize with the fire marshal; cuz, yeah, what would happen if there was an actual fire?

In between all of this, Crazy Joe bullies, berates and screams at his teaching staff and administration while the students paint over the graffiti.  Some of the staff scream back or toss over desks.  Morgan Freeman is such a capable actor and you can’t take your eyes off the energy he brings to his roles, whether they are subdued like in The Shawshank Redemption or Driving Miss Daisy, or they are out of control hyper as on display here.  Yet, I didn’t feel fulfilled or inspired by his portrayal of Mr. Clark or the film as a whole.  It’s not his fault.  Rather it’s the outline of the script.

A running theme here focuses on the scores of the test.  Joe is first mad as all hell at the low score of the practice tests.  We eventually reach the actual final exam.  Much has been cleaned up at Eastside and Joe screams like a hyped-up football or wrestling coach to the entire study body about how important it is to pass the exam they are about to take within the hour.  The students clap and applaud and sing the title song in harmony.  This scene supplies the inevitable and inspiring training montage that Avildsen relies on.  You know what’s going to happen, right?  They pass of course!  Yet, how did they really pass this exam within the ninety days that the film tells us they have to study?

Lean On Me gets distracted with its other problems such as single mothers who kick out their children and drug pushers who manage to get back into the school, where Crazy Joe disarms one of them threatening with a switch blade.  Late in the film, a teenage student gets pregnant, only to have this storyline abandoned thereafter.  The debate with the erratic mother and the fire marshal takes up large portions of the film as well, and when they don’t, Joe is screaming at his band of teachers making sure they know it is their own fault that the students are failing.  All of these moments are meant to get the audience to nod and shake their heads at how much the world is falling apart, while getting tearfully inspired by the angry, tough love of Mr. Clark.  Right on Joe!!!! It’s like a bad afterschool special, really.  I’m not in denial of the endless variety of problems our schools encounter.  However, this film is less than two hours, and these kids have a test to pass, people!

I just think the wrong movie was made here.  I recall from the late 1980s, the real Joe Clark on the cover a Time Magazine defiantly holding his baseball bat.  My teenage self found the cover shocking.  Having gone to private schools full of unspoken discipline, I’d never imagine a teacher brandishing a bat to make his point.  So unusual was this to me that naturally Clark’s story should be made into a movie.  Yet, the triumph of Lean On Me depends on the passing score of the state exam.  Only, just how did these students pass this exam? 

It’s easy to compare Lean On Me to the film Stand And Deliver.  It’s also easy to see which is the better film.  The latter film focused on underprivileged and uneducated Southeast Los Angeles students who triumphantly passed the most difficult of standardized mathematic exams.  When the passing scores arrive at the end, though, I believed the truth of it all because the film focused on the inspiring teacher Jaime Escalante and his methods for teaching algebra and calculus.  Stand And Deliver showed how those students sacrificed their Saturdays to attend class and studied while working or tending to their families.  In Lean On Me, I don’t recall one student opening a single book or any teacher even writing on a blackboard.  They did learn the school song though.

I don’t disagree with anything that Avildsen’s film offers.  Joe Clark saw the importance of learning the school song to build up pride among his students.  He saw the necessity in painting over the graffiti to maintain the image of a proper institution for learning.  He went to desperate and defiant measures to protect the integrity of Eastside High School.  My problem is the means don’t justify the end.  How does chaining doors, painting over graffiti, and singing the school song, accompanied with endless screaming measure up to passing a standardized test?  Did it all just hinge on one proud moment ahead of taking the test with a beautiful and soulful rendition of the song “Lean On Me”?   I know the passing scores were all achieved in real life.  I just wish I got to see it on screen.

Note: Eastside High School is where my mom graduated from.  It did her proud to see the school recover to its original reputation.

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