By: Oberst Von Berauscht (Three Beers) –
East Side High School is a hotbed of drugs, gang activity and violence. Faced with a possible State takeover, the district hires Principal Joe Clark (Morgan Freeman) to clean up the school. The Administrators tell him to get test scores back on track, and gives him less than a year to do it (an election is on the way). Clark is a strict disciplinarian, and wastes no time expelling a large group of students the first day, for various offenses. His actions seem to be helping, but inspire controversy on the school board, many of whom see Clark’s approach as doing as much harm as good.
This film was Morgan Freeman’s first major starring role, and it is easily one of his strongest performances. Freeman portrays Joe Clark as a fiery personality, combining a fanatical approach to discipline with the heart and soul of a gospel preacher. Few times in his career has Freeman been given the opportunity to play an explosive character, and these days he seems permanently typecast as the “soulful wise man”. It is a pleasure to see Freeman command the room. Director John G. Alvidsen pushes the right emotional buttons. A great example of this is the opening sequence at the school, which is set to the song “Welcome to the Jungle”, and is a brilliantly dynamic introduction to East Side High’s disastrous state.
Tone… is… set
That isn’t to say that the movie is perfect. Lean on Me, like so many other “inspirational true story” films, can cross over into emotionally manipulative territory. The school board mother, for instance, is set up from the beginning as a conniving, sadistic individual who fights Clark’s decisions at every turn, whereas Clark is deified by the filmmakers. Because there is no such thing as “grey areas” in real life right?
Despite the title, the “areas” of this book are mostly pink and smell funny
The theme of this movie seems to be “the ends justify the means”. The filmmakers don’t shy away from depicting a darker edge to Joe Clark, which makes the audience question his judgement at times. This helps to open up a dialog on just what actions of Clarks are actually making a difference, and whether he is going overboard in some areas. By the end though, the film seems to backpedal, leaving no ambiguity about his actions, making clear that the filmmakers agree with everything. This would be a bigger complaint if Freeman’s performance wasn’t so damn convincing.
Freeman delivers with fire & brimstone, while the story can’t quite keep up. Worth it for fans of the actor.
Take a Drink: when a detention is given
Take a Drink: for clichéd inspirational montage
Do a Shot: anytime you’re reminded that this movie was shot in the 80s