|Lean on Me|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 20 October 1998|
Director John G. Avildsen began with independent films and scored a big hit with Joe in 1970; his next few films were anything but hits, including the well-regarded (but not by me) Save the Tiger in 1973. He was considered a kind of satirist, but couldn't seem to find his footing after Tiger -- at least not until he was hired to direct a screenplay written by a young actor who stubbornly refused to sell the script unless he himself played the title role. This was Rocky, and its terrific success validated Avildsen, for a while. But since he simply is not a very good director, just competent, his career slowly declined -- until The Karate Kid in 1984.
He realized that his two biggest hits after Joe shared the theme of the underdog coming from behind to win at the finish, which explains why he made Lean on Me in 1989, squeezing it in between Karate Kid sequels.
And this formula is at the heart of what's wrong with Lean on Me. It's graced with a sensationally good performance by Morgan Freeman in the same year as Driving Miss Daisy, but the film is otherwise so weak, compromised and predictable that unless you are collecting the works of Morgan Freeman -- not a bad idea in itself -- Lean on Me is a rental, not a purchase.
The movie, based on a true story, opens in 1967, with Joe Clark (Freeman) in an Afro and a dashiki, teaching a high school class in unconventional style. Called before the faculty organization, he becomes furious, and storms out. The story resumes some 20 years later -- though the script by Michael Schiffer never bothers to do more than vaguely hint at what Clark has been doing in the interim.
He's approached by an old friend, Dr. Frank Napier (Robert Guillaume, also excellent), to become the principal of troubled East Side High of Paterson, New Jersey, the very school Clark left in 1967. If the city cannot find someone to bring up the school's academic standards -- represented by the "minimum basic skills" test, at which East Side scored only 38% last time around -- the state will take over the school, viewed by the film as a catastrophe. (Why? We never know.)
Clark is initially reluctant, but finally storms into the school in dapper suits, carrying an electric bullhorn, and exerting his authority left and right. Teachers give him lists of the most trouble-making students, those who are selling drugs, beating up other students, etc. -- and at a school assembly, Clark singles these kids out, and expels them on the spot.
The best aspect of the movie is that it does not compromise Clark's approach, at least in the first half of the film, and Morgan plays the man as tough and unyielding as he evidently was. Clark is brilliant, headstrong, stubborn, taut, overbearing, fatherly, angry, etc. etc. He's a man with a mission, and his mission is to clean up the school, which the real Clark did, using not just a bullhorn, but at times even a baseball bat (which he carried mostly for show, and for publicity). The movie doesn't let him off the hook, either: some of his decisions, such as firing a popular coach and a dedicated music teacher, are shown to be genuine blunders, a result of his refusal to compromise on any issue whatsoever.
But the movie also sentimentalizes Clark, particularly in his relationships to two students, played quite well (most Avildsen performances are good; his weaknesses are elsewhere) by Jermaine "Huggy" Hopkins and Karen Malina White. The two kids are emblematic of all the students, of course, but they're also tritely written and boring, and all too typical of the approach of the second half of the movie, when it turns into a standard, come-from-behind underdog story, Rocky in -- or rather as -- high school. While by its very nature, the movie is predictable to a degree -- why tell this story at all unless it has a happy ending? -- the paint-by-numbers plotline of the second half (Clark modifies his tough-guy approach, the students start to love him, the grades improve, rah rah rah) is dismaying and uninvolving, and leads to a spectacularly phony climax.
Freeman is excellent; as always with him, he builds his characterization from the bone marrow outward. He doesn't just play Joe Clark, he becomes Joe Clark, from stance to gesture to voice. His Clark moves like a knife blade through the hallways of East Side High, stiff, unyielding, active and incisive. It's a great performance by one of America's greatest actors; it's too bad the movie around him doesn't measure up.
The DVD release is standard; it has been "modified to fit your screen," and there are no extras at all. It's as by-the-numbers as the movie itself.