Lean On Me

Directed By: John G. Avildsen

Starring: Morgan Freeman, Beverly Todd, Alan North, and Robert Guillaume

"They used to call me Crazy Joe.   Well now they can call me Batman!"
-Joe Clark (Morgan Freeman)

It's hard to believe it's been 25 years since Morgan Freeman gave us one of his most colorful performances to date as Principal Joe Clark in Lean On Me. It's hard to believe that it's been 25 years since a cantankerous Freeman saw the lightning crash, heard the thunder roll, and felt breakers crash swamping his soul.  Yes, it's been a quarter century since the release of what I consider to be the quintessential education film, and there's no better time to revisit it than the present.  After all, there's nothing quite like a healthy dose of good old Crazy Joe.

Twenty years ago, Eastside High in Paterson, New Jersey was a vibrant place of learning where the hearts, souls, and minds of the young could rise.  When the teachers union made a deal with the administration to sacrifice control over their own curriculum for higher pay, they also sacrificed one of their own as part of the deal, outspoken instructor Joe Clark (Freeman).  Fast forward two decades, and Eastside High has gone to hell.  Plagued by drugs, violence, and miscreants, the school is no longer the place of learning it once was.  In fact, only 38% of enrolled students passed the 1986 Minimum Basic Skills Test administered by the state annually, falling far below acceptable standards and risking a state takeover of the school.  Looking to avoid this embarrassment in an election year, Mayor Don Bottman (Alan North) gives Superintendent Dr. Frank Napier (Robert Guillaume) and school lawyer Mr. Rosenberg (Ethan Phillips) permission to hire the one man with nothing to lose to turn this situation around, Joe Clark.

Upon arriving at Eastside High, Clark begins waging a war to save the students he can.  After receiving the names of all those hopeless bad apples who are rotten to the core, Clark expels more than 300 students on his very first day.  In doing so, he immediately creates enemies in Leonna Barrett (Lynne Thigpen) and many of the other parents whose kids are expelled.  Despite their complaints, Joe proclaims that this is the first critical step in the war to save 2,700 other students who can't pass the Minimum Basic Skills Test.  Barrett and her allies begin focusing on one sole objective, to get rid of Joe Clark.  Meanwhile, Clark turns his sights to his own staff, the teachers who have failed to educate the very students they must now save.  As he tries to lead Eastside High onto victory on the state exam, a bullying Clark frequently belittles and alienates the very people working alongside him to accomplish this same goal, including Vice Principal Mrs. Joan Levias (Beverly Todd), English teacher Mr. Larry Darnell (Michael Beach), and music instructor Mrs. Elliott (Robin Bartlett).

Lean On Me is an outstanding inspirational film with a strong message about the black community, the value of a good education, and America's imbrued past as it relates to matters of race.  This potent message still rings true today.  It's a message of courage, empowerment, and enablement that's intended to stir our collective zest for learning.  It’s intended to give us some exposure to an ordinary American with an extraordinary accomplishment that made our nation just a little better.  Marked by poignant drama, colorful characters, and a simple yet solid narrative, the often underrated Lean On Me is one of the great education-themed films of all time.  As I look at the state of our public education system nowadays, I can't help but think that the country could use a few strong black men like Joe Clark in the halls of our schools.

Though Lean On Me delivers a good message, that message is not the glue that holds the film together.  That honor goes to the dynamic performance from the one and only Morgan Freeman.  In his fiery portrayal of Principal Joe Clark, Freeman gives us a tyrannical disciplinarian with an unshakable moral core.  Keeping his character constantly on a live wire, he simultaneously gives us the Rockefeller of outrage and an endearing paternal figure.  In one instance, Freeman gives us an irate man shouting at the top of his lungs with a bat in hand.  In the next, he gives us a caring principal willing to put his career and his life on the line for his students.  Balancing those two wildly different facets is a tough act.  Nonetheless, Freeman finds his sweet spot and delivers an iconic performance that stands the test of time.

The supporting cast mostly serves as a punching bag for Freeman's Crazy Joe.  However, there are a few who manage to steal the spotlight from Freeman on occasion throughout the movie.  As the clip above demonstrates, perhaps no one else does so more notably than Robert Guillaume.  As Dr. Napier, Guillaume offers one of the few characters that commands respect in everything he says and does on screen.  The other standout amongst the supporting cast is Beverly Todd. Though she's mostly a whipping girl for Freeman's Clark throughout the film, she does rise to the occasion towards the film's climax and challenges Freeman on screen in a way no other cast member does.

I've got nothing but love for Lean On Me.  It's a true 80's classic.  With great direction and terrific performances from Freeman and his supporting cast members, this movie   is what education flicks should be all about.  Lean On Me gets a sober rating.  The phrase "Free Mr. Clark!" will endure in cinematic history for years to come.