January 25, 2008

Underrated MOTM: Lean on Me (1989)

The Underrated Movie of the Month for January is an oldie but a goodie. Originally I thought of High School High, the actually funny parody of all of the movies like Lean on Me. Then I ran across Lean on Me on TV a few weeks ago and decided that IT was actually the gem.

Released in the spring of 1989, Lean on Me featured Morgan Freeman fresh off an Oscar nomination, Robert Guillaume, and Lynne Thigpen - best known as The Chief from "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" (Did you know she died suddenly in 2003? Tragic.). Rounding out the cast were a bunch of unknown actors and actual students from Eastside High, where the story is based. Karen Malina White had a nice turn as Kaneesha Carter, and everybody's favorite character, "Sams," was played by Jermaine "Huggy" Hopkins, who based on his IMDb credit list went on to act in predominantly African-American movies (Juice, Phat Beach, How to Be a Player) before disappearing in 2002. Actually somebody was trying to contact him through IMDb recently- kind of funny.

The plot of Lean on Me was neither original or complicated, but it was a true story like its parent Stand and Deliver and its child Dangerous Minds. Hard-nosed principal Joe Clark (Freeman) brandishes a baseball bat and the personality of a grizzly bear to whip the underachieving students and faculty into shape at Eastside High School in Paterson, NJ. He alienates everybody from the superintendent to the mayor before the students dramatically change and the school pulls a sharp 180. By the end, the students have joined forces to march on the city jail, where Clark is being held on some bogus charge. And along the way we get to enjoy dialogue like this:

Leonna Barrett: The school board's going to hear this at 7:00, and we are going to vote your black ass out!
Thomas Sams: Yo, witch! Vote on THIS!
[gestures angrily]
Joe Clark: That won't help me, Sams.

Here's why I like the movie, aside from memorable performances and a tear-jerking story: It didn't shy away from nastiness. The first 10 minutes are like a nightmare! "Welcome to the Jungle" plays over a montage of drug dealing, fights, and a teacher stretchered out of the cafeteria after having his head repeatedly smashed into the floor during a busy lunch hour. The perfect tone is set. We're scared of the drug dealers, the criminals, and the future of the school. We can't stand Joe Clark, but we all know he's right in what he's doing. I don't know if it was a true representation of Joe Clark (who helped in production and who resigned from Eastside High the year after Lean on Me was released to become a motivational speaker), but I don't really care either. It stands the test of time as an example of urban American schools in the crack-addled late 80's.

Lastly, I've come to realize that the film was directed by John G. Avildsen, who won the Oscar for Best Director for Rocky and also directed all three Karate Kid movies (and Rocky V - but don't remind him). That's all fine, but what's most pleasing is that Avildsen also directed my favorite movie of all time, The Power of One.


  1. I love Lean on Me. It's really dated and hasn't held up well, but Freeman is hysterical, and it really is an important story, despite the unintentional comedy.

  2. I admit it seems a little weak 20 years later, but I think it was an accurate representation of the culture at the time, and after my few years of teaching in the "inner-city" I've come to appreciate any and all stories like this in a new way.

    Sams was hilarious.

  3. I haven't seen it in a million years so I can't comment directly, but you really can't go too far wrong with Morgan Freeman...at least I used to think that until The Bucket List came along.

    Then again, I haven't seen that so I'm just assuming it's as bad as it looks.

  4. Considering I haven't heard anything positive about it, it's probably as bad as it looks. I think Freeman just jumped at the chance to work with Nicholson (and vice versa), even if it is in a ridiculous movie.


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