Picks and Pans Review: Lean on Me
updated 03/20/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 03/20/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST
When the film opens it's 1967, and in Joe Clark's classroom at Eastside High School in Paterson, N.J., there's a slogan that reads BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY. Not only is that Malcolm X's battle cry, as well as Clark's, it also seems to be director John Avildsen's. As he has shown in Rocky and his Karate Kid films, he's a master of audience manipulation. And that's fine, often even fun, for fiction. But it raises disturbing questions when a director distorts the facts of a true story—in this case school principal Clark's controversial overhaul of Eastside—to whip an audience into a frenzy. It's clear from the beginning of the movie that there is not going to be much in the way of subtlety. Clark, played by Morgan Freeman, is forced to transfer from Eastside to another school because he's too much of a rebel. "This place deserves exactly what it gets!" he shouts as he storms out.
Dissolve to the same hallway 20 years later. Sure enough, now it's full of graffiti, fights and drug dealing while Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" blares out from the sound track. Avildsen and his screenwriter Michael Schiffer (who took a similar sledgehammer approach in his script for Colors) seem to be suggesting that the school's total deterioration has been caused by the fact that Clark's advice to get tough on under-and nonachievers was ignored. It has nothing to do with anything more complicated, such as financial cutbacks or general inner-city blight. So, of course, when Freeman finally returns as principal because he's the only person who can turn the school around in one year and save the mayor's political backside, it's easy to predict that the solution will be simple. All Freeman has to do is kick out the troublemakers, paint over the graffiti and insult everyone else, including the teachers, into submission and 20 years' worth of problems will be corrected. The Rocky theme is almost audible in the background. To suggest that this kind of facile transformation is possible only diminishes Clark's accomplishments, without addressing the question of whether those accomplishments were achieved at too high a cost. (Critics have contended that Eastside has in fact gone downhill in the seven years Clark has been its principal, with only 22 percent of its students going on to college, compared with 35 percent the year before he arrived.) The movie's saving grace is Freeman. He remains as fascinating to watch as he was when he was teaching reading on The Electric Company—or playing a pimp in Street Smart. There are moments when the sheer emotion of his performance sweeps away all the doubts. But there's a fundamental principle involved: You don't educate students by pandering to the lowest common denominator, and you're not likely to educate moviegoers either. (PG-13)