Morgan Freeman’s inspired performance as Joe Clark, the New Jersey principal who uses controversial methods to clean up a drug- and crime-ridden high school, makes it easier to forgive John Avildsen’s rather glossy and simplistic treatment of a serious dilemma in the public school system.
Nevertheless, Avildsen’s enthusiastic direction gives “Lean on Me” a heartwarming, feel-good tone that is accessible beyond the environs of its subject.
Clark’s efforts to return Eastside High in Paterson, N.J., to an institution of learning rather than a chaotic meeting place for mayhem and maliciousness earned him kudos in some circles. Others questioned his severity — even megalomania — in dealing with what appears to have been an out-of-control student population and a staff unable to deal with it.
Freeman embodies all the purported strengths of the real-life Clark and gives an uncompromising and oftentimes not very sympathetic portrayal of an individual that few ever could get close to but many could admire.
He bullies, threatens, throws his weight around as chief administrator of a huge, largely black school. But he gets the job done. He reclaims the school by expelling the drug pushers and other delinquents, putting the near-bad to work painting over graffiti and making the entire student body learn the school song — ostensibly to install a sense of spirit and unity in Eastsiders — all the while knowing he has to answer to his superiors at the mayor’s office who have given him one year to get the students to pass a basic skills test.
Scripter Michael Schiffer has seemingly successfully captured the voice and mannerisms of an unyielding taskmaster, which is a wonderful role for Freeman and one he’s wonderful in. Short shrift is given to those around him who have little or no shading, with the one exception being that of vulnerable and good student Keneesha Carter (Karen Malina White).
Surely, things were much more complex and wearisome for the real Joe Clark, who ran up against opposition from parents and politicians for his quasi-unlawful practices (he locks all but one entrance to the school, which is a violation of the fire code, and fires a teacher without having authority to do so).
Through his dealings with only a handful of individuals, each representing a different faction of his limited school environment, Freeman triumphs. But the feeling remains that his glory is one of discipline, not of education.
As sanitized a treatment as this is, filmmakers deserve credit for bringing to the screen a slice of Americana not usually experienced by most movie audiences.
Avildsen knows how to pull the right strings in any regard, his greatest strengths mixing humor and pathos into a narrowly focused melodrama. Here, best renderings are Freeman’s encounter with the comical pudgy student Thomas Sams (Jermaine Hopkins) and with Robert Guillaume, the school superintendent.
Bill Conti’s scoring pales next to the fine rap and other tunes that are on the soundtrack.
Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” is actually the weakest number, however, even though it is the title track. A school assembly where the students break out to sing this song following the music teacher’s gospel-like lead strains credibility.
Other tech credits are fine.