Movies That Hate You: Lean on Me

In 1967, at Eastside High School, a Black Male teacher dressed in traditionally Afro-Centric clothing is leading a history class in the guise of a game show.  He is called out of his class by a fellow teacher, who informs him that the union is having a meeting without them.  Joe Clark (the Afro-Centric teacher) barges in on the meeting and confronts them about their secrecy.  He is soon dismayed when he learns that the union accepted the school board’s demand that Joe be transferred to a different school in exchange for the union’s salary demands being granted.  Joe storms out of the school, warning that the school deserves whatever comes its way.

20 years have passed.  The school has deteriorated considerably.  A once orderly and pristine school is now dilapidated, with graffiti lining the walls and students regularly engaging in disorderly conduct in and out of the classroom. Drug-dealing and other criminal activities among students and teachers are rampant throughout the school.  The Mayor, The School Superintendent Dr. Napier (Joe’s friend from 20 years ago), and Mr. Rosenberg, Lead Counsel for the Patterson School Board, discuss the possibility of a State takeover of the school board.  The Mayor is in the middle of an election campaign, and he needs Eastside High to bring its scores up to save his campaign.  Dr. Napier turns to Joe Clark, who is the principal of an elementary school, and convinces him to take over Eastside High School.

Joe Clark steps into his old school and is dismayed at how devastated the school looks.  Meeting with the teachers and staff of the school, Joe Clark makes it clear that he intends to re-prioritize what is important for them.  He then holds an assembly where many of the students are rowdy and causing trouble.  Principal Clark begins the first phase of his turnaround by expelling the worst of the students, and they are forcefully removed from the premises.

Later that night, a meeting of the parents of some of the students of Eastside turns contentious when Mrs. Barrett, a resident of the community, confronts Principal Clark over his actions.  Mr. Clark responds by appealing to parental responsibility in a manner not unlike a sermon at a Black Church, and the attendees are mostly supportive of Mr. Clark, although it is clear that Mrs. Barrett is not impressed at all of Clark’s methodology.

The next morning, one of the expelled kids meets with Mr. Clark in front of the school and begs to return to class.  Joe Clark takes him to the roof and scares him straight.  Down in the lunchroom, Principal Clark makes his presence known, including allowing a young woman who is bored with Home Economics take Auto Shop instead.  When another male student attempts to flirt with a female student, Clark insinuates that the male student was flirting with another female student previously, drawing the ire of the current girl.  When another incident makes Principal Clark question the students’ pride in their school, he confronts the music teacher Mrs. Elliot, who seems more concerned with a concert in New York than with the school.  When she attempts to be obstinate with Principal Clark, he fires her.

Many of the teachers, unfortunately, start questioning Mr. Clark’s ways especially after he suspends Mr. Darnell, a popular young teacher.  Making matters worse, however, is the State Exam that the school must pass to avoid a state takeover.  While waiting for the results, one of the students is attacked by a formerly expelled student.  Joe Clark intervenes and subdues him.  When his Security Chief informs him that someone from the school let the kid in, Joe Clark orders all of the doors locked.

When Keneesha, who happens to be a student that Joe Clark mentored when she was in elementary school, starts having problems at home, he helps her mother find a job and perhaps a better place to live than her current apartment in the projects.

But things take a turn for the worse when Principal Clark is confronted by Dr. Napier over his recent actions.  It ends with Principal Clark being forced to apologize to some of his present and former teachers.  The next day, however, Principal Clark confronts the Fire Chief over the locked doors.  The student who was previously attacked, unfortunately, has decided to drop out of school over the objections of Principal Clark.

Later on, Principal Clark confronts Thomas, whom he let back into to school after scaring him straight earlier in the year.  Thomas takes him to where the others were cutting class.  When Principal Clark orders them to sing the school song, they are reticent at first.  However, they begin singing and the kids sound like a professional R&B singing group.  Shocked and surprised, Clark goes to confront Mrs. Powers, the new music teacher.  After explaining the situation, Principal Clark orders her to teach this song to the school.  After Joe Clark leaves, it becomes clear that the previous encounter with Principal Clark was a pre-planned setup to debut the new song.

Sadly, this moment of levity is broken when the test results are in, and the numbers don’t look good for the school.  Principal Clark admonishes the teachers once again.  Meanwhile, in the days leading up to the test, it looks like everyone is studying hard.  Even Keneesha’s mom is helping out.  The school is happier now than at any point before Joe Clark’s hiring.

Mrs. Barrett, however, has not given up in the slightest.  She concocts a plan to get Mr. Clark fired, and she blackmails the Mayor into getting her appointed to the School Board to do so.  The Mayor and the Fire Chief conjure up a plan of their own to set things in motion, but Mr. Rosenberg overhears the whole thing and warns Dr. Napier and Principal Clark.  Together, they devise a counter-plan to thwart the Fire Chief.

Things finally come to a head when Principal Clark is confronted by his Vice Principal.  Given a reminder that he is not in the fight alone, an assembly is held to remind the students as to what is at stake, and to give them a morale boost.

Mrs. Barrett once again cajoles the Mayor and the Fire Chief into action, and they get a court order to bypass the guards.  At the school, Keneesha is crying because she learned that she is pregnant.  As he attempts to think about how to resolve the issue, his security chief tells him that the Fire Chief has breached the gate.  As Joe Clark issues his alert, the Fire Chief has been listening in with a tape recorder.  Now armed with evidence, he has Joe Clark arrested.

At the jail cell, Dr. Napier and Mr. Rosenberg meet with Joe Clark.  Dr. Napier commends Joe for a job well done, and heads off to defend him at the board.  The board meeting is contentious, with Mrs. Barrett presenting a credible case to have Joe Clark removed.  During the meeting, however, the students of Eastside High gathered around the school board building in protest.  The Mayor decides to threaten Mr. Clark with a false flag riot to harm his students.

When Mrs. Barrett attempts to exercise her authority over the students, she finds her arguments ridiculed and challenged by the students.  When Principal Clark, now freed from his prison, attempts to get the students to disperse, but they ignore and continue to protest.  His Vice Principal shows up with the Test Results, and the school has passed. While Mrs. Barrett admonishes the Mayor, Principal Clark and Dr. Napier express their gratitude with the students, as they sing Eastside’s Alma Mater.  Some time later, Principal Clark hands out diplomas to his senior students at a graduation as the credits roll.

Review and Analysis:

Movies based on real-life events and real life people tend to be problematic when Hollywood gets involved.  This is because the stereotypes and racist tendencies of the industry still find their way through the film where none should be present.  In the case of Lean on Me, this was supposed to be about how Joe Clark turned a dangerous school into a better school for its kids.  Which would have been great if that is what this movie had been about.

Where Screenwriting Happens:

If you have seen the movie Patton, then you have seen where Lean on Me gets most of its structure from.  As with most movies that copy theme structuring from previous ones, only microscopic changes are needed to suit this movie.

The Prologue gives us General Patton giving a speech where he outlines his philosophy on how to wage battle – and that is to constantly confront the enemy head on.  In Lean on Me, we learn that Joe Clark confronts everyone, regardless of rank, privilege, and position.  Where Patton opens Act One in the Tunisian desert with dead American soldiers and destroyed American armor, Lean on Me opens Act One with Eastside High School in virtual ruin, with its students acting more like criminals or potential victims.  Instead of General Omar Bradley suggesting that the firebrand General Patton is needed to whip the US Army in North Africa into shape, Dr. Napier suggests that the firebrand Joe Clark is needed to reform Eastside High (They even go as far as to use the same line as reaction, “God, Help us.”  Instead of General Patton putting the hammer down on his subordinates, Principal Clark forcefully establishes new guidelines and his brand of thinking on his teaching staff.

Or how about when Omar Bradley confronts George Patton over his over-the-top command style?  Dr. Napier does the same thing in Lean on Me, at right around the same point of time in terms of movie structure.

It goes on like this.

Ethnic Pathology:

Where Lean on Me fails, however, is here.  Nearly every single minority character in the film is simply a reminder of Subspecies Racial Pathology that would make a typical White Supremacist proud.  The Black male students, regardless of whether Principal Clark had thrown them out or not, are all either Violent; Uncontrollably Lustful; Troublemakers; Drug Addicts; or Clownish Buffoons.  The Black female students are either Sassy; Troublemakers; or plain Silly.  The Latina students are all outspoken and are directed to more “male” professions than any other specific group.  There is also a single Latino male, and they have him drop out of school because he is a drug dealer.  There are some white students at Eastside, but we don’t see them very often.  Also, they are not shown to have any of the same “problems” the Black or Latino students have, other than being poor.  It is a subtle attempt at False Equivalency – while poor White people have children out of wedlock, deal drugs, and smoke illicit substances as much, you do not see any of that in this movie.

If there is a scene where a young Black man is shown to be smart, then there will be a scene that will show two or more Black men to be stupid, ignorant, clownish, lustful/horny, or violent.  Black women are allowed to show more intelligence across the board than Black men, but that most be mixed with Sassy Black Woman at nearly all times.  There are no Black Fathers here, save for the surrogate of Joe Clark.  All of the Black students are supposed to be of single parent households, all of them single Mothers.  The ones portrayed onscreen have their own pathologies – Keneesha’s mother, for example, is a drug addict that gets cleaned up when Joe Clark rides in on his high horse to help her.  Then, when it looks like Keneesha will succeed in high school, her character ends up pregnant – to a young Black man who is shown to “shirk his own responsibilities.”

Take note that Keneesha calls him on this during a scene which is totally inappropriate in its context (attempting to free their Principal Joe Clark).

In other words, you are to be reminded consistently of some pathology that this movie intends for you to believe is only prevalent in Black and Latino neighborhoods, despite any token attempts to the contrary.

Arrogance, Upper Class Style:

Some would call her a great teacher. While Principal Clark flies far off the handle, her attitude concerning the school and its students would still get her fired.

This scene is a great example of arrogance for all the wrong reasons.  The movie was trying on one hand to show that Mrs. Elliot was not the right kind of teacher for poor and minority students, while at the same time attempting to show Joe Clark as being obstinate for firing a teacher that was giving Eastside’s students a taste of “culture.”  Her firing is what leads to Dr. Napier issuing a verbal beatdown to his friend Mr. Clark over his tactics.

While Joe Clark was bull-headed about Mrs. Elliot and Dr. Napier was correct in his assessment of Joe’s strategies, in the end he was still correct to fire Mrs. Elliot.

Mrs. Elliot never seemed to connect with her students, and her music class was a nearly impenetrable bubble compared to the rest of the school.  Her attitude was not one of a teacher, but rather of an arbiter of knowledge that spent more time worrying about whether some stuffed suits in a New York Music Hall would allow them to sing there rather than if her students were actually learning more about the music they were singing.  In other words, her students were never her primary concern, despite her impressive credentials.

In other words, Mrs. Elliot was disconnected from the school and the issues that her classroom students face on a regular basis, and her attitude only helps to perpetuate the problem.

Take note that with the exception of Mr. O’Malley, there are no other White Teachers at Eastside High School...

And Who is the Enemy?

You'll find characters like her in Hollywood and so-called independent productions spanning decades.

In one word:  Her.

In far too movies where the Black Male is supposed to be the Protagonist, especially if the Black Man is required to be the hero of the film, you should expect his strongest opposition to come from a woman of color, particularly a Black Woman.  Even where White Men cower in fear or respect of a Black Man who takes no guff from anyone, this particular Black Woman is not only able to stand toe-to-toe with the hero, but is in fact stronger than the hero; When defeated in the first confrontation with the hero, she will immediately find a way to gain more power until she can defeat the hero on his terms.  She will even make the Men who cower before the hero follow HER “suggestions.”

Then, at the very end, she will sass her comrades when they have all been defeated, except that she will sound more like the Hollywood version of the “nagging wife” as opposed to actual Antagonist.  If this were a science fiction production, I would have immediately tagged this character as WOC Sci-Fi Trope #2 – The Traitor.  Mrs. Barrett fits this role to the T, and now it’s time for me to Cross the T on this movie.

Antagonist Woman of Color Sidenote:

Having the character of Mrs. Barrett essentially dominate the last act of the movie served two purposes.  The most important one, however, was to foist the entirety of the opposition to Joe Clark onto her.  Thus, all of the systemic racism, bigotry, and consistent reinforcement of White Privilege are allowed to submerge under the water, thus allowing it all to slip away virtually unnoticed while all of the ire and blame are immediately shifted to the Woman of Color who is strongest in her opposition to Hero and his ideals; in this case, it is Mrs. Barrett.

It is also interesting to point out that she is also supposed to represent some kind of Black Nationalist or Afro-Centrist with her character; her dress and her hairstyles are supposed to be indicative of this, as well as her behavior both towards the White Mayor and Fire Chief along with her confrontations with Black and Latino students and staff. Maybe the idea was to show Joe Clark, for all of his fire, is really an integrationist at heart, but while you can find examples of the older characters in younger student or teacher counterparts, you cannot find a student or young teacher counterpart for Mrs. Barrett.

Not helping Joe Clark’s case in the slightest, however, is that instead of answering her charges directly, he chooses to launch into a diatribe about Black Irresponsibility and Laziness that would make Ronald Reagan (he of “The Black Welfare Queen” myth) proud.  This is where the benefit of wisdom given from the fullness of time and experience changes perspective.  Mrs. Barrett’s questions to Joe Clark and her challenge to him no longer sound like the rantings of a scorned mother; her concerns over what kind of future the expelled kids have seem valid in retrospect.  Joe Clark’s “The Needs of the Many Outweigh the Needs of the Few” response was a complete sidestep and serves to diminish what he intended to do in the long term.

Finally, watch the protest scene at the end of the movie.  There is a moment where we as the audience was supposed to laugh (or at least go “Oh, no he didn’t just say that!) when one of the young students proceeds to denigrate Mrs. Barrett in some of the worst ways possible.  It serves to reinforce the idea of young black men as clownish buffoons and also diminishes black women in general.

Antagonist Motivation:

Muddying the waters here is that the personal motivations for Mrs. Barrett were never made clear.  Her first scene is the emergency meeting where she is rebuffed by Principal Clark after she challenges him over his expulsions of the troublemaking students. Perhaps what is interesting is that the only line she gives about why she is confronting Mr. Clark is that her son “is no criminal.”  Unfortunately, we don’t learn which of the kids Joe Clark expelled was actually Mrs. Barrett’s son.  In fact, there are no scenes which feature Mrs. Barrett with her son.  So we never find out if her son more like Thomas (the crack-smoker) or one of the other young black men who were shown to be violent.

Looking back, Mrs. Barrett really lacks any kind of readily identifiable personal motivation for her degree of antagonism, thus making it easier for the filmmakers to foist all of the responsibility (and blame) onto her at the end of the film without having the audience stopping to question why.

The Mayor and the Fire Chief (both White) seem to have no problem whatsoever with allowing Mrs. Barrett to take the lead with wanting Mr. Clark dismissed.  And as the movie moves toward the plot of having Joe Clark thrown in jail, you’ll see Mrs. Barrett take an ever increasing role and ever growing presence in the film.  With the exception of the implicit threat the Mayor gives Joe Clark, he remains largely silent as the film moves on.

The Rules of Hollywood Combat, Section 4 – Melee Weapons:

Am I the only one bothered by the fact that 99% of the Black Students are Racist Caricatures?

Once more, we get a knife-wielding drug dealer who attempts to assault the hero of the film.  In his case, his knife attack gets deflected by a bullhorn and knocked to the ground by a right cross to the face.  What’s embarassing is that the hero is at least three times as old as the villain here.

Sci-Fi Sightings:

Tony Todd, who plays Joe Clark’s security chief, plays Worf’s Brother Kurn in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  He also played an adult Jake Sisko in the Deep Space Nine episode “The Visitor” and a Hirogen warrior in an episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

Ethan Phillips, who plays Mr. Rosenberg, would parlay his comic talents as Neelix in Star Trek: Voyager.

What Hollywood Learned from This Movie:

As painful as the movie was, this image of Black men is something that we rarely see. And thanks to Hollywood, images like this are even harder to come by.

That while Black and Latino students make for quick and easy drama and conflict, having Black or Latino teachers save them does not fit Hollywood’s methodology.  Instead, they turned to make movies like “Freedom Writers” and “Dangerous Minds,” where Caucasian Women saved the day.  MadTV called them out in this sketch.

In Conclusion:

Every role in this movie is a cardboard cutout of some kind.  Most distressing of all, however, is the role of Mrs. Barrett, played admirably by Lynne Thigpen under some very difficult conditions.  We learn next to little about Joe Clark and why he was so motivated to “clean up” Eastside High, and none of the students of color are allowed to break out of stereotypes.  In fact, they made Joe Clark an Afro-Centric teacher to establish his “bonafides” – and completely ignore his background in the United States Military.

What was supposed to be an uplifting story is undercut by the stereotypes portrayed by the students, none of whom are allowed to overcome any of them.  Even the good students have something happen to them that will slow down their ambitions to improve their own lives or the lives of others.

Basically, Lean on Me is about on the same level of racism as GloryAnd Glory got called out for it. If there is one reason to watch this movie, it would be to watch some of the people who play in this movie who would go on to other, perhaps more recognized, roles in Hollywood.  Because the so-called Black Experience that this film provides is nothing but surface stereotypes.

Watch the “A Different World” series for a better reflection of the “Black Experience” at school.

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9 Responses to Movies That Hate You: Lean on Me

  1. jason says:

    i like your blog very much.. and if you love watching movies please check my blog too.. thank you

  2. RVCBard says:

    I knew it. If (straight, cis-gender) Black men fail, it’s all my fault because I’m not standing back and keeping my mouth shut. Systemic racism and the grossly imbalanced distribution of power and resources have nothing to do with it in the least.


    Ditto your rec for “A Different World” – and I actually went to an HBCU!

  3. RVCBard says:

    BTW, you totally ought to post an excerpt of this on Ars Marginal and link back to here. 🙂

  4. RVCBard says:

    Er, nevermind. I gotcha!

  5. Pingback: Ars Marginal

  6. weight says:

    yeah my dad will like this

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  9. DeeEye says:

    I found this after rewatching Lean on Me on HBO. I suppose I saw it long ago but did not remember. The portrayal of the minority students made my hair stand on end. It was painful and embarassing to watch…like some kind of cartoon. It touched every stereotype of, mostly, black males and females and then bludgeoned the audience with them. I googled something like Lean On Me Embarassing Race Portrayal and found this write up, which hit the nail on the head. I am a white middle class guy who wouldn’t consider myself all that much an activist or super right or left. I don’t look for things to get mad about. But Jeez…watch that first 30 minutes and it is like some kind of racist minds worst exaggeration of the already BS stereotypes of poor minorities come alive. I don’t totally agree with the write up about the music teacher…if she was teaching in that school when it was so far gone, getting kids to focus on a single event to maintain purpose and discipline could be understood. But otherwise, I am with you. This reeks of rich white guy making a movie about a poor neighborhood school and using their own twisted ideas about black kids in the hood to show how “bad” it was, without even the slightest bit of awareness that he/she is essentially saying “this is what these animals are like when unchecked.” Kind of sickening

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