Lean on Me (film)

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Lean on Me
Lean on Me (poster).jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by John G. Avildsen
Produced by Norman Twain
Written by Michael Schiffer
Starring Morgan Freeman
Beverly Todd
Robert Guillaume
Music by Bill Conti
Cinematography Victor Hammer
Edited by John G. Avildsen
John Carter
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
March 3, 1989
Running time
124 min.
Country United States
Language English
Budget $10,000,000 (estimated)
Box office $31,906,454 (USA)

Lean on Me is a 1989 dramatized biographical film written by Michael Schiffer, directed by John G. Avildsen and starring Morgan Freeman. Lean on Me is loosely based on the story of Joe Louis Clark, a real life inner city high school principal in Paterson, New Jersey, whose school is at risk of being taken over by the New Jersey state government unless students improve their test scores. This film's title refers to the 1972 Bill Withers song of the same name. Parts of the film, including the elementary school scenes, were filmed in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey.

Plot Summary[edit]

The film begins in 1967 at Eastside High School where a young Joe Louis "Crazy Joe" Clark (Morgan Freeman) is a Social Studies teacher. During a class, his friend and fellow teacher Dr. Frank Napier (Robert Guillaume) interrupts class to inform Clark that a meeting of the Union Executive Board (a union that they started) is going on without them, which gets Clark (known for his radical, outspoken behavior) outraged. He bursts in on the meeting, accusing the other members of selling him out. The other board members are sick of Clark's constant picketing and embarrassing public agitation. The other board members inform Clark that the Paterson Board of Education would give them salary increments if they transfer Clark to an elementary school to keep him out of trouble. Clark shuns the other board members and storms out of the building, saying Eastside "deserves exactly what it gets".

20 years later, in 1987 Eastside has deteriorated drastically - especially with drug dealings, gang violence and utter chaos occurring on a regular basis. The state legislature has legislated that schools with fewer than 75% of their students passing the MBST will be put in receivership. Mayor Don Bottman (Alan North) consults Dr. Napier, now the superintendent of schools, who suggests they hire Clark, now an elementary school principal,as new principal of Eastside High. The mayor is reluctant at first, because he knows the trouble one-time radical Clark has caused in the past. Clark himself initially refuses (still presumably bitter over 20 years ago) but Dr. Napier angrily reminds him that for all his controversial "Crazy Joe" antics, Clark has done nothing to benefit himself nor others. With that being said, Clark takes the position and, at his first faculty meeting, reprimands all those present for being unable to keep their own school safe and secure and to maintain passing MBST scores. At a school assembly, Clark dismisses from the school 300 students who are identified as drug dealers, abusers, or troublemakers. Clark gives a speech to the remaining students, demanding that they need to take responsibility for their education and their lives if they want to be successful.

At a meeting with the parents that night, one parent, Leona Barrett (Lynne Thigpen), whose son was expelled from Eastside by Clark, criticizes him for it claiming that her son as well as a number of others are smart, just discouraged, and didn't deserve to be expelled. Clark defends his actions claiming that "one bad apple spoils a bunch", meaning that 300 bad students leaves Eastside High "rotten to the core". Clark suggests to the parents to help their kids study and do their homework, he also unintentionally offends Mrs. Barrett and some other parents by suggesting that they "get off welfare". Clark gives a sermon about how God told him to do whatever is necessary to give the students of Eastside High a bright future. Clark leaves to a mixed reaction of cheers and jeers, while Mrs. Barrett makes it a personal mission to bring Clark down.

The next day Clark runs into one of the expelled youths, overweight freshman Thomas Sams (Jermaine Hopkins), who asks for the opportunity to reform and finish his education ("I can't just go home and tell my mother I got thrown out of school"). In a dramatic rooftop scene, Clark gives him a sharp lecture about crack cocaine and the likely fate of those who use it. Clark then challenges Sams to commit suicide by jumping off the roof since smoking crack is pretty much the same thing ("You're killing your brain cells! If you *really* wanna kill yourself, do it expeditiously!") Sams, breaking down in tears, refuses and begs for a chance to turn his life around. Clark agrees, warning Sams that he (Clark) is acting against his own better judgment by reversing the expulsion, and that he will bounce him for good if he messes up in any way whatsoever. Secretly, however, Clark is elated at having gotten even one of those 300 "problem youth" onto the right track again. But then another expelled student, narcotics pusher Brian Banes, gets inside the school and attacks former classmate Kid Ray. When Clark rushes in to stop him, Banes pulls a knife on the principal. With help from Sams and Security Dean William Wright (Tony Todd), Clark subdues Banes. Following this, Clark orders all doors chained and locked during school hours to keep drug dealers out since Eastside is too much in debt to install any proper security methods (despite knowing he is breaking the fire code), and enlists security guards to keep the fire chief out of the school. Clark's unusual methods lead to clashes with numerous teachers and with his vice principal, Mrs. Levias (Beverly Todd). He fires the music teacher for clashing with him in front of the students and suspends another teacher for not following his orders. In a meeting in his office, Dr. Napier harshly reminds Clark to stop with his antics and get his act together or else their efforts will be in vain ("Your personal battles are going to cost us the war").

The students take a practice version of the basic skills test, but only 33% of them pass it (the minimum passing requirement is 75%). Clark reprimands his faculty for their apathy and lack of effort towards their teaching responsibilities, and embarks on a campaign to prepare the students for the real test, culminating in a motivational assembly the morning of the exam.

Over the school year, the students bond with Mr. Clark, not just as a principal, but as a father figure. Clark highly values school pride, and several times throughout the film insists that all students learn the school song and be able to perform it on demand.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Barrett threatens the mayor politically to appoint her to the school board so she can put an end to Clark's tenure as principal. The fire chief eventually catches Clark with chains barring the school doors and records him ordering them removed during a surprise fire inspection. Clark's arrest comes after a key scene involving Kaneesha (Karen Malina White), who had been one of Clark's students when he was a grade school principal. Clark is offering counsel to her after Kaneesha has tearfully revealed her unplanned pregnancy by a fellow student.

That night, while Clark is in jail and the school board is preparing to vote on a motion to remove him as principal of Eastside High at the instigation of Mrs. Barrett, the entire student body converges on the Central Office of the Paterson Board of Education. They demand that Clark be released from jail and retained as principal. Mrs. Barrett tries to convince the students that Clark has made too many wrong decisions and is not the right man to be principal of Eastside and asks that they return to their homes before any trouble starts. The students claim that Clark cares for them and has done so much good that they will not accept anyone else as their principal, and they try to shout down Mrs. Barrett with chants and cheers.

As Mrs. Barrett tries to lecture the students, Clark is freed from custody by the mayor in the hope that he can talk the students into dispersing in order to avoid a violent confrontation with the police. As he tries to convince the students to return to their homes, he is given a letter from the state by Mrs. Levias with the good news that more than enough students have passed the basic skills exam, which means the current local school board will retain control over the school. Then Clark leads his class of 1987 students in singing Eastside High's school song. The closing credits feature scenes of Clark handing diplomas to the graduating seniors and Sams jokingly attempting to pose as one.


Awards and nominations[edit]

1991 NAACP Image Awards

  • Outstanding Lead Actor in a Motion Picture – Morgan Freeman (won)
  • Outstanding Motion Picture (won)

1990 Young Artist Awards

  • Young Artist Award Best Motion Picture – Drama (nominated)
  • Best Young Actor Supporting Role in a Motion Picture – Jermaine 'Huggy' Hopkins (nominated)
  • Best Young Actress Supporting Role in a Motion Picture – Karen Malina White (nominated)
  • Jackie Coogan Award – Norman Twain, producer (nominated)

American Film Institute recognition

AFI's 100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains- "Crazy" Joe Clark- Nominated Hero


External links[edit]