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 Brent Piazza
Written by Michael Schiffer
Starring Morgan Freeman
Beverly Todd
Alan North
Robert Guillaume
Music by Bill Conti
Cinematography Victor Hammer
Editing 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]

In 1987, Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey, is plagued with numerous problems, especially drugs and gang violence. Furthermore, the students scored poorly on the state's test of minimum basic skills.

During the opening credits sequence, after a teacher is brutally beaten for trying to break up a fight and the state legislature has recently passed a law proclaiming that schools who cannot meet minimum test requirements will be put in receivership, Mayor Bottman (Alan North) consults school superintendent Dr. Frank Napier (Robert Guillaume), who suggests the school hire elementary school principal Joe Louis Clark, aka "Crazy Joe" (Morgan Freeman), who was a teacher at Eastside High 20 years before, as the new principal. The mayor is reluctant at first as he knows about the trouble the radical Clark has caused in the past, but Clark, nonetheless, is hired. At his first meeting, Clark reprimands the entire faculty for their inability to control the students and their failure to get the test scores up. Tension arises immediately when Clark dismisses hundreds of students from the school who are identified as drug dealers or abusers and troublemakers. A meeting between the parents of those students and the academic board only fans the flames.

The next day, Clark runs into one of the expelled youths, Thomas Sams (Jermaine Hopkins), who asks to be let back into the school. In a dramatic rooftop scene, Clark gives him a sharp lecture about crack and what can happen to Sams if he keeps on using it. Clark then dares Sams to commit suicide by jumping off the roof, but Sams, breaking down in tears, refuses and promises to clean up his act. Clark grants him a second chance to turn things around. However, another expelled student manages to get inside the school and attack another student before Clark comes to break up the fight. Knowing he is breaking the fire code, Clark orders all doors chained and locked during school hours to keep drug dealers out, and enlists security guards to keep the fire chief out of the school. Clark's unusual methods lead him to clash with numerous teachers and with his vice principal Mrs. Levias (Beverly Todd). He fires one teacher and suspends another for clashing with him in front of the students, though the suspension is reversed by the superintendent.

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 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, one parent, Leona Barrett (Lynne Thigpen), whose son was expelled from Eastside by Clark, aligns herself with the mayor in an effort to oust Clark. The fire chief eventually catches Clark with chains on the doors and Barrett makes a tape recording of him ordering them removed during a surprise inspection. Clark's arrest comes after a key scene involving Kaneesha (Karen Malina White), who remembers Clark from grade school. Clark is offering counsel about Kaneesha's unplanned pregnancy just before he is arrested.

That night, while Clark is in jail and the mayor is preparing to remove him, 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 shout down Mrs. Barrett with chants and cheers.

Eventually, Clark is freed from custody, and to good news, more than enough students passed the basic skills exam, which means the current local school board will retain control over the school. Then Clark leads his students in singing Eastside High's school song. The closing credits feature scenes of graduating Eastside High Class of 1988 seniors, including Sams as a future Eastside graduate.


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]