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It Can Be Hard To Change Things As Depicted In John G. Avildsen’s Film Lean On Me

Lean On Me Critique

When the status quo is saturated with discouragement and mediocrity and festers with inefficacy and putrid failure, accepting seems like the most comforting default reaction. Nevertheless, Mr. Joe Clarke in the 1989 film “Lean on Me” demonstrates that challenging the status quo can be tiresome, controversial and acerbic but the results when they come, blossoms with the sweet fruit of one’s commitment and determination.

The film includes many colourful cast members but the key ones are Mr Joe Clarke, the controversial teacher which the film centres around, Ms. Lavias, the vice-principal, Mayor Don Bottman who is threatened by the state to take control of the schools who doesn’t pass the basic skills test, Keneesha Carter, a student who the author singled out by creating a view that delves deeper into her life, giving the audience a view of the personal struggles a typical student of EHS faces. There is also Leonna Barrett, a parent who is not pleased with expulsion of her son who in turn blackmails the mayor in order to gain distinction to vote Mr. Clark out of authority.

The film “Lean on Me” is a movie based on a true story which begins with a transitory sequence at a well-run urban high school in 1967 called Eastside High in Paterson, New Jersey. Within that school, there was a teacher by the name of Joe Clark who was very passionate about teaching. His unconventional methods made learning more enjoyable. However, the other teachers were not too fond of his methods. It was seen that he alienated his principal which resulted in him being transferred out. It fast forwards 20 years later with Clark more or less teaching in a good school in a seemingly nice neighbourhood. Then we get an updated look at Eastside High which has become the town’s most deeply troubled, mostly minority high school, where violence drug-dealing and intimidation are facts of life and little or no learning takes place.

The movie continues with Mr. Clark assuming his post as principal ignoring the pleasantries from the staff and begins to issue orders in a semi military fashion. He asks for a list of the drug dealers and habitual troublemakers in the student body and expels them all. To build morale he insists that every child learn the school song. One of the expelled students implores Mr. Clark to give him another chance and after giving him a rough ‘pep talk’ another chance is issued. At a parents’ meeting he runs afoul of Leonna Barrett for the expulsion of so many students who in turn begins a campaign for the removal of his leadership. Mr. Clark implemented an open door policy so that students may visit and discuss trials faced at school or even at home in private. He then become understanding and helpful and visits the parent to offer useful solutions to assist them.

Drug dealers continue to barge into the schools and are let in by their clients, so in effort to curb this Mr. Clark responds by chaining the school doors while classes are in session. He receives a tip off that his measure was being looked into by the fire chief fuelled by Ms. Barrett but is eventually caught and is arrested. A school board meeting is called for the dismissal of Mr. Clark for the breaching of safety for the students. However, the school body holds a rally outside City Hall shouting “Free Mr. Clark!” The mayor visits him in jail and asks him tell the students to go. Ms. Barrett tries to address the students saying that they will get a better principal. The students shout her down stating that they don’t want another principal but Mr. Clark. Ms. Lavias shows up with the test results stating that the students of Eastside High passed with flying colours which leads to the confrontation turning into a merriment resulting in the legal case being dropped from Mr. Clark and his position retained at the school.

The film develops several profound and insightful themes, one that stands out is that of leadership. We see this running throughout the entire film but it is prominent in scenes such as when the entire school body had assembled in one location and he gave the school body an order; faculty and students alike. At this point one teacher ignores the directive and acts contrarily. Mr Clarke saw this as act that could potentially undermine his authority and so he proceeds to rebuke the teacher by sending him out of the room and to his office. Another instance in which the theme of leadership was displayed was the point at which he proceeds to chain the gates to keep students within the school. This is obviously an unorthodox move since it defied fire safety codes and it did raise an outcry but he took this bold drastic action because he felt it was necessary to accomplishing the goal he had established for the school.

The intended audience for this film would be anyone who is faced with an insurmountable challenge that on the outside appears daunting and impossible. That audience would be all humans for, challenges are an inextricable part of the life we live. We all come away from watching this film with a new, invigoured attitude towards viewing and approaching our challenges, whether professional, personal or otherwise.

The writer of the story behind this film adopts a didactic, demonstrative tone. He aims to teach his audience the value of holding firm to your goals and convictions despite resistance and adversity and your vision not being a popular one. He demonstrates this throughout the entire film at first showing the challenges Mr. Clarke was up against; the dismal deteriorated state the school had slumped into, the radical route he had to take in an effort to turn it around and towards the end of the film, the final results of his efforts. The film is successful in developing this moral especially because it presents a stark contrast between the state of the school upon Mr. Clarke’s arrival and the drastic turn around that the school has undergone by the end of the film. The viewer is left in awe of this transformation since he has been shown and startling example of just how much your efforts and attitude to your challenges can make the seemingly impossible happen.

The screen writer employs several varieties of English in this film. This too contributes to the film being realistic – able to be seen in parallel to our everyday life. Two of these are the use of dialect such as when Mr. Clark remarks, “that’s all I’m gonna say” during a meeting with the parents. There is also the use of profanity- words that are deemed morally inappropriate. This we hear when Mr. Clarke addresses a student and tells him “if you want to kill yourself don’t f_ck around…” Also used in the film are a number of literary devices. When Mr. Clarke says in his speech “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch” to justify his decision to expel a number of severely deviant students, this was a case of a metaphor being used. He used this device to get the parents to realize that he was making a change in the school so that the students could go to a place where their hearts and mind rise and the shadow of failure that looms over them can be in the past. The device paradox is used when Mr. Clark states, “I fell down on my knees and I cried to the Lord, My God why has thou forsaken me?” And the Lord said, “Joe you are no damn good at all unless you take this opportunity and do whatever you have to.”

Although Mr. Clark’s personality was deemed as raw and beneath contempt, his seemingly out of control and intimidating behaviour got the mission completed and successful. His methods of discipline were bizarre but necessary in order for the school to make a complete turnaround. What did not work was the same attitude bestowed on the faculty which caused animosity that could have been avoided and perhaps the work load being lighter for them working together as team players.

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