Reviewed by: Brett Willis
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Beverly Todd, Robert Guillaume, Alan North, Lynne Thigpen, Robin Bartlett, Michael Beach, Ethan Phillips, Sandra Reaves-Phillips, Sloane Shelton | Director: John G. Avildsen | Writer: Michael Schiffer
Although the material is strong at times, this dramatization of the work of principal Joe Clark (Morgan Freeman) in turning around an out-of-control high school is worthwhile.
In the opening sequence, Mr. Clark is shown in the ’60s as an effective and caring teacher who is forced out of Eastside High in a political dispute. When he’s recalled and appointed as principal of that same school in the ’80s, Eastside is in danger of being taken over by the state. To avoid that, Clark has one year to raise the number of students who pass a Minimum Basic Skills test from 38% to 75%. If you can get through an early sequence (with background music of “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N' Roses) that characterizes the school as overrun with guns, drugs and assaults on students and teachers, you’ll probably be OK with the rest of the film. Some of Clark’s actions are strong, but necessary in the situation; others seem arbitrary and dictatorial, even dangerous. He changes policies without warning and fires people at will. Though he knows the King’s English perfectly, he can also use “F*” when trying to talk a student out of doing drugs. Eventually, he learns to be a little more of a team player rather than a one-man army.
Profanity/vulgarity is medium to heavy for a PG-13. No actual sexual situations, but a lot of high-school posturing and smartmouthing. Clark uses offhand racist language (as an insider) with his mostly black and Hispanic students; even calls himself the H.N.I.C. (head nigger in charge). Overall, the film is thought-provoking as we wonder whether a situation like this could have been handled any better. The ending is positive.
I once attended a lecture by the real Joe Clark, and he’s just as Freeman portrayed him. He’s authoritarian and opinionated (opposes the official use of black English in schools), and he can and does use every form of English from Harvard style to street language. When asked if the moviemakers exaggerated him, he replied: “They underplayed me.”
I recommend this film for adults, and for teens who are mature enough to appreciate its message rather than be caught up in imitative behavior.
Year of Release—1989