Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford) is a newly-graduated teacher who really wants to inspire young people. Unfortunately, he takes a job at North Manual Trades High School, where gangs are everywhere, nobody has respect for their elders, and the other teachers have long since burnt out. Mr. Dadier is initially met with hostility and violence, but by refusing to give up, treating his students with respect, and trying innovative ways of engaging his class, he slowly gets the students on his side, particularly unofficial class leader Gregory Miller (Sidney Poitier).
At the time, Blackboard Jungle was notable for dropping the bombshell that high schools were not idealistic happy little teaching institutions where everyone behaved and no one would ever dare think of challenging authority, and that students could be angry, disillusioned, and have their own set of problems, almost like they were human or something. Suburban adults were horrified and suburban kids were inspired. This, along with the movies of James Dean and Marlon Brando, ushered in the concept of the Troubled, but Cute teen rebel.
Blackboard Jungle is also famous for its theme song. Director Richard Brooks wanted to use a song that all the young folks would be into, and borrowed some of Glenn Ford's son Peter's records. Luckily Peter had good taste. Richard chose "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley & His Comets and played it over the opening credits. Rock & Roll was still a niche genre, but "Rock Around the Clock" proved to be so popular that teenagers danced in the aisles when it came on and Rock & Roll turned mainstream.
In 2016 the National Film Registry deemed the film "culturally significant".
Blackboard Jungle provides examples of the following tropes:
- Apathetic Teacher: All the teachers at North Manual Trade are tired of all the shit they have to put up with by the time Mr. Dadier arrives.
- Attempted Rape: One of the students tries to rape Miss Hammond in the school library. Dadier stops him.
- Break the Cutie: At the start of the movie, Mr. Edwards is young, idealistic, and enthusiastic about teaching. But when Artie and the rest of Mr. Dadier's class breaks most of his rare jazz records For the Evulz (as detailed below), he has what appears to be a nervous breakdown.
- Cool Teacher: Mr. Dadier is at least cool enough to try and reach his students.
- Greaser Delinquents: All the students sport the greaser look and most of them are delinquents.
- Kick the Dog: The students breaking most of Mr. Edwards' jazz records For the Evulz.
- Malicious Misnaming: Dadier's class mutate his name into the mocking nickname "Daddy-o". Eventually it becomes an Affectionate Nickname.
- Mistaken for Cheating: Mr. Dadier's wife Anne begins receiving anonymous letters and phone calls claiming he's having an affair with Hot Teacher Miss Hammond, and she misinterprets his desire to stay at the school as a sign that it's true.
- Never Trust a Trailer: The trailer, and some of the movie posters, make the movie look like lurid Exploitation Film instead of a serious look at the problems affecting teenagers in high school.
- N-Word Privileges: Defied. Dadier name-drops several racial slurs he discourages his students from using and has to explain himself for it.
- Save Our Students: One of the earliest examples to the point of being the Trope Codifier.
- Sinister Switchblade: Artie wields a switchblade in the final confrontation, but the protagonists manage to snap the blade off the handle.
- Soundtrack Dissonance: Mr. Dadier is beat up by some gang members while an upbeat jazz piece plays over the fight.
- Teens Are Monsters: Discussed and demonstrated throughout the film, though with the idea that not all teens are monsters, and if they are they can turn themselves around with support.
- Trailers Always Spoil:
- The movie trailer shows the scene where Anne admits she was wrong for suspecting Richard of cheating on her, making that whole subplot pointless.
- Several of the movie posters show Artie West pulling a knife on Mr. Dadier at the film's climax.