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Film / Lean on Me

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"We don't want a good principal! We want Mr. Clark!"

Lean On Me is a movie Very Loosely Based on a True Story about a tough new school principal (played by Morgan Freeman) who brings a new level of order to an otherwise chaotic school.


  • All of Them: The mayor's aide delivers this line when a horde of unhappy students march on City Hall while the school board is meeting to vote Mr. Clark out as principal, after he's already been jailed for violating local fire safety laws.
    (The students are all in the town square outside, chanting "Free Mr. Clark!")
    Mayor's Aide: It appears Mr. Clark's students have assembled outside in an exercise of their First Amendment rights.
    Mayor: How many?
    Mayor's Aide: It looks like...all of them.
  • Anti-Hero: Clark is abrasive and can be overly combative, but he's trying to improve the school.
  • Anti-Villain: Mrs. Barrett is campaigning to have her son reinstated into the school and get Clark thrown out, believing that it would benefit the school much more than if he were to stay. Her motives are mostly sympathetic, but the film still sides with Clark.
  • Artistic License – Law: even in the 1980s a Principal cannot just randomly expel students, much less publicly expel around 300 of them. However it is strongly implied that Joe knows this and is simply betting that nobody will call him on it. Mrs. Barrett is clearly the exception and would've easily been able to get her son reinstated in school.
  • Bad to the Bone: The movie's present-day sequence opens with a memorable shot of Eastside High having long slid into decay, with Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" blasting as delinquents throng the halls.
  • Berate and Switch: Mr. Clark gives one to Mrs. Powers after she rewrites the school song into a slower, doo-wop inspired song.
  • Darker and Edgier: In comparison to most movies about inspirational educators. A teacher gets brutally beaten in front of a crowded lunch room in the very first scene. Things do eventually improve, though.
  • Dispense with the Pleasantries: At a teachers' meeting, Clark makes abundantly clear that flattery isn't going to work on him.
    Mr. O'Malley: We want to welcome Mr. Clark to Eastside; we've heard so much about you, and tell you what we have done in anticipation of your arrival. Mrs. Levias, your other vice principal, and I have appointed an executive committee to oversee certain areas where we have noted a need for improvement, and Mr. Zirella, for example...
    Joe: You may sit down, Mr. O'Malley.
  • Engineered Public Confession: Played straight, but by the antagonists in an effort to get Mr. Clark fired.
  • Foreshadowing: In his first meeting with the teachers where Mr Clark instructs them to write down the names of every troublemaker/delinquent, Mrs Elliot is shown putting her pen down and not writing.
  • Good is Not Nice: It really isn't.
    Joe: I cried "my God, why has thou forsaken me?" and the Lord said "Joe, you're no damn good. No, I mean this! More than you realize, you're no earthly good at all unless you take this opportunity and do whatever you have to." And he didn't say "Joe, be polite".
  • Hate Sink: Even though he's just doing his job, the Fire Chief is depicted just as much of an antagonist as Ms. Barrett. Before arresting Joe Clark, he called him an asshole and earlier in the film, he labeled the Eastside students as "savages", in which even Ms. Barrett was offended.
  • I'll Take That as a Compliment: When Mrs. Berrett tells the students that they're going to fire Mr. Clark and get a good principal, Sams responds with "We don't want a good principal. We want Mr. Clark!"
  • Jerkass Ball: Clark. There are many moments where he's nothing but downright cruel to people, even those who are on his side and trying to help. Many of which come from either the test scores of the practice exam or his demand for everyone to learn and sing the school song upon demand. Some examples include suspending the assistant football coach for simply picking up trash during the school song, firing the first music teacher after believing she was ignoring his request to teach the students the school song, and yelling at the second music teacher because of the way she taught the students to sing the school song, even though he's later shown to love and approve of it.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: As stated under Large Ham: He's not pleasant, and his methods range from cruel to outright despotic. Yet, the students weren't even passing the minimum basic skills test with the methods applied before. Shit had to change and it had to change hard.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: While Clark tends to be a Drill Sergeant Nasty to almost everyone, especially the teachers working for him, he does have their best interests in his heart and really does care for those in need. His fatherly treatment towards Kaneesha and his willingness to do everything he can to help her when she's struggling is a major example of this.
  • Large Ham: Joe Clark, as portrayed by Morgan Freeman.
    Joe: You've tried it your way for years, and your students can't even get past the minimum basic skills test. THAT MEANS THEY CAN HARDLY READ!
  • Laser-Guided Karma: In the beginning of the film, Clark is transferred from Eastside to a different school. While leaving he remarks that Eastside High “deserves exactly what it gets”. The school would become a hell-hole in the 20 years Clark wasn’t there.
  • Listing the Forms of Degenerates: Joe Clark does this a few times:
    I've got thugs, drug dealers, and deviants of all kinds trying to get into my school.
    • Or...
      I want the name of every hoodlum, drug dealer, and miscreant who's done nothing but take this place apart on my desk by noon today.
  • Non-Giving-Up School Guy: Joe Clark takes drastic measures to keep students in school and to keep undesirables out of school.
  • N-Word Privileges:
    • Joe Clark at a meeting calling himself the HNIC, and Mrs. Levias clarifying afterward to Mr. O'Malley, the white vice-principal, that it stands for "head nigga in charge." Though Dr. Napier claims that he is technically this, contrary to popular opinion.
    • Later, while trying to pump up the students as they prepare to take the test, he tells them that people think "you're just a bunch of niggers, spics, and poor white trash", urging them to prove their detractors wrong by performing well on the exam.
  • Precision F-Strike: Clark drops N-bombs on two occasions.
  • Save Our Students: This movie along with Stand and Deliver the previous year were trope codifiers, paving the way for more movies like it in The '90s and The Aughts including Dangerous Minds, The Substitute, and Coach Carter.
  • Shoot the Dog: Many of Joe Clark's actions have some arguable moral ambiguity to them, from chaining and locking school doors (in violation of fire safety rules) after being told that someone from inside the school let an expelled student into the building, to indefinitely suspending a teacher for picking up trash during the school song for which everyone was told not to move.
  • Shown Their Work: Note that many kids are dressed in expensive fashionable clothes. Unfortunately many people living in poverty will often invest a large amount in fashion and style as a form of social status. Not to mention one sad reality for many in poverty is poor financial management, money is for spending.
    • Notice that the teachers are almost all in their fifties and sixties, or in their twenties. Also most are white despite being a school where most students are Black or Hispanic. This is sadly a problem that still exists today. Many young teachers quickly get burned out and either leave the field altogether or find a more desirable school. Many older teachers are simply trapped at their location as no other district will pay them the same as what they're making at their current district, or won't hire them at all due to their impending retirement.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: All of the students do this repeatedly towards Berrett for jailing Clark, but she's too determined to shut up.
  • Stuffed into a Locker: Sams, at the beginning of the movie. Then, to drive home how bad things have gotten at East Side High over the last 20 years, Sams is yelling urgently to be let out, yet a janitor walking down the empty hallway (the school day had just ended) completely ignores him.
  • Suicide Dare: A rare case of someone trying to do this for the "victim's" own good. When Joe Clark runs into Sams (who had been expelled for smoking crack), who pleads to be let back into school, Joe drags him up to the roof of his building, gives him a very harsh lecture on what could happen to him if he keeps using crack, and then dares him to jump off. Sams breaks down in tears and refuses, making a promise to clean up his act, prompting Clark to give him another chance.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech:
    • This is how Dr. Napier convinces Joe to take the job of principal at Eastside High:
    Napier: The truth is that for all your talk and all your "Crazy Joe" routine, what have you ever done? Nothing! You're nothing but an insignificant man! It's like you were never born! Your life hasn't made one bit of difference! And neither has mine! Want to take that to the grave!?
    • Clark later gives several of these himself. It's a significant part of his management style.
    • Ms. Levias gives him a good one near the end, blasting him for the horrible way he treats the staff when they're working just as hard as he is.
  • Rousing Speech: Clark does one to the students just before the exam.
  • Took a Level in Kindness: Joe Clark becomes less tyranical and more friendlier towards the students and staff after Ms. Levias calls him out on his abrasive, cruel and Ungrateful attitude.
  • [Verb] This!: Just after Mrs. Berrett and the fire chief spring their Engineered Public Confession on Mr. Clark and he's being taken away in handcuffs by the police with some of his students (including Sams) looking on:
    Clark: Mrs. Barrett, if you think you can—
    Berrett: SHUT UP! You're finished! The school board is going to hear this at seven o'clock, and we are gonna vote your black ass out.
    Sams: *grabs his crotch* YO, BITCH! VOTE ON THIS!
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The movie definitely takes some liberties with the truth (see this Cracked article for more details): Clark was a very tough disciplinarian who really did clean up Eastside High, and he really did use a bullhorn and brandish a baseball bat, and he was a controversial figure for these reasons, but the movie otherwise makes up a lot of stuff. Despite the improvements Clark made, he did not succeed in getting substantial improvements in test scores, although his supporters say he would have if he had been kept in office longer.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: The teachers get sick of Clark's belittling of them and extending his jerkass attitude towards them and let him know it. Not that he really cares, at least initially. Then Dr. Napier (who claims there's been rumors of a walkout) and later, Mrs. Levias (who had just demanded to transfer to a different school) tear into him about it.