Lean on Me is a 1989 biographical-drama 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 Clark, a real life inner city high school principal in Paterson, New Jersey, whose school is at risk of being overtaken by the New Jersey state government unless students improve their test scores. Morgan Freeman spent time with Clark to capture his mannerisms and sayings. Clark resigned as principal of Eastside High School the year after this film was released to become an author and motivational speaker. In August 1995, he was hired to run a juvenile detention center in Newark, New Jersey. Parts of the film, including the elementary school scenes, were filmed in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey.
During the opening credits sequence, after the principal is brutally beaten by students for trying to break up a fight, the mayor (Alan North) consults the schools superintendent, Dr. Frank Napier, (Robert Guillaume), who suggests the school hire former Eastside teacher and grade school principal Joe Clark aka "Crazy Joe" (Freeman) as the new principal. The mayor is reluctant at first, knowing about trouble Clark has caused in the past. But Clark is hired and things immediately get tense after Clark dismisses from the school hundreds of students 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 'Huggy' Hopkins), asking to be let back into the school. In a dramatic rooftop scene, Clark gives him a sharp lecture but grants him a chance to turn things around. Another dismissed 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. Also, the students show no improvement in taking a practice version of the basic skills test.
Clark does not put up with teachers who disagree with him either, especially those who do so in front of the students. One of his rash firings is reversed by the superintendent. Meanwhile, one parent who's son was expelled from Eastside by Clark, Leonna Barrett (Lynne Thigpen) aligns herself with the mayor in an effort to oust Clark. The fire chief eventually catches Clark not just with the school's doors chained, but conspiring to have the chains removed during surprise inspections.
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.
Eventually, Clark is freed from custody, and to good news: all the students have passed the basic skills exam. With that, Clark shuns both Mrs. Barrett and the mayor: "You can tell the State to go to hell!" Then Clark leads his students in singing Eastside High's alma mater (several scenes throughout the movie find Clark insisting that each student be taught to perform the school song on demand). The closing credits feature scenes of graduating Eastside High seniors.
The cast of the film includes the reunion of former Benson co-stars Robert Guillaume and Ethan Phillips.
While some real-life students and teachers from Eastside High School appeared as extras in this film, most of the student extras where brought in from surrounding towns.
Michael Best, Stephen Capers Jr., Dwayne Jones, and Kenneth Kelly (who portray the students that Clark forces to learn the school song on threat of expulsion) formed the R&B group Riff after their involvement in this film.
Director John G. Avildsen's son Anthony appears in the movie's prologue, as one of Joe Clark's students at Eastside in 1967.
A young Hank Azaria portrays one of the fire chief's cronies.
Beverly Todd (who plays Mrs. Levias in this movie) reunites with Morgan Freeman 20 years later, playing the role of his wife in the 2007 movie, The Bucket List.
2006-Present, Hip Hop Artist Young Dro has cited this film in many of his songs as something he views while riding one of his many upscale cars.
Though violence did decrease at the school during Clark's reign, the test scores did not significantly increase as depicted in the film. The auditorium scene where Clark expels the students did not happen, though on a single day during his first week at Eastside, Clark expelled 300 students for fighting, vandalism, drug possession, profanity or abusing teachers. He explains, "If there is no discipline, there is anarchy. Good citizenship demands attention to responsibilities as well as rights.
The scene where students protested when Clark was arrested and jailed never happened. 400 students did however march on the school board office in response to the board suspension of Mr. Clark.
The character of Clark's nemesis, Mrs. Barrett, did not exist.
The girl's basketball coach was fired for walking around during the school song. The movie depicts teacher and former football coach Mr. Darnell as the teacher disciplined (suspended) for this.
The football coach (Mr. Olsen, not named Darnell) was fired as coach not for losing games, but allowing academically ineligible students to play. As depicted in the movie, he was a teacher in the building and continued to work as a teacher at the school.
Many of the events depicted in the movie while based on actual events, did not occur over the course of just one school year as alluded to in the movie. They occurred over the course of Mr. Clark's tenure at Eastside.