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Lean on Me (film)

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United States



Music director

Lean on Me (film) movie poster

Release date
March 3, 1989

Warner Bros. Entertainment

(Principal Joe Clark), (Ms. Levias), (Dr. Frank Napier), (Mr. Rosenberg), (Leonna Barrett), (Mr. Darnell)

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Lean on me sing a long from 1989 lean on me movie

Lean on Me is a 1989 American dramatized biographical 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 Louis Clark, a real life inner city high school principal in Paterson, New Jersey, whose school is at risk of being taken over by the New Jersey state government unless students improve their test scores on the New Jersey Minimum Basic Skills Test. This film's title refers to the 1972 Bill Withers song of the same name. Parts of the film, including the elementary school scenes, were filmed in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey.


Lean on Me (film) movie scenes

Lean on me bathroom scene


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By 1987, the once successful Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey, has deteriorated due to drugs and crime. The majority of students cannot pass basic skills testing and not even teachers are safe from gang violence. Mayor Bottman (Alan North) learns that the school will be turned over to state administration if 75% of the students cannot pass the minimum basic skills test. He consults school superintendent Dr. Frank Napier, (Robert Guillaume), who suggests the school hire elementary school principal Joe Clark, aka "Crazy Joe" (Morgan Freeman), who was a teacher at Eastside High, as the new principal. The mayor is reluctant at first, but Clark is hired.

Lean on Me (film) Lean on Me film Wikipedia

Clark immediately effects radical changes. He expels 300 students identified as drug dealers or abusers and troublemakers. He also institutes programs to improve school spirit including repainting graffiti covered walls and requiring students to learn the school song and be punished if they cannot sing it on demand. When one of the expelled students is found beating up another student, Clark orders the doors of the school chained shut during school hours since alarmed security doors cannot be purchased.

Lean on Me (film) Lean on Me 1989

Some parents react strongly to these measures, including Leonna Barrett (Lynne Thigpen), mother of one of the expelled students, who presses the mayor to oust Clark. Clark likewise comes into conflict with members of the faculty, including Mr. Darnell, an English teacher who Clark suspends for picking up a piece of trash during a disciplinary confrontation, and Mrs. Elliot, a choir teacher whom Clark fires for being insubordinate after he cancels a pre-planned choral event, the school's upcoming annual Lincoln Center concert.

Clark's actions do begin to have a positive effect on his students. Thomas Sams, a student expelled for crack use, pleads to be allowed to return to school and gradually reforms over the course of the film. Clark also reunites one of his old elementary students, Kaneesha Carter, with her estranged mother. Despite these efforts, a practice skills test results in another poor performance and he angrily confronts his staff for failing to educate their students and to prepare them for the world. He institutes a program to encourage remedial reading courses on Saturdays which parents may attend alongside their children.

Lean on Me (film) Lean On Me Movie Scene Cafeteria Chaos Scene YouTube

When the minimum basic skills test is finally assessed, the students are much better prepared and filled with a sense of self-worth. Before the results can arrive, the fire chief raids the school and discovers the chained doors. Clark is arrested for violating fire safety codes. That night, the student body converges on the Central Office of the Paterson Board of Education, where the school board, led by Ms. Barrett, is voting to have Clark removed. The students demand that Clark be released from jail and retained as principal. In the midst of the protest, Clark calls for his students to return to their homes before being interrupted by his assistant principal, Ms. Levias, who delivers the results of the exam: More than 75% of the students have passed. He announces the results over his megaphone, prompting the assembled students to break into their school song in celebration.


Lean on Me (film) American Rhetoric Movie Speech from Lean on Me Joe Clark

  • Morgan Freeman – as Joe Louis Clark
  • Beverly Todd – Mrs. Joan Levias
  • Alan North – as Mayor Don Bottman (based on Frank X. Graves, Jr.)
  • Robert Guillaume – as Dr. Frank Napier
  • Ethan Phillips – as Mr. Rosenberg
  • Lynne Thigpen – Leonna Barrett
  • Robin Bartlett - Mrs. Elliott
  • Michael Beach – Mr. Larry Darnell
  • Sandra Reaves-Phillips – Mrs. Powers
  • Tony Todd – William Wright, Dean of Security
  • Sloane Shelton – Mrs. Hamilton
  • Jermaine 'Huggy' Hopkins – Thomas Sams
  • Karen Malina White – Kaneesha Carter
  • Karina Arroyave – Maria
  • Michael P. Moran - Mr. Ed O'Malley
  • Ivonne Coll – Mrs. Santos
  • Regina Taylor – Mrs. Carter
  • Jim Moody – Mr. Lott
  • Linda M. Salgado – Linda
  • Mike Starr – Mr. Zarella
  • Reverend Herschell Slappy – Himself
  • Cole Dragone - Boss
  • Michael Imperioli - George
  • David Nelson - Real Student
  • Anthony Avildsen (the director's real-life son) as Clark's student in prologue
  • Michael Best - Songbird
  • Kenneth Kelly - Songbird
  • Dwayne Jones - Songbird
  • Anthony Fuller - Songbird
  • Steven Capers Jr. - Songbird
  • Reception

    On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a rating of 69%, based on 16 reviews, with an average rating of 5.8/10. On CinemaScore, audiences gave the film a rare grade of "A+" on an A+ to F scale.

    Awards and honors

    1991 NAACP Image Awards

  • Outstanding Lead Actor in a Motion Picture – Morgan Freeman (won)
  • Outstanding Motion Picture (won)
  • 1990 Young Artist Awards

  • Young Artist Award Best Motion Picture – Drama (nominated)
  • Best Young Actor Supporting Role in a Motion Picture – Jermaine 'Huggy' Hopkins (nominated)
  • Best Young Actress Supporting Role in a Motion Picture – Karen Malina White (nominated)
  • Jackie Coogan Award – Norman Twain, producer (nominated)
  • Other honors

    The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

  • 2003: AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains:
  • “Crazy” Joe Clark – Nominated Hero
  • 2004: AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs:
  • "Lean on Me" – Nominated
  • 2006: AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – Nominated
  • Lean on me 1989 trailer


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