He risked it all to make the grade
When new principal George McKenna steps onto the campus of George Washington High School, he is immediately confronted with the reasons why this establishment of higher education has been labeled a war zone: gang violence, graffiti, drugs, and a disrespectful student body. George is an idealist: he believes that in all young people is an inherent good and desire to learn. So he challenges his faculty to try and connect with the detached students. Many defy him. He himself puts in long hours battling truancy, aggression and vandalism. He even takes in hard luck cases whose parents/society has given up on them. Still, nothing seems to affect the chaos that is George Washington High. McKenna feels like giving up. That is, until the death of a student instills in him the desire to work even harder. Soon, he is making a difference in this troubled school. Today, George Washington Preparatory High School has one of the highest attendance/college acceptance/scholarship award rates in all of Los Angeles. And it's all thanks to George McKenna and the Hard Lessons that he, and his students, had to learn along the way.
Originally entitled The George McKenna Story, this 1984 made for TV movie renamed Hard Lessons for DVD release is indeed the tale of an idealistic principal and the squalid hellhole of a school he saved from self-destruction. It is the same old standard formula: optimist outsider sees course for change, entrenched bureaucracy wants nothing to do with it, diligent do-gooder wins over a few of the students, parents start getting the word, and before you know it, voila, the school is no longer a gang infested sewer of the delinquent and disenfranchised. Kids are learning and respecting the faculty. Teen mothers are no longer giving birth in the stairwells. Gangs of toughs no longer use the shop class for a game of craps. A film like Hard Lessons makes it look so easy to turn a field into Harvard Jr. that you wonder why more troubled schools don't simply scout the colleges and classrooms, like basketball and football coaches, looking for up and coming crusading dreamers. Then they could hold a draft, schools could bid on the services of the number one pick and before you know it, there is no longer a crisis in the US school system. All the pre-Columbine kids will calm down and we can even kick a little Asian hinder in the math and science section of the real world. Anyone with any attachment to America's education structure will look at the dated Hard Lessons and laugh, "if it were only so simple." But those who find their own children's learning environment a tad wanting will cheer for McKenna and his take charge campaigning, despite its rote trappings.
One should never underestimate the viability of star power. If charisma were Cocoa Puffs, Denzel Washington would keep that whacked out bird Sonny happy for decades. He walks on screen and ladies melt directly into their underthings. He bares his perfect pearly whites and takes a macho stance in front of a gang of goofs and men immediately recheck their testosterone levels. Even in this 1986 pre-superstardom presentation, our Denzel is so overpoweringly luscious and real gone righteous that you know if he doesn't win, God himself will step in to offer his omniscient support. It's the irradiating idol presence of Master Washington and his smile that keeps Hard Lessons from degenerating into the ABC After School Movie of the Week Special Episode it really is. And Denzel's presence makes it fun to imagine how different characters from his now-healthy oeuvre would handle a school full of fudged-up misfits like those staining George Washington High. If this were Hard Training Day Lessons, you know Alonzo Harris would gangsta their bad asses with a blast of homeroom Uzi fire. If this were Hard Crimson Tide Lessons, he would usurp power from the out of control white principal, only to have his own leadership skills questioned by a potential faculty mutiny. And if this were Hard Hurricane Lessons, he'd beat the snot out of psycho students before being falsely accused of a crime he did not commit. While it is fun to reinvent this movie, it's worth noting that, even with its formula trappings, the work of Washington and the cast momentarily elevate it into something eminently watchable and occasionally gripping. While it's no Stand and Deliver or even Lean on Me, it is still a decent, hard working TV movie.
Artisan added nothing to this title except a digital versatile disc when it released Hard Lessons to DVD. The picture is broadcast passable and the sound Dolby Digital decent. There are no extras here: no trailers or commentaries, no galleries or bios. This is just a movie, nothing more. And seeing how it is nearly twenty years old and more or less a forgotten feather in Denzel Washington's otherwise Oscar and Golden Globe draped pimp hat, the lack of extra material is excusable. But it still makes the mind wonder what it would be like to hear Washington discuss the project on an ancillary narrative track. Wouldn't it be great to hear how the two-time Academy Award winner feels about his performance and his improvement since these long lost acting salad days. It would be a great selling point to offer even a small interview, done from today's perspective, about how hard it was to land the role and the amount of effort it took. Recently, Wes Craven sat down and revisited a lost television film from his cache of cinema (Summer of Fear) and his commentary track was excellent. Perhaps ego was an issue for the big time box office draw, or maybe nobody bothered to ask him. Either way, it's a shame.
Though it's as predictable as a conservative's reaction to a snapshot of Marilyn Manson, Hard Lessons still has one thing going for it that most made for television preach-athons don't: the hot buttered, smooth as silk sha-ZAAM-ness of one Denzel Washington. His powerful protestations of chocolate thunder dogma should keep the honeys happy and the homies anxious at even the most bombed out of ghetto wastelands. Now that's education!
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