Thursday, February 25, 2021

Blackboard Jungle


BLACKBOARD JUNGLE           B                                                                                            USA  (101 mi)  1955  d:  Richard Brooks

We, in the United States, are fortunate to have a school system that is a tribute to our communities and to our faith in American youth. Today we are concerned with juvenile delinquency--its causes--and its effects. We are especially concerned when this delinquency boils over into our schools. The scenes and incidents depicted here are fictional. However, we believe that public awareness is a first step toward a remedy for any problem. It is in this spirit and with this faith that Blackboard Jungle was produced.                                                              —Introduction prior to opening credits

A contentious film about juvenile delinquency, an outdated term that’s not even used much anymore, changed to juvenile offenders, perhaps due to the proliferation of inner city guns, where murder rates are through the roof, with so many juveniles placed in adult prisons, but the term was all the rage in the conformism of the 1950’s, made just a year after the 1954 landmark Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education ordering the desegregation of American public schools, sending flocks of white parents out into the safer suburbs to avoid blacks and what they viewed as the inner city riff-raff.  Though heavy handed and overly bombastic, with almost non-existent character development, and glaring contrivances as a substitute for a social message, the film remains one of Hollywood’s most iconic depictions of deviant American youth, with South London screenings provoking vandalism and riots in the theaters by disenchanted teenagers known as the Teddy Boys, thuggish, working class white hoodlums known for making unprovoked attacks on blacks and newly arriving immigrant groups, viewing them as a threat to their already disintegrating communities.  Whatever you may think about it, the film was extremely controversial for its day, shocking contemporary audiences with revelations on teenage violence, sexuality, and racial antagonism, provoking discussions about the need to improve public education in America.  Adapted from the 1954 novel by Evan Hunter, aka Ed McBain, a noted crime fiction writer who embellished his substitute teaching experiences at a Bronx Vocational High School in New York City, claiming none of the depicted incidents actually occurred, but were “within the realm of realistic plausibility.”  Nonetheless, the topic was hailed by Time magazine as “nightmarish but authentic,” while the Saturday Review called it “the most realistic account I have ever read of life in a New York City vocational high school,” creating a moral panic about troubled youth in postwar America, with movie reviews focused on the more sensational aspects of the film, creating tabloid headlines warning us of the coming Apocalypse, where the film was debated, denounced, banned, and scapegoated for its violent content, denounced by teachers and principals, banned in Memphis, Tennessee and Atlanta, Georgia, claiming it was “immoral, obscene, licentious and will adversely affect the peace, health, morals and good order of the city,” screenings in New Jersey included a disclaimer that what’s depicted onscreen does NOT reflect local schools in the area, a Boston theater ran the first reel in silence for fear that the rock ‘n’ roll music on the soundtrack would over-stimulate audiences into violence, while U.S. Ambassador to Italy, Clare Boothe Luce, fearful of potential communist propaganda, prevented the film’s screening at the Venice Film Festival, claiming it was not representative of American values.  The film remains something of a cultural artifact from a forgotten era, literally frozen in time, certainly viewed differently with a modernist lens.  This is the first instance when a movie propelled a rock ‘n’ roll song to the top of the charts, where the jolting music of Bill Haley & the Comets “Rock Around the Clock” became a mainstream cultural phenomenon, Blackboard Jungle/Rock around the clock - YouTube (1:20), the first rock song to ever hit #1, selling 25 million copies, staying in the Top 100 for 38 weeks, specifically targeting a teen audience, with American Bandstand’s Dick Clark calling it “the national anthem of rock ‘n’ roll,” which at the time was blamed for “causing” juvenile delinquency.  There were also debates (particularly overseas) suggesting the film’s promotion of rock ‘n’ roll music was equally responsible for corrupting America’s youth, yet despite an overall tone of melodrama mixed with realism, one immediately senses just from the opening scene that this is a fantasia into public education, (macho guys holding hands and dancing with other macho guys just ain’t macho), a lead-in to the artful lyrics of Stephen Sondheim’s American musical WEST SIDE STORY (1961), originally staged in the summer of 1957,  West Side Story - Gee Officer Krupke! (1961) HD - YouTube (4:05), mockingly suggesting “Juvenile delinquency is purely a social disease.”  The film is also notable for launching the career of actor Sidney Poitier, who at age 28 plays one of the high school teenagers.  Ironically, he played a doctor five years earlier in No Way Out (1950).      

The film is a product of its times, an era when there were hundreds of teen gangs roaming the streets of New York City creating a wide array of vandalism and violence, when nearly 24% of American children ages 14 to 17 were not attending school at all, and 54% of students entering high school in the State of New York did not graduate, with reports also revealing that 50% of the male population in the Chicago public schools in 1953 were functionally illiterate.  In addition, incidents of teacher brutality against children were not uncommon, with children having little recourse other than dropping out.  In 1951, nearly 41% of all grade school teachers in America had no college degrees, with estimates in New York City that less than half even held teaching certificates, so the postwar state of American education was in dire straits, with this film serving as a public wake up call, putting the entire system on notice.  Like a plague spreading across the nation, the release of the film led to U.S. Senate subcommittee hearings chaired by Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, school board meetings, and plenty of talk festering about teenage dissent, gathering opinions from various experts, psychologists, child behavior professionals, and university researchers, including the harebrained suggestion that comic books led to the corruption of youthful minds, mirroring the post-McCarthyist hunt for subversive Communists lurking within, ignoring the rapid spread of racism that was ravaging through the urban expansion into suburbia, which were basically white-only places of refuge to escape the inner cities, setting up model schools that became distinguished by the quality of teaching and school districts that were flush with money, as opposed to the massively underfunded inner city schools that were largely ignored, becoming dilapidated relics of a failed system, eventually leading to a school-to-prison pipeline for predominately minority students.  It’s important to understand that the so-called remedy for this scourge of delinquency spreading across the nation was to accentuate a two-tiered system, one for the rich and one for the poor, an approach that continues to exist today.  In 1978 voters in California rebelled against funding public schools through the implementation of Proposition 13, dramatically lowering the tax base, leading a tax revolt that spread across the nation, literally decimating inner city public schools, gutting their resources, putting them at a decisive educational disadvantage, where today the everyday realities in largely minority inner city schools resemble decrepit conditions in Third World countries, driving wealthy kids into private schools reserved for the rich, while the expansive schools in the predominately white suburbs continue to flourish, with some resembling college universities.  This two-tiered system also translates into two unequal systems of justice and opportunity, which only accentuates the racial divide haunting our nation at the moment.  This film, however, feeds into the common stereotypical perception of minority criminalization, where minorities are viewed as criminals.  All the well-meaning teachers are white, while the out-of-control class in question is of mixed race, white, Latino, and black, mirroring the possibilities of desegregation, yet it’s viewed as a social experiment gone wrong, creating a disturbing atmosphere of social defiance and disobedience, contaminated by an element of criminalization.  All are tainted by the same broad brush, even if those most guilty are actually white, which actually matches a continuing perception of today, with whites mistakenly believing blacks are responsible for the majority of crimes committed in America, as if justifying their racial apprehension, yet the overwhelming majority are committed by whites, with more than double the amount of arrests and more than two-thirds of charged criminal offenses annually (FBI — Table 43).

Set in the all-boys North Manual Trades High School of New York, an inner city working class milieu, the film simmers with anxiety about race and how that translates to an American educational system that feels woefully inadequate.  Glenn Ford plays Richard Dadier, a Navy vet who got his education on the G.I. Bill, a naïve yet liberal-minded white teacher at a new mixed race school that is largely a collection of stereotypes, approaching the first day with a certain amount of apprehension, where all around him he sees examples of unruly behavior, where he is challenged right from the outset.  While the principal, Mr. Warnecke (John Hoyt), insists there is no discipline problem, all the evidence proves otherwise, where some of the indifferent teachers describe the school as “the garbage can of the educational system,” while calling these kids “savages” and “screaming animals,” suggesting there is no hope for them, as teaching methods are simply ignored.  As if on cue, one of the teachers is attacked in a brutal rape assault, with Didier coming to her rescue, then beating the tar out of the attacking kid, who leaves escorted by the police in a bloody mess.  His students aren’t too happy about that, refusing to cooperate in class, where traditional teaching methods immediately hit a wall of resistance, with students intentionally answering incorrectly followed by a series of smart remarks, making jokes about his name, calling him “Mr. Daddy-O.”  Sensing rebelliousness in their ranks, he attempts to single out an ally in one of the brighter students, Gregory Miller (Sidney Poitier), thinking if he could get one to cooperate the others would follow, but Miller has no interest in being anyone’s prized favorite, retreating into the disharmony of the class, refusing to stick out like a sore thumb.  Dadier and a new math teacher, Joshua Edwards (Richard Kiley), commiserate over drinks after work, with Edwards expressing an interest in bringing his prized jazz collection to school for his more advanced students, suggesting mathematics are a key component to jazz music, thinking his kids would take an interest, but his plan backfires when both men are assaulted in an alley by a group of students afterwards (payback for the earlier incident), and again when Artie West (Vic Morrow, doing his best Brando imitation) and his gang of goons decide to teach Edwards a lesson by sadistically throwing his records around in a game of keepaway before destroying his entire collection, leaving Edwards devastated, quitting his job shortly afterwards in a state of utter despair.  Dadier tries a similar technique, playing a 16mm cartoon projection of Jack and the Beanstalk, which does generate plenty of interest and enthusiasm, asking engaging questions afterwards, suggesting even a cartoon can get them to learn to think for themselves, thinking he may finally be breaking through, but he’s stymied on several fronts.  Unbeknownst to him, his pregnant wife (Anne Francis) starts receiving anonymous letters followed by prank phone calls suggesting her husband was having an affair with one of the teachers, causing her extreme anxiety, almost losing the baby in a premature birth (in the book the child dies).  Another student files a complaint against Dadier for his use of inflammatory racist language during a lesson, including the n-word, called into a conference with Mr. Warnecke, suspected of having racial motives, with Dadier angrily denouncing the accusations, suggesting the words were used as an example of what “not” to say.  In today’s politically correct culture, the teacher would be fired anyway, regardless of their intent.  It’s Poitier who provides the saving grace, heard singing and harmonizing the Negro spiritual “Go Down Moses” with several other black friends, almost like an apparition, The Blackboard Jungle (1955) – Leading The Group - YouTube (2:28).  Despite the apparent peace offering, Dadier faces more resistance in class when he catches West cheating in class, building to an inevitable confrontation, with West pulling a switchblade in defiance, leading to the dramatic spectacle of a knife fight.  This heavy handed approach is overly simplistic, setting the moral forces of good against evil, like the arrival of the cavalry, suggesting if you can remove the bad apples the rest will flourish, which is a technique still being used today, where there are record numbers of expulsions, routinely targeting minorities.  If only it were that easy, continuing the fantasy narrative by suggesting it is, becoming more of a cultural time capsule than a relevant social treatise, added to the National Film Registry in 2016.

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