The Blackboard Jungle

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The Blackboard Jungle

Ten years after the end of World War II, writer-director Richard Brooks' film, The Blackboard Jungle (1955) was released. The film remains as a moody, entertaining potboiler and an early formula for treating a theme—the rehabilitating education of delinquents and the inner-city underprivileged—that was still being explored in the cinema of the 1980s and 1990s. Films as diverse as the serious and specific Stand and Deliver (1988, Edward James Olmos played the beleaguered teacher), the comedic Renaissance Man (1994, Danny de Vito), and the sentimental Dangerous Minds (1995, Michelle Pfeiffer), can all find their origins in The Blackboard Jungle, which, although not a particularly masterful film, was unique in its time, and became a cultural marker in a number of respects. It is popularly remembered as the first movie ever to feature a rock 'n' roll song (Bill Haley and the Comets, "Rock around the Clock"), and critically respected for its then frank treatment of juvenile delinquency and a powerful performance by actor Glenn Ford. It is notable, too, for establishing the hero image of African American Sidney Poitier, making him Hollywood's first black box-office star, and for its polyglot cast that accurately reflected the social nature of inner-city ghetto communities.

The Blackboard Jungle, however, accrues greater significance when set against the cultural climate that produced it. Despite the post war position of the United States as the world's leading superpower, the country still believed itself under the threat of hostile forces. Public debate was couched exclusively in adversarial terms; under the constant onslaught, the nation succumbed to the general paranoia that detected menace in all things from music to motorcyclists, from people of color and the poor to intellectuals and poets. Even the young were a menace, a pernicious presence to be controlled, and protected from the rock 'n' roll music they listened and danced to, which was rumored as part of a Communist plot designed to corrupt their morals.

From the mid-1940s on, a stream of novels, articles, sociological studies and, finally, movies, sought to explain, sensationalize, vilify, or idealize juvenile delinquency. It was precisely for the dual purpose of informing and sensationalizing that The Blackboard Jungle was made, but, like Marlon Brando's The Wild One (1954), it served to inflame youthful sentiment, adding tinder to a fire that was already burning strong.

Adapted from a 1954 novel by Evan Hunter, Brooks' film tells the story of Richard Dadier (Ford), a war veteran facing his first teaching assignment at a tough inner-city high school in an unspeci-fied northern city. "This is the garbage can of the educational system," a veteran teacher tells Dadier. "Don't be a hero and never turn your back on the class." Dadier's class is the melting pot incarnate, a mixture of Puerto Ricans, Blacks, Irish, and Italians controlled by two students—Miller (Poitier) and West (Vic Morrow), an Irish youth. West is portrayed as an embryo criminal, beyond redemption, but Miller provides the emotional focus for the movie. He is intelligent, honest, and diligent, and it becomes Dadier's mission to encourage him and develop his potential. However, in its antagonism to Dadier, the class presents a unified front. They are hostile to education in general and the teacher's overtures in particular, and when he rescues a female teacher from a sexual attack by a student the hostility becomes a vendetta to force him into quitting. However, despite being physically attacked, witnessing the victimization of his colleagues, and withstanding wrongful accusations of bigotry while worrying about his wife's difficult pregnancy, Dadier triumphs over the rebellious students and, by extension, the educational system. He retains his idealism, and in winning over his students overcomes his own prejudices.

In setting the film against the background of Dadier's middle-class life and its attendant domestic dramas, it was assumed that audiences would identify with him, the embattled hero, rather than with the delinquent ghetto kids, but the film's essentially moral tone is subverted by the style, the inflections, and exuberance of those kids. Following an assault by West and his cohorts, Dadier's faith begins to waver. He visits a principal at a suburban high school. Over a soundtrack of students singing the "Star Spangled Banner" Dadier tours the classrooms filled with clean-cut white students, tractable and eager to learn. He may yearn for this safe environment, but to the teenage audiences that flocked to The Blackboard Jungle, it is Dadier's inner city charges that seem vital and alive, while the suburban high school appears as lively as a morgue. The teen response to The Blackboard Jungle was overwhelming. "Suddenly, the festering connections between rock and roll, teenage rebellion, juvenile delinquency, and other assorted horrors were made explicit," writes Greil Marcus. "Kids poured into the theaters, slashed the seats, rocked the balcony; they liked it. "

The instigation of teen rebellion was precisely the opposite reaction to what the filmmakers had intended. From the opening title sequence, with "Rock Around the Clock" blaring from the sound track as Glenn Ford makes his way through the school yard crowded with boys dancing, sullenly shaking their heads in time to the music, the tone was set. This massed gathering appeared at once threatening and appealing, something with which teenagers could identify, and the image of exuberant, youthful rebellion stayed with teen audiences.

The film's moral, somewhat hectoring message, was more calculated to appeal to parents, while Brooks himself veiled his own sympathies in subtlety. "These kids were five and six years old in the last war," a cynical police detective tells Dadier. "Father in the army, mother in the defense plant; no home life, no church life. Gang leaders have taken the place of parents." Indeed, the specter of war pervades the film. In one scene, Dadier derides a fellow teacher for using his war injuries to gain the sympathy of his class; in another, he counsels the recalcitrant West, who responds that if his crime lands him in jail for a year, it will at least keep him out of the army, and hence, from becoming another nameless casualty on foreign soil.

One cannot say, however, that Richard Brooks offers a profound critique, or even a very good film. ("[It] it will be remembered for its timely production and release," wrote film critic G.N. Fenin in summation.) It was not so much the message or the quality of filmmaking that was of import, but the indelible image it left behind of the greasy-haired delinquent snapping his fingers to the beat of Bill Haley and the Comets. This is the nature, the calculus if you will, of exploitation films; that under the rubric of inoculation, they spread the very contagion they are ostensibly striving to contain.

—Michael Baers

Further Reading:

Cowie, Peter, editor. Aspects of American Cinema. Paris, Edition le Terrain Vague, 1964.

Hunter, Evan. The Blackboard Jungle. London, Constable, 1955.

Lewis, Jon. The Road to Romance and Ruin: Teen Films and Youth Culture. New York, Routledge, 1992.

Marill, Alvin H. The Films of Sidney Poitier. Secaucus, Citadel Press, 1978.

Miller, Jim, editor. The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. New York, Rolling Stone Press, 1980.

Pettigrew, Terence. Raising Hell: The Rebel in the Movies. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1986.

Raffman, Peter, and Jim Purdy. The Hollywood Social Problem Film: Madness, Despair, and Politics from the Depression to the Fifties. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1981.