Plot: At George Washington High School, things have gotten out of control and no one seems willing to take a stand. The school’s best students leave in droves, gang members incite violence on school grounds, and the teaching staff is worn down and unable to do much at all. While a carousel of principals have vowed to turn things around, George McKenna (Denzel Washington) is determined to be the one who follows through on that promise. As soon as he arrives, he makes it clear things will change and institutes a series of new policies, with the intent to monitor attendance, provide support for struggling students, and make the halls safe again. Of course, he is met with severe resistance from the students, who think he will just leave like the others, as well as the teachers, who have lost most of their drive to educate. So can McKenna stand up and make a difference, even as the odds stack against him?
Entertainment Value: Also known as The George McKenna Story, this made for tv movie was based on real life events, as one man tried to turn around a school and in the process, improve the lives of not just the students, but everyone in the community. I’ve seen a lot of these tough teacher movies and I think the genre is a lot of fun, but George McKenna wasn’t a baseball bat and tough love kind of dude, so don’t expect that. His approach was kindness, honesty, and support, methods that took time, but would eventually pay off. So this is more of a straight drama and while there is some mild violence, it is gang related and McKenna is a mediator, not an action hero. The pace is fine, if a little slow, but to rush the process would have been a mistake, as the gradual, incremental changes McKenna accomplished as a crucial part of his narrative. He met resistance at all stages, but pushed on, even when there was little to no result to be seen. This kind of story has been told often, so there’s not much as far as surprises, but it is well told and for those who appreciate a good tough teacher tale, Hard Lessons is a solid watch.
As this is a dialogue driven drama, Hard Lessons leans on the cast a lot and in the lead role, Denzel Washington is rock solid. He isn’t as polished or on the same level as in his later work, but he captures the essence of the role well and has the right demeanor to drive the narrative. Plus he has an awesome mustache. His banter with the bad apple teachers is a lot of fun, as is his back and forth with the students, he seems to have good chemistry with all of his costars. I think his involvement is what will draw most viewers to this one, so fans of his won’t be let down. Richard Masur pulls off the burned out, jerk teacher well, while Elaine Taylor, Lynn Whitfield, and Ken Sagoes have effective smaller roles. I also think this one has some appeal to anyone who appreciates the 80s flavor, as the clothes, music, and attitudes are all steeped in that decade’s culture. Not a high art classic, but a good made for tv movie that does the real life McKenna justice, so it graduates with pride.