Directed by Richard Brooks
Blackboard Jungle is one of those now cliche-riddled concepts in which an affluent, idealistic young teacher goes to an inner city school and struggles to help less fortunate, wayward young students see the light at the end of the tunnel. It might feel tired, if only because of how many films have copied the formula, but Blackboard Jungle is heightened, absurd, awesome and full of an apparent lack of understanding of that era’s children. It’s a self-important (and hilarious) film that opens with text laying out the problem in America with juvenile delinquents. It’s a movie that says why it’s important before the movie even begins.
The best thing about this film is just imagining a boardroom full of stuffy old white men discussing what they think the problem is. Based on the events of the film, these men have it in mind that the teenagers of 1955 are monsters.
When Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford) walks into North Manual Trades High School he is really walking into either prison or a battlefield trench. The other teachers, worn down and jaded, tell him he’ll soon see what they see, and they might as well be the maimed soldiers staggering back from the front lines.
Sure enough their discontent is justified when we see Dadier’s students. They are reckless and violent. In one instance a student tries to rape a female teacher, Lois, in the library (Dadier defends her and beats the kid to a pulp), and soon after a group of the students attack Dadier and another teacher in a back alley, seemingly beating them to within an inch of their lives.
When Dadier comes home following the first incident, his wife makes mention that maybe there was a possibility that what Lois was wearing might’ve been revealing. She insinuates that the blame isn’t 100% with the student. THIS MOVIE IS INSANE. Dadier then shrugs it off, and they’re so casual that you forget they’re discussing attempted rape.
The whole film is kind of hilarious because of such absurdity. Maybe it shouldn’t be, because the subject matter is certainly grim, but it’s grim in a very naive way. This seems like the type of film that could only be released in the mid 50s. It’s made with a degree of darkness that would soon ramp up in the 60s and 70s, but that darkness is handled with the same optimism of the 40s, when wars were fought simply to stop evil and everything was happy go lucky (because those who would object didn’t have a substantial voice).
The result is that this is a hilariously dark and simple film that tackles an issue which the filmmakers seem to think is very black and white. The evil which boils within these teenagers can be solved by attention and standing your ground. Dadier eventually wins them over after a knife fight inside the classroom, and he thus earns their respect by playing their game. Who’s to say they even show up to class the next day.
So again, the film is ridiculous, and that’s what makes it so great.
Up Next: Glass (2019), Us (2019), Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)