I have a weakness for films about idealistic educators who try to teach and change lives in the inner city. You know which films I’m talking about. These are the films that always take place in a decaying high school and there’s usually at least one scene where the teacher is warned not to care too much about their hopeless students and then the teacher goes, “Someone has to care!”
Why do these films fascinate me so?
To a large extent, it’s because they take place in a world that is so extremely outside of my high school experience. I was recently doing a search on my school and I came across a video on YouTube that was made by some students from my alma mater:
As I watched this video, I realized that neither the students, the campus, nor the neighborhood had really changed in the 9 years since I graduated.
I also realized that, even though I didn’t realize it at the time, I went to one of the most suburban, white bread high schools in the DFW metroplex. At the time, of course, a lot of my classmates thought they were tough. They would make a big deal about blasting Jay-Z and 50 Cent while they were driving down to Starbucks during lunch. For the most part, though, we put the suburb in suburban.
That, I think, is why I’m fascinated by inner city high school films. It’s even better when those films are totally over-the-top and feature a hero who not only teaches but who kicks some ass as well.
Perhaps that’s why I recently enjoyed watching The Principal.
Originally released way back in 1987, The Principal is one of those films that seems to regularly show up on the lesser known television networks. A few weeks ago, I saw that it was going to be broadcast on Ion Television so I set the DVR to record it and I finally ended up watching it this weekend.
In The Principal, James Belushi plays Rick Lattimore. (You can tell that this movie was released quite some time ago because Belushi has a lot more hair and lot less chins than he does now.) Rick’s a teacher with an anger problem. When he sees his ex-wife out on a date with his divorce lawyer, Rick loses it and physically assaults the lawyer. The next morning, Rick is called into a meeting with the school board. He’s expecting to get fired. Instead, he’s promoted. Rick is now principal of Brandel High.
Brandel High, it turns out, is the most troubled high school ever! Drugs are sold and used openly in the hallways. Few students bother to attend class (but yet they still come to the school). The teachers spend most of their time hiding in either their classroom or the teacher’s lounge. The school’s head of security, Jake (Lou Gossett, Jr.), spends most of his time making sarcastic comments. When Rick pulls up on his motorcycle, the first thing he sees is a fight between rival drug dealers.
Rick responds to all of this by holding a school assembly. As every student at Brandel jeers him, Rick announces that he has only one policy: “NO MORE!” It’s at this point that the school drug lord Victor Duncan (played by Michael Wright) stands up and announces, “You talk too much!”
Things continue to build up from there as Rick divides his time between educating and getting beaten up by resentful students, Jake starts to actually care about his job again, and Victor wanders through the school hallways, dressed like he’s in one of the Underworld films and saying stuff like, “Try to reach me and I’ll just cut off your hand…”
The Principal is such an over-the-top, silly, yet heart-felt film that it’s impossible not to enjoy it in much the same way that you might enjoy eating junk food. As I watched this film, I found myself wondering what had happened to James Belushi in the years since it was originally released because, in The Principal, he’s actually likable. However, the film really belongs to Michael Wright. Seriously, as played by Wright, Victor Duncan is the most evil student in the history of high school cinema. When he tells Rick that he’s willing to cut off his outstretched hand, you believe him.
The Principal is a thoroughly predictable film that promotes a dubious educational policy of zero tolerance. However, it’s also a lot of fun.
In other words, it’s the epitome of a guilty pleasure.