Published on November 15th, 2015 | by Clint Davis
Blackboard Jungle 
Summary: Racism, a broken education system and perhaps the greatest generational divide in history. This progressive and hard-hitting classroom drama tackles weightier subject matter than the copycat films that have since followed. Glenn Ford does solid work as a three-dimensional lead but Sidney Poitier steals the film in a breakout performance.
NR | 101 min.
Director & Screenplay: Richard Brooks (based on Evan Hunter’s novel)
Starring: Glenn Ford, Sidney Poitier, Anne Francis
U.S. Box Office: $5.2 million (#9 of 1955)
It’s been 60 years since Blackboard Jungle was billed as “The most startling picture in years.” And the film still throws a mean punch.
This was the movie that launched rock and roll into America’s mainstream consciousness. Its soundtrack opened and closed with “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets. Before Blackboard Jungle, rock music had supposedly never been heard in a movie. That’s how influential this film was.
It’s also arguably the first teen drama ever made, hitting theaters seven months before Rebel Without a Cause.
But if this film had never been released, Hollywood eventually would have found rock music and teenagers. What makes Blackboard Jungle an outstanding movie is the level of fearlessness with which it handled social issues that still plague us today.
Writer-director Richard Brooks (In Cold Blood, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) earned his first of eight career Academy Award nominations for the screenplay of Blackboard Jungle. It was a well-deserved nomination, but I can’t help feeling he also deserved a nod in the best director category because he gets a memorable performance from every member of his cast, while nearly avoiding any hint of melodrama.
The story follows Rick Dadier (Glenn Ford), a United States Navy veteran-turned-teacher as he tries to reach a class of unruly students in an inner-city vocational high school. Dadier goes back and forth on his decision to teach at the hard-nosed school, as he faces physical and psychological threats from the apathetic teenagers he’s supposed to be leading. Brooks’ script was based on Evan Hunter’s 1954 novel. Hunter — the pen name of writer Ed McBain — reportedly based the novel on his time working as a teacher, which he said sent him home “crying, night after night.”
Blackboard Jungle handles itself with gravitas but still manages to be accessible. It covers serious subjects like racial tension in American schools and a systematic failure of the country’s educational system to reach a marginalized class of young people. The film preaches a noble message that no student should be left behind — unless that student chooses to be.
The raucous student body at the school depicted in Blackboard Jungle are a large, racially diverse group of boys who share one personality trait: They are lost. Most of them have to leave quickly after school ends to get to their jobs and based on Dadier’s conversations with various students, many of them feel a diploma will be worthless. Being an automotive mechanic is the highest aspiration of the school’s brightest student.
In his performance as Dadier, Glenn Ford hits a wide breadth of notes. We see him as a soft-spoken nurturer in scenes with his pregnant wife. We see him as an unrelenting hard-ass in some classroom scenes and as an empathetic educator in others. He’s a kind man but doesn’t take shit from the kids in his class. On the first day of school, we see Dadier order one defiant student to remove his hat. When the kid bristles back, the teacher steps to him and says in a calm cadence, “Take your hat off, boy, before I knock it off.” This tough kid — who ends up as the film’s primary antagonist — takes off his hat and sits down.
I applaud Ford for not turning this character into an unflappable robot. He gives in and laughs at some of the kids’ jokes, such as when one cut-up takes to calling him “Mr. Daddy-oh.” He’s also able to trade some pretty solid insults with the students, showing the character is no square. Ford gives the audience anger, passion and humor in equal measure while leading this movie’s cast — but he doesn’t give the best performance of Blackboard Jungle.
That honor goes to 28-year-old Sidney Poitier, in a role that helped put his now legendary career on the map. Poitier plays Gregory Miller — the aforementioned brightest kid in the school — whom he brings to life as a fully realized and admirable character. As soon as the audience meets Miller, who’s smoking in the boys’ bathroom and mockingly calling Dadier “Chief,” it’s obvious the actor playing him is formidable. Poitier’s performance is authoritative and instantly engaging.
The frank manner in which Blackboard Jungle addresses racial issues impressed me. In one classroom lecture, Dadier tries to teach his kids not to ever use racial slurs against one another, even in jest. During the lesson, he uses the words “nigger,” “spic” and “mick” as examples — which later gets him in trouble with the principal after a student maliciously complains that the teacher is a bigot. The principal tells Dadier, “There’s enough blind hatred in the world without you adding to it.” That’s a progressive line when you remember this film hit theaters 13 years before the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
I mentioned Rebel Without a Cause earlier because it’s impossible to talk about the birth of dramatic teen cinema without bringing up that film. While that movie and Blackboard Jungle each focus on a generation of unfocused youth, they are very different in their approaches. Whereas Rebel Without a Cause lives among the kids, following a misunderstood teen played by James Dean, Blackboard Jungle lives among the adults, specifically the teachers faced with putting kids like Dean’s character on the right track. Blackboard Jungle is also nowhere near as arresting or intense as Rebel Without a Cause — and not quite as good as Rebel, which I consider a masterpiece.
The students in Blackboard Jungle are certainly lost and Brooks’ screenplay does a fine job of assigning blame to all parties: the kids, their parents, and their disinterested teachers. Nobody is left off the hook in this movie. These are kids whose father’s died in WWII or Korea or if they made it home, became too busy with providing a home to give any guidance. One of the best lines of dialogue comes when Dadier runs into one of his students on a city street at night, where the kid ominously tells him, “You’re in my classroom now.”
Ultimately, Blackboard Jungle is an exaltation of the teaching profession. The film’s second act spends a lot of time focused on Dadier’s struggle regarding his option to stay at the troubled school or take a job at a place “where kids actually want to learn,” as his wife Anne states. Dadier and the school’s other teachers struggle with why they became educators to begin with. They all complain about not fulfilling the romantic notion of what they imagined it meant to “teach” but in reality, they just want an easy day of work with a class full of wide-eyed students who have fulfilling lives ahead of them. In one scene, a college professor who was Dadier’s mentor tells the man, “Your school needs you,” driving home the film’s message about adults bearing the burden to keep young people on track.
The delinquent acts depicted in Blackboard Jungle start out a bit cheesy, as we see boys smoking, drag racing, whistling at female teachers and throwing things at the chalkboard during class. But Brooks considerably ratchets up the danger in a hurry. After the first day of classes, one student attempts to rape a new teacher named Miss Hammond (Margaret Hayes). We see the boy covering her mouth and pulling her backward through the locked library when Dadier happens to see and is able to stop the attack.
I found Hammond to be an interesting female character in 1955 cinema as she’s sexy simply by the fact that she’s confident in her sexuality. She causes some strain in Dadier’s marriage after coming onto him (because she’s “bored”), in a secondary plot that I felt took away from the real focus of Blackboard Jungle.
There’s a bit of casual sexism throughout the picture that hurts the overall product. One male teacher sees Hammond on the first day and asks if she plans on teaching in “that outfit,” as he’s ogling her. The absolute worst offender in this department is Dadier’s wife Anne, played by the angelic Anne Francis, who is portrayed as a needy, insecure woman who feels birthing a child is all she can offer her husband. In one painful scene, Anne pleads to Dadier that she doesn’t want to “let him down” like she did during her last pregnancy when she had a miscarriage. This backward scene is totally out of place in a film that’s written so progressively in its empathy for all racial and ethnic groups.
The inclusion of Anne lends to Dadier’s character and helps him become a well-rounded lead, but it comes at the cost of the film’s pointedness. A plot about jealousy and suspicion doesn’t have a place in a movie about social issues the magnitude of those studied in Blackboard Jungle. I only wish Anne’s character had been fleshed out more, rather than simply serving as a flimsy object in Dadier’s progression.
Blackboard Jungle is well-paced, with a litany of interesting scenes. The film climaxes in a tense showdown scene in Dadier’s classroom when one student pulls a switchblade and threatens to go at the teacher. Dadier and the angry student — who Poitier’s Miller alleges is “drunk” — slowly inch around the room, facing one another with the weapon at the center of the frame. The scene is mostly silent except for a ticking clock, which only adds to the suspense. After the events that have happened in the movie, there’s a real question as to whether or not Dadier will make it out on his feet. It’s an extremely well-played — and well-directed — scene that sends the film out on a high note.