The George McKenna Story
*/**** Image C- Sound C
starring Denzel, Lynn Whitfield, Akosua Busia, Richard Masur
screenplay by Charles Eric Johnson
directed by Eric Laneuville
by Walter Chaw Hot on the heels of Denzel Washington's second Oscar--which was sort of a relieved, honorary accolade for avoiding the umpteenth resurrection of his Glory performance, another collaboration with Spike Lee, and a third slain civil rights leader--comes Artisan's hasty repackaging of 1986's TV movie The George McKenna Story, ironically dubbed Hard Lessons and refurbished with new promotional art.
The telepic is Washington's early spin through the Poitier school of hard knocks credibility undertaken by actors as diverse as Morgan Freeman (Lean on Me), James Earl Jones (Soul Man, Teach 109), Samuel L. Jackson (187), Michelle Pfeiffer (Dangerous Minds), Edward James Olmos (Stand and Deliver), and Tom Berenger (The Substitute). Hard Lessons is less Blackboard Jungle, though, than a weird, "Afterschool Special" mishmash of To Sir with Love and Conrack.
One of those inspirational true stories about an inner-city teacher making a difference, Hard Lessons stars Washington as the real-life George McKenna, a professional pontificator and educator who reminds that this kind of proselytizing grandstanding is extremely difficult to pull off. (Washington comes close, his charisma his eternal safety net over the chasm of his own gaping sense of self-importance.) There's a tragic death, a failed PTA meeting, a triumphant voiceover conclusion, and an all-pervasive "White Shadow" schlock griminess that could potentially elevate Hard Lessons to the status of "camp classic" somewhere farther down the crowded irony highway.
Were one able to overlook its production non-values, "blip-bloop" mid-Eighties soundtrack, and rampant earnestness, Hard Lessons actually lands a few pithy blows against the general impotence of school boards and disinterested parents, although, frankly, I'd say these blows are glancing ones erupting primarily from the flurry of shots Charles Eric Johnson's aggressively shameless screenplay spins off. It's nice that there are folks out there like the Joe Morgans, the Jaime Escalantes, and the George McKennas; what's a shame is that their lives are memorialized on celluloid in the form of tedious genre pieces whose claims to factual integrity do nothing to disguise the essential heartlessness at their core.
A bare production through and through, Hard Lessons arrives on DVD in a 1.33:1 transfer that really shows its age. Dark and noisy, little appears to have been done to refurbish the image elements. The 2.0 Dolby mono mix faithfully reproduces the full excrescence of the dialogue and music. There are no extras included on this disc.
94 minutes; PG-13; 1.33:1; English DD 2.0 (Mono); CC; DVD-5; Region One; Artisan