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'The Principal' (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 19, 1987

We can see from the opening scene in "The Principal" that Rick Latimer (James Belushi) isn't a guy who shows a great deal of restraint. Seeing his ex-wife with the attorney who represented her in their divorce case, he picks up a baseball bat -- a very large baseball bat -- and smashes up the guy's Porsche. For this public misbehavior, Rick, who's a high school teacher, is brought before a board of administrators who, he assumes, will suggest that he find a new line of work. Instead, to his surprise, they want to give him a promotion -- to make him a principal. This news, however, does not bring a smile to Rick's face, because the school he's to be principal of is named Brandel High. And just saying the name makes the administrators tremble.

A man who walks tall and carries a big stick is exactly what's needed at Brandel. The place is a graffiti-scarred sewer, a hellhole, more like a prison than a high school. Located in a Berkeley ghetto, with mostly black and Hispanic students, Brandel is the end of the line for all of the kids who have been booted out of the other schools in the district. Every conceivable sort of vice is committed in the halls and bathrooms of Brandel -- drug dealing is especially popular. The ruler of this corrupt little duchy is a sinister hood named Victor (Michael Wright), and he rules with an iron fist and a switch-blade. Nobody messes with Victor, not the teachers or even the school's chief of security (Louis Gossett Jr.), a former Brandel football star who's pretty tough himself.

But Rick doesn't buy Victor's invincibility. Assembling the students in the gym, he tells them that things are about to change at Brandel, and issues his simple edict: "No more."

Make no mistake about what we have here: Wielding his big bat, Rick is Buford Pusser gone to high school -- a vigilante hall proctor. Directed by Christopher Cain from a script by Frank Deese, the movie is intended as a gritty comedy about urban realities. Rick is there to tame this blackboard jungle, and a lot of lip service is given to the need to make this school a place of learning -- as if the filmmakers actually expect us to think that they're sincere in presenting this message.

Actually all this sociological chin music -- and all the effort put into making Rick a sympathetic figure -- amounts to is an elaborate justification for Rick to whip out the Louisville Slugger and whomp down on some minority types. Plain and simple -- this is a racist movie.

The final showdown has Belushi pulverizing Victor, and at the screening where I saw the film, the audience screamed its approval. Admittedly, Victor is a vile cat, and at another point in the film, Belushi shows that he's an equal-opportunity brute by bashing a white guy who attempts to rape one of his teachers (Rae Dawn Chong). Still, are audiences so punch-hungry that anything, no matter how offensive, goes? Doesn't it bother anyone that the school is a zoo until the white guy shows up? Isn't Louis Gossett Jr. insulted -- and the audience incensed -- that he's relegated to playing the modern equivalent of a gun-bearer? He deserves better. We deserve better.

"The Principal" contains some violence and suggestive material.

Copyright The Washington Post

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