MORAL PANIC MONTH #6: Blackboard Jungle, by Richard Brooks (1955)

Type of Media: Film

“Kids these days, with their ____ and their ____ and their crazy ____. What the hell is wrong with them, anyhow?” This seems like a question that every older generation asks about every younger generation, and in the 1950s America started demanding answers. A panic about juvenile delinquency was spreading like wildfire, just as rock and roll and the concept of teenaged identity started to break through to the mainstream. Hollywood did what it normally does and released movies to cash in on the craze, and cleverly enough it played both sides of the aisle. On the one hand you had The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause, starring young heartthrob outlaws that teenagers could identify with. On the other you have Blackboard Jungle, centered on a teacher at an ethnically diverse inner-city high school who tries to take control of his class of unruly kids.
You would think that Blackboard Jungle, with its law-abiding main character Richard Dadier, would stay relatively out of trouble. However, when a Senate hearing on film and its effect on juvenile delinquency came around in 1956, Blackboard Jungle was on the slate as a source of inspiration for the new wave of young criminals who were terrifying the country. So how did Blackboard Jungle go from social commentary to instigator? Well, it mostly had to do with a little song called Rock Around the Clock.

In Blackboard Jungle, Richard Dadier is a recent college graduate and WWII veteran. He gets a job teaching at an inner-city school, where he quickly identifies black student Gregory Miller (one of Sidney Poitier’s early roles) as a natural leader. He tries to get a grip on his rowdy class with Miller’s help, but Miller rebels and none of the students listen to Dadier. He starts getting violently harassed after school, and soon the harassment targets his pregnant wife as well. After getting a job offer from a peaceful suburban school, Dadier struggles with whether he should give up on his class of undisciplined kids or keep trying to reach them.
To illustrate how wild these students are, Blackboard Jungle uses the song Rock Around the Clock over the opening credits. Being 1955, rock and roll was still a bit of an underground thing. It wasn’t considered music fit for polite society, and if you were a teen listening to rock music your parents would probably tell you to turn that racket off. But at Blackboard Jungle screenings, parents couldn’t do anything about the rock blaring over the theater loudspeakers. Kids went nuts over it, dancing in the aisles, fighting, and even vandalizing theaters because they were so hyped to hear rock at a public venue. Many theaters stripped the song completely out of the movie because they were afraid of youth riots.
Rock Around the Clock is just the most obvious reason Blackboard Jungle was considered a negative influence on young people, though. It was also notable because it was a movie that explicitly recognized a teenaged struggle. The high school students in it are caught in that awkward period of adolescence where they’re old enough to work, fight for their country, and think for themselves, but they still lack a lot of the freedom of adulthood. Even Artie, the most infamous ruffian in Dadier’s class, is able to articulate that he commits crimes because it’s the easiest way for him to get money, and if he goes to jail he can avoid a draft.
Many public officials and social commentators didn’t think this was a good thing. They thought that seeing the unruly kids of Blackboard Jungle would trigger violent impulses in teenagers and embolden the bad apples, who would view the film as some kind of recognition. If they weren’t right it at least appeared like they were, as Blackboard Jungle’s release coincided with the start of widespread teenaged rebellion in the USA. There were stories from all around the country, like one of a group of teenagers in Nashville who set fire to a barn after seeing the movie (MGM’s production head Dory Schary would famously react to this story by saying, “There’s no fire in the picture. They can’t pin that on us.”). For years the perception of violent movies increasing crime has stuck around, even though violence in movies has dramatically increased while youth crime rates have steadily gone down.
While it’s pretty dated now, Blackboard Jungle is still a solid movie with some great performances. Also, unlike a lot of movies about education, it doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. If you’re interested in the evolution of American culture, particularly youth culture, Blackboard Jungle is a good look back to how times were changing in the 1950s.