Halls of Anger
February 20, 2006
Halls of Anger (1970) carries on in the tradition of hard-hitting urban youth films like Blackboard Jungle (1955) with angry youth rebelling against the authoritarian teachers albeit dealing with racially charged issues. Quincy Davis (Lockhart) is an ex-pro basketball player that teaches at an upscale all-white high school. It’s a cushy gig at a liberal-minded school that he’s clearly earned having worked hard to get out of the ghetto. One day, he’s approached by board of education officials with an offer to become a vice-principal at Lafayette High, a school faced with a pressure-cooker of a situation: 200 white students are being bussed into and supposed to integrate with 3,000 black kids.
Davis doesn’t relish going back to the neighborhood he worked so hard to get out of but is persuaded to do so because they need someone like him to diffuse the volatile situation and he gets to be a vice-principal, which could lead to bigger things. On his first day he’s instantly recognized by several students from his basketball days and is a big hit. Then, a bus with the white kids arrives and you can cut the tension with a knife. Among them include Jeff Bridges and Rob Reiner, early on in both of their respective careers, as understandably intimidated new students.
Based on his first meeting with the school principal, Davis realizes that he’s not going to get any help from him. He tells Davis that what he wants to do first and foremost is avoid trouble by getting rid of those that instigate it with learning being secondary. Naturally, the black kids do everything they can to make the white kids feel uncomfortable and unwanted by refusing them access to certain water fountains, making it difficult to find a seat in class, and so on.
Davis settles into teaching an English class where many of his students are more interested in his basketball exploits than 19th century literature. He finds that most of the black students can barely read or not at all while the white kids are well-educated, which only deepens the animosity between them and their black peers. Pretty soon, Davis figures that the head instigator is a kid by the name of J.T. Watson (Watson Jr.) and the principal’s solution is to simply get rid of him but Davis makes it his mission in life to try and reach out to the student. He knows that J.T. is smart and doesn’t want him to blow it. Davis has to walk a precarious tightrope as he tries to protect the white kids while not appearing as an “Uncle Tom” to the black kids.
Calvin Lockhart does a good job as a teacher that cares and tries to make a difference. He does his best with the South Central Los Angeles answer To Sir, With Love (1967) only with a much bleaker scenario. It would be nice to say that Halls of Anger is a snapshot of its time, and in some respects it is but in others it isn’t. Many inner city schools in the United States are still rife with a multitude of problems that unfortunately makes this film just as relevant now as it was back then.