Synopsis of ‘The George McKenna Story’: He risked it all to make the grade
Mike Szymanski | March 7, 2016
“He risked it all to make the grade,” is how the movie was advertised. In it, the heroic principal sacrifices relationships, career and safety to do the right thing for public education.
The movie kicks off with a funky, if not dated, original score written by jazz great Herbie Hancock. The scroll states, “Based on a true story,” and according to McKenna himself, it’s all pretty accurate and happened just like it unfolds in the movie.
Denzel Washington plays McKenna, shown in 1979 being driven up to Washington High School in South Los Angeles as principal. His girlfriend (played by Lynn Whitfield) hesitatingly drops him off at the school, which is covered in graffiti, as one of the students shouts profanity at her. (Whitfield later played the girlfriend to an LA Crips gang founder who came from the area around Washington High in the TV movie “Redemption: The Stan ‘Tookie’ Williams Story” with Jamie Foxx.)
Within a few minutes of being at the school, McKenna has to break up a gang “jumping” ritual and literally put out a fire started in the hallway. He tries to encourage a handful of teachers to do more for their students but meets resistance, particularly from a teacher named Ben Proctor (not a real person) played by character actor Richard Masur, known for TV shows such as “Rhoda,” “One Day at a Time” and more recently “The Good Wife.” The teacher expects McKenna won’t last and later reports him to the district on trumped-up charges.
Meanwhile, students are skeptical of the new principal. One smart young girl wants to leave the school and get bused to a safer school an hour away. A gang leader on campus gets arrested, and McKenna tries to help him. He drives a good student to his home and finds out he’s living in an abandoned car and is undocumented. He also confronts a father who would rather his son work with him at his business than go to school.
Then a promising young athlete is shot on campus in a gang fight and dies in McKenna’s arms. That motivates him to step up changes on campus, calling for a dress code and for teachers to check in with parents. He holds a meeting for parents, but only 16 show up. Parent activist Margaret Wright, played by singer Virginia Capers, warns him, “I got you hired, I can get you fired.” There is now a building on campus named after Wright.
He paints off the graffiti on the wall across the street from the school, and keeps painting over it, until he gets the football team to help him.
A young white teacher, Allan, played by character actor Ray Buktenica, allies himself with McKenna but calls him crazy. (Buktenica was also a regular in the TV show “Rhoda” and the series “House Calls” and is known for the movies “My Girl” and “Heat.”)
Allan walks to the parking lot where McKenna’s car is vandalized with graffiti. Later, a district official notifies the new guy that he can’t change the system.
McKenna then hires an inspiring English teacher, Aura Kruger, who gets the students to learn Shakespeare. She is played by tall, upright actress Barbara Townsend, when in reality the actual teacher was barely 5 feet tall and weighed 95 pounds. She wanted to bring a regional Shakespeare competition to the school, which McKenna accomplishes, despite fears from the other students attending. One of her students performs an amazing soliloquy at the contest after almost giving up.
McKenna (who is officially George McKenna III) goes back home to New Orleans to talk to his father, who gives him a pep talk and sage advice. By the end of the movie, the teachers who don’t like McKenna leave the school. His girlfriend realizes he is more wedded to public education and leaves him. The wall across from the school remains graffiti-free.
Then, with the strains of “Wind Beneath My Wings,” the principal walks down the now cleaned-up halls of the school to the words, “Did you ever know that you’re my hero, and everything I would like to be?” (In reality, it’s McKenna’s favorite song, which he told the filmmakers.)
There’s a montage of students lining up to graduate: the smart girl comes back to the school, the homeless kid does well, gang kids get diplomas. The father who wanted his son to work instead of going to school is applauding in the audience with tears in his eyes. The principal is handed a plaque inscribed with: “We are family and we love you Mr. McKenna.”
Then, at the end, the real George McKenna speaks, talking about how the change at the school was a group effort with parents, students, staff, community and teachers. “Some of the dreams at Washington Preparatory High School have come true. Attendance is now at 90 percent, and 70 percent of the graduates have gone on to college in each of the past four years. We now have a waiting list to enter our school. The school stands as a role model for what can be done at all public schools when responsibility is taken by the professionals and the entire community. The triumph of Washington Prep can be shared by all of us.”
Watch the full movie online below. Find out more about George McKenna here.