Hard Lessons (The George McKenna Story)

Movie review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
Hard Lessons (The George McKenna Story) Movie Poster Image
Uplifting biopic has some violence, strong language.
  • NR
  • 1986
  • 100 minutes

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Positive Messages

Real change in schools can happen if professionals who work there, students, and entire community come together. What happens to you if you get involved in community problems is not as important as what happens to the community if you don't. You have to try to do hard things, even if it makes you feel foolish, because what's really foolish is not trying at all. And even if you fail, you'll find you get a lot of pride from knowing you actually did something. Feeling and showing self-respect will lead you to make better choices, will earn you the respect of others.

Positive Role Models & Representations

George McKenna is a terrific role model for perseverance, communication, teamwork, compassion. He's also stubborn, impatient, but sometimes those traits are effective tools in accomplishing goals. Other teachers, both Black and White, are resistant to change, don't believe real reform is possible. But only one actively tries to get McKenna fired, eventually finds another job. The others become open and willing to try McKenna's methods. Most of the students are good kids who want to learn and go to college, but have to overcome difficult personal circumstances. One student sees no alternative to joining a gang, ends up in jail charged with murder, showing us the hopelessness a lot of people without opportunities feel.


A teen is shot and dies. No blood or gore seen, but he collapses in pain, clutching his stomach. Several fights show punches, a choke hold, brandishing knives and guns. A parent slaps his teen son, hits him more forcefully, talks about why he beats him. Some of the plot involves gang-related violence and activity, including a hazing ritual with punching. Teens throw eggs at an adult, trip him by throwing a garbage can in his way. Teens leer and comment at a teen girl walking by.


Adults kiss once.


The "N" word, "hell," "dammit," and "damn." A teen is asked if he's "an illegal."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Teens and adults smoke cigarettes. A few scenes show the teens smoking on campus; teachers smoke in a staff meeting. Adults have bottles and cans in brown paper bags. Adults have wine with dinner. A handshake exchange implies a drug deal among students arriving at school.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Hard Lessons (The George McKenna Story) is a biographical drama about a man's first year as principal of a tough Los Angeles high school. It was originally made for TV broadcast in 1986 as The George McKenna Story, and later released as the movie Hard Lessons. A teen dies of gunshot wounds, but no blood or gore is shown. Other violence includes a couple of large fights; a man hitting his son; a hazing ritual with punching; and brandishing knives and guns. Strong language is rare but includes the "N" word, "dammit," and "hell." A student is asked if he's "an illegal." Teens and adults smoke. Adults have wine with dinner and bottles and cans in brown paper bags. A handshake exchange implies a drug deal in front of the school. Adults kiss once. There are lots of positive messages about self-respect, working together as a community, the value of a good education, the need to try something rather than do nothing, and the rewards of working hard and doing your best.

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What's the story?

HARD LESSONS (THE GEORGE MCKENNA STORY) is a biographical story of George McKenna's (Denzel Washington) first year as the new principal of George Washington High School in Los Angeles. The situation he walks into is pretty grim: lots of absences, graffiti everywhere, gang activity, and virtually no supervision by teachers. In other words, utter chaos. McKenna has a lot of ideas about how a school should be run and what needs to be done to turn things around. But he meets a lot of resistance from students and teachers alike. Eventually McKenna is able to convince a few people to try new things, and little by little they start to prove effective. McKenna's tremendous dedication to the school comes at a high personal cost, too. Will all the sacrifices and hard work prove worthwhile in the end?

Is it any good?

Denzel Washington is a pleasure to watch as he brings self-respect, dignity, respect for others, and compassion to the role of a young principal determined to make a difference. He's supported by an able cast of actors of all ages. The made-for-TV production quality may be hard for some viewers to overlook, though. It was originally broadcast as The George McKenna Story on TV in 1986, but the following year, Washington was nominated for an Oscar for another movie, and attention from that suddenly made him a huge box-office draw. So the TV movie was renamed Hard Lessons and released in theaters in 1987.

Teen appeal may be a bit limited, too. Although it's set in a high school, the students aren't very well-developed characters. One of the most heartbreaking stories is abruptly dropped, which is frustrating. But as portrayed by Washington, George McKenna is a terrific role model, and there are lots of positive messages about what you can accomplish when you work together and believe that change is possible.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how Hard Lessons portrays George McKenna. What are his character strengths and weaknesses? What makes him a good role model?

  • How do you think schools become like the one in the movie? What strategies that McKenna used were most effective in turning the school around?

  • Why are movies based on real life so popular? What other biographical movies have you seen? Which are your favorites?

Movie details

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