Stand and Deliver Blu-ray Review: A Classic Classroom Drama

Stand and Deliver (1988), directed by Ramon Menendez, is the story of a high school math teacher who dreamed the impossible and made it happen for some inner city Hispanic youths. Edward James Olmos stars alongside a talented young cast that features Andy Garcia and Lou Diamond Phillips, the latter fresh from his role as Ritchie Valens in La Bamba.

Buy Stand and Deliver Blu-ray

Jaime Escalente (Olmos) leaves a lucrative tech job to teach computer science at an East Los Angeles high school. When he arrives he finds out there are no computers and he’ll be teaching basic math to a bunch of rowdy kids. Escalante grabs their attention quickly as he takes no nonsense from a local gang leader and jabs at them with his witty sense of humor. He wins these kids over and begins to teach them more advanced math and finally calculus. With his guidance and a strict schedule, they tackle the AP Calculus exam and do well. 

Trouble is, he taught them too well. They use his step-by-step approach and all miss the same problems leading authorities to assume they cheated. An investigation is launched and tensions mount as Escalante stands strong behind his students. After much debate, the kids eventually agree to take the test over again to prove themselves innocent. They prevail, again, proving their innocence and the school begins a long tradition of success in math with Mr. Escalante leading the way. 

Olmos earned himself an Oscar nomination for his role, capturing well Escalante’s quick, cutting wit that drives the picture and holds the audience’s attention. Lou Diamond Phillips’ portrayal of gang-member-turned-math-ace Angel plays very well alongside Olmos’ Escalante, providing an interesting look at one aspect of life in that part of Los Angeles. The cast is strong all around and includes solid performances from Andy Garcia as an investigator who grew up in the area and knows what temptations can pull at these kids. 

Estelle Harris in a small part as a secretary and Rosanna DeSoto as Mrs. Escalante do very well in their supporting roles, adding depth alongside those actors cast as the students. Those cast as students look the part. All work well with one another throughout the movie, mixing many comic moments into the stress and drama of life as teenagers tackling a very difficult subject that they eventually excel at and rise far above expectations. A theme is struck early on when Escalante proposes to teach calculus as he faces doubt from his fellow teachers; he states that the students will rise to expectations. It is a struggle and a fight but he proves that those kids had it in them to stand and deliver when properly taught and encouraged. 

Unlike Blackboard Jungle (1955) or those other films with similar subject matter, Stand and Deliver is a moving story that doesn’t need to embellish its gang/hoodlum aspects. The story isn’t dated by gimmicks or ruined by catering to trendy “hot button” issues. Yes, there are a few scenes of conflict and gang activity but the movie refrains from exploiting those aspects of violence to ramp up the drama. This East L.A. High School is no urban battleground where Mr. Escalante has to punch out students or show up brandishing a shotgun to save the test scores from the hands of ruthless investigators. 

The Warner Archive Blu-ray looks sharper than the DVD but could have really used some extra features. An audio commentary track would have been amazing and could have provided some background information on the principal players as well as possibly answering some soundtrack questions. For example, how the Mr. Mister song came to be used as the title track or why Willie Herron and Los Illegals were chosen instead of Teresa Covarrubias and The Brat? Even a vintage, short “behind the scenes” featurette would have been very much appreciated. I know the movie takes major liberties with the Escalante story and the timeline of events to make a snappier plot, so any film historian’s or person of note’s expertise would have been beneficial. For now, I’ll have to settle for Google, Wikipedia, and Jay Mathews’ Escalante: The Best Teacher in America. Yes, my copy is on its way.

Stand and Deliver stands as a solid story of the positive effects a strong leader and teacher has on a group of youths who no one thought could accomplish much, let alone such a challenging subject as calculus. It’s the story of people choosing to go above and beyond to do what it takes to be successful and stand up for themselves, while proving that determination and hard work can pay off. 

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Joe Garcia III

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