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Remembering ‘Only the Strong,’ the Teacher-Savior Movie Featuring Capoeira

On the 25th anniversary of its release, a look back at a hokey, heroic film that follows the familiar narrative beats of troubled students turned good … but this time, with Brazilian martial arts

A collage of characters in teacher-savior movies Warner Bros./20th Century Fox/Paramount/Artisan Entertainment/Buena Vista Pictures/Ringer illustration

Sometime between the middle of summer and the end of the first semester of each school year for the past three years, I have written a different version of this column. The premise of it always changes slightly—in 2015, when I left teaching after having taught science at an inner-city middle school in South Houston for nearly a decade, it was about what teacher movies get right and wrong about the job; in 2016, it was about how the ridiculous One Eight Seven is secretly one of the very best teacher movies; in 2017, it was about Edward James Olmos’s brilliant portrayal of Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver—but the purpose (or the point, anyway) has always remained the same. It’s a good time (and an easy way) to talk about teaching, and teachers, and movies, three of my very favorite things.

And so here we are again, anew, inasmuch as “again” has ever been “anew,” on the day that many school districts will have their first day of school, and also on the 25th anniversary of Only the Strong.

Have you ever heard of Only the Strong?

Let me tell you about Only the Strong.

Only the Strong came out in 1993. It starred Mark Dacascos, an action movie star who you either (a) have never heard of or (b) care about endlessly. He played a former Green Beret named Louis Stevens who, after beating up some drug dealers during a visit to his old high school, is given a class of the 12 worst students and asked to save them from themselves by teaching them capoeira, a Brazilian form of martial arts. It’s not technically a “good” movie, and there are an almost uncountable number of plot holes, and some parts are so silly and unlikely that there’s a very real risk that you might roll your eyeballs so thoroughly that you give yourself vertigo. But it is still, at its core, a teacher movie, and so I love it.

Here are some things that happen in Only the Strong:

  • A student tries to buy drugs from Stevens in a bathroom. While doing so, the student unrolls a $20 bill, licks it, then sticks it to his own forehead. This, in my understanding, is a very atypical way to pay for drugs (or for anything, really).
  • The first time Stevens is teaching his class, one of the students walks in carrying a boom box. (The class, for some reason, is being held in an abandoned fire station.) (I’m almost certain it was done this way just so Stevens could do a backflip off of an old fire truck, which happens fewer than three minutes after his students arrive.) While trying to get the class’s attention, Stevens yells at them. He shouts, “Listen up!” No one pays any attention to him. Then he singles out the kid with the boom box. “You!” The kid with the boombox looks at him. “I want you to turn that music …,” and then there’s a pause big enough that you could park an ocean tanker in it, and then he finishes his sentence: “... up!” It’s the funniest fucking thing, and as corny and dorky as it is, it’s exactly the kind of goofy shit new teachers dream about saying to their classes when they’re imagining ways that they’re going to get their attention.
  • I remember rewatching this movie after I’d become a teacher and feeling oddly drawn to Stevens. He was endlessly hokey, and the parts in the movie when he tries to be profound are essentially prefaced with him saying, “I’m going to be profound right now.” But his sweetness was endearing, and really all he wanted to do was help his students, which is always heroic, even in its clunkiest forms.
  • Every teacher movie like this—movies where the teacher is tasked with trying to reach an especially lost hopeless group of students; movies like Dangerous Minds, Lean on Me, Freedom Writers, The Substitute, etc.—is set up so that there’s one kid in the group who’s the de facto leader. The teacher has to reach that student so they can reach the others. In Only the Strong, it’s Orlando Aliveres, young cousin to Silverio Aliveres, the neighborhood’s main drug dealer and also the movie’s antagonist. Stevens finds Orlando playing basketball at a court under a freeway one evening and tries to talk to him …
  • Stevens ends up using capoeira to beat up the other players in the game when they attack him …
  • But then guess what …
  • Orlando’s cousin, Silverio, shows up …
  • And then guess what …
  • YOU FUCKING GUESSED IT …
  • SILVERIO IS ALSO A CAPOEIRA MASTER ...
  • AND THEY HAVE A BIG-TIME CAPOEIRA FIGHT.
  • Imagine you’re Stevens and you’re really excited to be the best capoeira master in the neighborhood (likely because you’re the only capoeira master in the neighborhood) and then, as luck would have it, the main person you’re going to have to beat up is also a capoeira master.
  • Silverio dropped down into a capoeira stance, and Stevens was like, “Aye, what the fuck?”
  • Anyway, that’s the kind of stuff that happens in the movie.
  • Stevens ends up beating Silverio in a capoeira fight at the end of the movie.
  • And the neighborhood is saved.
  • Oh, there’s another part when Silverio and his friends are vandalizing the school, and Silverio ends up in a fight with a teacher. He says, “One thing is for sure, somebody’s gonna die,” and then there’s an ominous music drop in the background, and then a couple of minutes later the kid I talked about earlier who brought the boom box to class ends up dying in a fire set by Silverio.
  • That’s the kind of movie it is.

During my nine years of teaching, I broke up a total of seven fights between students. None of them, I am sad to say, featured capoeira. But one of them, I am happy to say, I will remember forever. It happened between one of my very favorite students I ever had and one of my least favorite students I ever had. And before we go any further, let me assure you: This fight wasn’t even really a fight. It was more of a “tussle,” if even that. Probably a “shoving match,” if anything. But here’s what happened:

The least favorite student was this wormy, sneaky, easy-to-dislike bully named Anthony. He was handsome and he had nice hair and always had on nice clothes, and so he was very popular, but he was the kind of popular that had zero gravity to it because everyone seemed to understand that he was a generally bad person. (I’m willing to admit that there’s a possibility that Anthony’s popularity had a ton of gravity to it, but I’ll never see it that way because he reminded me a lot of a kid who used to pick on me in middle school and so he and Anthony, despite being connected in no real or legitimate way, became intertwined in my head permanently. As such, I can never—and could never—fully credit Anthony for anything.) And the most favorite kid was this sweet, considerate, kind, big kid named Eric who wanted nothing more to blend into the background of everyone else’s day. (When I say “big kid” I mean both in height—he was easily 5-foot-10—and in size—he was probably a solid 220 pounds, if I had to guess.)

Now, I’m going to skip past all of the tiny transgressions that happened over the course of the school year leading up to when Anthony and Eric got into it because they don’t all need to be laid out here for the point to land, but trust me when I say: Anthony very obviously enjoyed picking on Eric. I think he liked it because Eric was so much bigger than him, and so I guess it made him feel very powerful that he was able to needle Eric as much as he did without Eric ever doing anything about it.

So apparently Anthony had been picking on Eric a ton (this is Eric telling me everything after the fact), and Eric one day decided he’d had enough of Anthony’s shit. And so I’m standing in the hallway between classes waiting for the next period to start and I see three boys run into the restroom a few doors down from where I’m standing. I walk over there because I figure a fight must be about to happen (kids would arrange fights at certain times in the bathroom because it was out of the view of the teachers), and when I get in there, sure enough I hear that very distinct noise that surrounds a middle school fight.

I push my way through to the front of the group of boys at the entrance of the bathroom and I could barely believe my eyes: I see my sweet, charming, docile, beloved Eric standing there, and he has the villainous Anthony pinned up against the wall, literally lifted a foot off the ground, and Eric is shouting curse word after curse word after curse word in his face. Turns out, Anthony had been trying to show off in the period before and kept challenging Eric to a fight in the bathroom between classes. Eric, normally quiet and to himself, decided to accept the challenge. He said—and again, this is Eric telling me after the fact— “OK. Let’s go,” and then as soon as the bell rang he walked to the bathroom and waited for Anthony.

Anthony, who I guess was counting on Eric backing down when he arrived, followed along behind him a minute or so later. But as soon as he got in there, Eric grabbed him, picked him up like a child (Anthony was maaaaaaybe 5-foot-2, 115 pounds), slammed him against the wall, and then started roaring at him in front of everyone else who was there watching.

And listen, I don’t want this to sound bad or weird or weirdly bad, but: I was so fucking proud of Eric that day. Getting into any sort of physical altercation is almost always a bad idea, and I would never sincerely or seriously encourage a child to fight another child, but man. Eric was my hero that day. For real. And he didn’t even have to do a backflip off a fire truck.