Dangerous Tropes

How the Michelle Pfeiffer hit Dangerous Minds put an overtly paternalistic twist on a saccharine genre.

Edward James Olmos in Stand and Deliver, Sidney Poitier in To Sir, With Love, Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers, and Sandy Dennis in Up the Down Staircase.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Film stills via Warner Bros, Columbia, Buena Vista/Disney, Paramount, Warner Bros.

When Dangerous Minds opened 20 years ago this week, the critics couldn’t tell their readers loudly enough just how totally over it they felt. The film “tells another one of those uplifting parables in which the dedicated teacher takes on a schoolroom full of rebellious malcontents, and wins them over with an unorthodox approach,” began Roger Ebert in his unrelenting slam of the film. The New York Times’ Janet Maslin hit the same theme: “[It’s] formatted to match every other account of a dedicated teacher taming rebellious teens.”

Such critiques were not without merit. By 1995 the inspirational teacher movie, otherwise known as the “save our students” trope, was already several decades old, and Dangerous Minds stuck closely to its formula. That formula is simple: A new teacher takes on failing or at-risk kids who have long been abandoned by the system (usually in a poor, urban neighborhood) and helps turn their grades, and thus their lives, around. At some point, the teacher will reach a point at which she will want to quit, but an out-of-the-blue grand gesture by the kids will change her mind by the third act. It’s a subgenre that is naturally prone to sentimentality, so even the good or at least watchable examples of the form—like To Sir, With Love and Stand and Deliver—are at least somewhat cheesy.

Dangerous Minds stands out from its predecessors and many of the films that followed as a particularly egregious example of the inspirational-teacher idiom, particularly when it comes to its feel-good oversimplifying of two of its themes, pedagogy and race. The drama, loosely based on the memoir My Posse Don’t Do Homework by retired-Marine-turned-teacher LouAnne Johnson, doesn’t just stick to a well-worn path; in heightening the genre’s worst tropes so effusively, it elevates the condescendence and, more embarrassingly, the white-savior narrative that so frequently rests at its core.

Dangerous Minds starts off like most save-our-students films: with a depiction of a broken, or at least not particularly affluent, neighborhood. In movies like Blackboard Jungle, Up the Down Staircase, and Stand and Deliver, the eventual hero teacher is seen walking, driving, or riding the bus to his or her first day on the job. The point is to emphasize the cultural dissonance and long odds the teacher faces by positioning him or her as a fish out of water, and by positioning the students who come from these neighborhoods as at-risk youth. (The trailer for Up the Down Staircase explicitly asks what Sandy Dennis’ character—“a nice girl”—is “doing in a crazy place like this.”) In 1955’s Blackboard Jungle—one of the pioneers of the genre—new teacher Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford) arrives at the school and looks around bewilderedly at the kids who are smoking, playing around, and dancing to “Rock Around the Clock”—which in 1955 passed for a rebellious, raucous song enjoyed by wayward youth. Dangerous Minds takes this notion a step further: Over the rebellious strains of the Coolio hit “Gangsta’s Paradise,” it channels The Wizard of Oz and opens with the grainy black and white imagery of an impoverished California neighborhood, painting a dour, bleak scene of life for the kids we are about to meet. (The scene only bursts into color as they arrive by bus at their school.) In deploying that harsh cinematic technique, director John N. Smith renders the dire station of this particular group of students with an unsubtle brushstroke, setting up LouAnne for an even more triumphant “victory” than the teacher-saviors who came before her.

Throughout the movie, Dangerous Minds portrays a dynamic between LouAnne and her students—of the doting authority figure and the infantile teenager—that borders on parody. LouAnne, for her part, is initially portrayed as a fragile woman whose students easily break her composure on Day 1. (It’s an unlikely speed bump, considering her background as a Marine.) She walks out in the middle of her class to vent to the colleague and friend who helped her get the job in the first place: “I can’t teach them!” At home that evening, a montage shows her diligently reading a book called Assertive Discipline and eventually reaching an epiphany—she’ll project authority and command respect by donning a leather jacket and wowing the kids with karate instructions. The students, meanwhile, are largely portrayed as fatalistic about their own lives and antagonistic toward their teacher because she’s white. They call her “white bread”; in one scene, the grandmother of two of her students calls her a “honky bitch.” Facing such resentment, LouAnne has her work more than cut out for her.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

The disconnect between a white teacher and his or her nonwhite students is a recurrent feature of these films, but the structure of Dangerous Minds bungles it more clumsily than usual. By having the students exert prejudice upon their teacher rather than make any explicit mention of how the education system overwhelmingly fails black and Latino students in turn, the students are largely responsible for their own failures. Blackboard Jungle at least tries to address racial and ethnic differences in a meaningful way. In that film, Richard Dadier’s students are a diverse bunch rife with conflict because of their different ethnic and racial backgrounds. It’s a tension he frequently has to ease by reprimanding his kids for using derogatory slurs toward one another, and by incorporating the appreciation of other cultures into his lessons. In a scene with his student Miller (Sidney Poitier), who’s planning to quit school to become a mechanic, Richard points to opera singer Marian Anderson and boxer Joe Louis as reasons Miller shouldn’t give up on higher aspirations because of his race.

That’s a rather pat kind of encouragement (this was the 1950s, after all), but at least the teacher is acknowledging race, and racism, in a somewhat useful way. Similarly, in 1988’s Stand and Deliver, calculus teacher Jaime Escalante (Edward James Olmos) warns his Latino students that their names and complexions will be judged in the real world, but “math is the great equalizer.” (He and his students soon get a hard dose of reality that this is not always the case, when they are accused of having cheated on their Advanced Placement exam.) Such complexities are absent from Dangerous Minds—LouAnne doesn’t attempt to reach out to her students from their point of view or realistically confront the odds they face. To get her kids to enjoy poetry, she uses the not-very-relevant Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and describes the lyrics as a metaphor for dealing drugs; she bribes them as if they were 5-year-olds, with prizes and a field trip to an amusement park. (In the similarly plotted Freedom Writers starring Hilary Swank, her character is shown using the lyrics of Tupac to engage her classroom, perhaps because 12 years after Dangerous Minds, rap was no longer the vilified art form it once was.)

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker.

All of these moments add up to a film made up of relationships that don’t ring true, even though the intent behind the story, in line with its predecessors’, is clearly an honorable one. In fact, much of the real LouAnne Johnson’s My Posse Don’t Do Homework didn’t make it to the screen—after selling the film rights, she had no involvement with the script, which is credited to screenwriter Ron Bass (My Best Friend’s Wedding, The Joy Luck Club). When it first came out, “I was really upset and so were my students by the way they were portrayed,” she tells me. What bothered her most about the final movie was the grandmother who called her character a “honky bitch.” Johnson says she actually had a good relationship with the woman, and that they worked together to help keep her twin grandsons on the right track and graduate. “I asked them why did they put that in,” she says, “and they said, ‘Well, we were sure that a lot of the black and Hispanic parents resented you … for being white.’ ” Johnson says that while she did have a student who told her he hated white people, she otherwise didn’t encounter such blatant name-calling or hostility.

But there were other crucial alterations, as well: Johnson didn’t teach her students Bob Dylan; in My Posse Don’t Do Homework, she recalls bringing in the lyrics to Public Enemy’s “911 Is a Joke,” and asking students to choose their own song lyrics to bring in to class. (They weren’t all rap songs, either—the kids also brought in heavy metal, jazz, and country lyrics.) And while she did visit her students and their parents at home without administrators’ knowledge—“it’s much easier to get forgiveness than permission,” she says—she didn’t go so far as to bribe them with candy or an inappropriate field trip to an amusement park.

Johnson isn’t the only person involved with Dangerous Minds who would have approached the final film differently. Bass, the screenwriter, tells me, “The movie you saw wasn’t the screenplay I wrote. My name is on the script, because the writer who came in and did very substantial rewriting”—Elaine May—“didn’t want credit, and I was asked to take the sole credit.” In his version, Bass had hoped to convey the strong bond he’d witnessed between Johnson and her students while sitting in on one of her classes, and how much they gave to her as she did them. Bass is well-aware of how the final version of Dangerous Minds can be seen by some as being overtly paternalistic, with the white hero coming to save the day. But he also insists that that was never the intent of those who worked closely on the movie. He told me:

I admire the work that Elaine did … I wonder if in retrospect, hearing that said sometimes over the years, if anybody would say I didn’t realize that the balance was such that it could make people wonder if that was in the mix. If I had to go back, I’d certainly switch scenes back in, I’d readjust the balance so that everybody knew that the relationship was a two-way street.

(According to Johnson, this imbalance was apparent to at least one actor from the film. When visiting the set, the actress who played Callie, Bruklin Harris, asked her why it always has to be a white person lifting up the “poor little Negroes.” Johnson’s blunt response: “I wrote the book, I have to be white.” And: Hollywood at the time simply didn’t embrace stories with black female protagonists.)

This imbalance and oversimplicity reaches its peak at the end of the film, when LouAnne pleads with her most troubled student, the brooding Emilio (Wade Dominguez), to go to the school administrator Mr. Grandy (Courtney B. Vance) and tell him about a kid just out of jail who is threatening to kill him because of a grudge. The kid, who is addicted to crack, would go to detox for substance abuse at school, she says, and by the time he gets out, he’ll have “forgotten” about his grudge. “You asked me once how I was gonna save you from your life,” she says. “This is how, this moment, right now. This will make the difference in your life forever.”

Mr Grandy is one of the only school authority figures of color in the movie, and it’s ultimately his refusal to see Emilio—because he wasn’t “respectful” enough to knock on his office door instead of barging in—that gets Emilio killed. (In real life, Emilio didn’t die; he spent four years in the Marine Corps and started a family.) This moment—and the subsequent scene in which the remaining kids beg LouAnne to stay because she’s their “tambourine man” and their “light”—encapsulates the narrow, patronizing worldview of Dangerous Minds. It is also egregiously maudlin, even compared to To Sir, With Love, in which the teacher’s climactic triumph comes in the form of a gooey No. 1 pop song. In that film and others, at least, the teachers and their students interact with one another in a way that feels more like the “two-way street” Bass described—like in the end of Blackboard Jungle, when Dadier has decided he won’t quit teaching, and Miller has decided he’ll stay in school after all. “I guess everybody learns something in school, even teachers,” declares Miller.

Despite the critical beating it took, Dangerous Minds was a surprise hit that opened atop the box office, besting a post-Speed Keanu Reeves war drama and legendary bomb Waterworld, then in its third week. Its soundtrack, and more specifically, Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise,” became a cultural phenomenon. It even spawned a short-lived television series that replaced Pfeiffer with Annie Potts as Johnson. What’s most fascinating about the film 20 years later is the fact that it lives on as a paradox: It continues to be remembered in large part because it lends itself to parody so well—its one-dimensionality spawned some pretty hilarious pop-culture moments in film and TV shows, like Hamlet 2 and 30 Rock—and stands as a glaring example of the white-savior narrative. The irony, though, is that despite all of this, it did manage to do the one thing all save-our-students movies set out to do: inspire. “I think it’s emotionally manipulative,” says Johnson. “But … I realized a lot of people became teachers because they saw that movie, and I had hundreds of kids who wrote to me and said they were going to finish school because the kids in the movie finished school.”