The extreme teaching movie DANGEROUS MINDS is exactly as corny as I remembered it, but not entirely without merit. It’s directed by John M. Smith (THE BOYS OF ST. VINCENT) and written by Ronald Bass (RAIN MAN, THE JOY LUCK CLUB, HOW STELLA GOT HER GROOVE BACK), but it seems like maybe a more significant detail is that it’s produced by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer (their next-to-last credit together). As with most of their movies it looks real pretty, starting with an opening montage in grainy, high contrast black and white like a French New wave film. Look at these stills, they’re beautiful in my opinion:
Too bad they didn’t shoot the whole movie that way, that would’ve made it pretty different from STAND AND DELIVER and LEAN ON ME and shit. I bet it would’ve made about 1/28th as much money and been way better reviewed.
In its color version it was a hit, opening at #1 (over the Keanu Reeves movie A WALK IN THE CLOUDS). These days from what I can tell the movie itself is not really remembered as much as the theme song, “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio featuring LV. The song plays three times in the movie: at the beginning, about 2/3 of the way through, and in abbreviated form on the end credits. So you will get pretty familiar with it if you watch the movie. But did you know the score itself is by Wendy & Lisa, guitar and keyboards from Prince’s band The Revolution? It’s true. There are pretty decent musical interludes that tend to start out a little cheesy and end up a little “Purple Rain.”
The story of course is about LouAnne Johnson (Michelle Pfeiffer, SCARFACE), an ex-marine who starts teaching the at-risk kids at an L.A. high school and rises to the challenge. It’s a tough gig that she ends up with kind of by accident, not knowing what she’s getting herself into. The last however-many teachers of that class quit and had nervous breakdowns and shit. She’s like Mary Poppins coming in after all those other nannies were scared away.
On her first day she walks in and can’t even get the kids’ attention other than to call her “whitebread” and make fun of her. It’s not being treated so much as a class room as a noisy room full of mostly Latino and black kids talking or rapping. One of them, Emilio (29-year-old Wade Dominguez) sexually harasses her and she embarrasses herself by writing his name on the board. That turns out not to be an effective way to scare these hardcases, you see.
The next day she comes back in a leather jacket, kicks her feet up on her desk, tells them “You guys don’t know shit,” demonstrates a karate move, tries to get conversations going. Slowly she eases them into class discussions of the meaning of Bob Dylan lyrics, which she only refers to as poems. She begins to build strong relationships with some of them, partly by visiting them at home. She promises field trips and contests that reward them for their work. Also she throws them candy bars. Not the fun sized shit either, that’s a bullshit size. Because of her unorthodox envelope pushing outside of the box to the beat of her own drummer on a her own path sticking it to the Man and telling the System to make like Michael Jackson and beat it she faces the usual antagonists of this type of movie such as the uptight principal (Courtney B. Vance, PANTHER), the other adminstrator (Robin Bartlett, HEAVEN’S GATE) who’s a stick-in-the-mud about her methods and the parent (Beatrice Winde, MANDINGO) who resents the white lady’s intrusion and refuses to let her help her kids even though they could use it. But fortunately all of these are fairly toned down. It doesn’t turn into a big Students vs. Adults Who Just Don’t Get It thing at the end. The climax actually happens where most of the movie happens: in the class room.
By the way, it’s weird that she seems to only have one class. I wonder what she does the rest of the day?
What makes it kinda work is 1. this is a pretty effective formula and 2. Pfeiffer, who is great in it. She goes from timid and out-of-her-element to digging in and fighting, being able to smile and laugh when being ridiculed, and keep going. The students are not so believable, more stereotypes than characters, but I totally buy her methodical chipping away at their defenses. You can see how they come to be amused by her and then kinda like her and then truly respect her and are inspired to try harder than they have before.
Also I bought her Southern accent.
Admirably they break a major movie rule: LouAnne’s old friend Hal (George Dzundza), who hooks her up with the job and teaches the easier class next door, keeps coughing, and is constantly smoking (even in the classroom while grading papers)… but he doesn’t die! You assume either that or hospitalization as soon as he coughs the first time. LouAnne would get offered the job of teaching the good kids and she turns it down defiantly. “LouAnne, are you crazy?” “No! I’m really starting to get through to these kids. I can’t give up on them now!” But no, nothing like that. He’s just a guy that coughs and smokes. It happens.
Also, she teaches a karate move. That should be used later in a fight, right? That’s how it works. Not enough karate in this movie.
I noticed a few names on the credits that surprised me. Danny Strong, who plays “Student” (I can’t find him in the movie myself) went on to co-create the television program Empire with Lee Daniels. And there’s a Carlos Gallardo listed as one of the grips, but it’s not on IMDb to verify if he’s the same one who starred in EL MARIACHI. I think it’s possible, because that Carlos Gallardo started out as a production assistant and did other crew work. On the other hand he has a small part in DESPERADO and is credited as co-producer, and that would’ve been filming around the same time as this, so maybe he wouldn’t have bothered taking a grip job at that time.
The surprising face that appears in the movie is John Neville, in a nothing part as a waiter at a fancy French restaurant. This brings up two questions:
1. What the hell is Baron Munchausen himself doing playing “Waiter” in this movie, at this time in his career?
2. Is it really fair though that he gets billed above all the students?
I don’t know if the waiter is based on a real guy or not, but there was a real LouAnne Johnson who taught at Carlmont High School in Belmont, California (previously most famous as the school that Dana Carvey went to) and wrote the memoir My Posse Don’t Do Homework that this was loosely based on. Her websight has something she wrote in 2007 about her feelings about the movie. She says that it “has its good points” including “the brilliant song, ‘Gangsta’s Paradise.'” Among the fictionalized elements she mentions: she would never bribe her students with candy bars, her administrators didn’t oppose what she did, they were very supportive, she did not get fed up and try to quit, she didn’t use Bob Dylan lyrics but instead rap lyrics. Actually that’s weird that they didn’t keep that for the movie, you’d think they’d love that. I guess that’s a sign that it was written by an old guy whose instinct is to convince kids that the music he grew up on is cool instead of bringing them in by giving respect to the music that’s meaningful to them.
I’ve read elsewhere that she didn’t have a student who got shot. But it’s a pretty effective scene when she has to tell the class about the death, and it leads to her attempt to quit teaching, so it makes sense to add it for dramatical type purposes, I guess.
Johnson herself was not fond of how some of the students were portrayed in the movie. “I don’t think the Hollywood film makers are intentionally perpetuating stereotypes and simplistic plot lines,” she writes. “I think in some cases they genuinely believe their stories, in some cases they are trying to create a feel-good story to attract an audience, and in some cases they just don’t have a clue because they never attended public schools and their worlds are so insulated that they believe whatever expert they have hired. I was told, for example, when I protested the racial stereotypes in DANGEROUS MINDS (all black kids are raised by crackhead single moms, all Hispanic teens are gangsters because their parents don’t care, black parents resent effective white teachers), I was told in a very haughty voice that the ‘gangologist’ on their staff assured them that their movie was an accurate depiction.”
Johnson even brings up that aspect that immediately makes everybody uncomfortable about a movie like this, maybe especially white liberals like myself: the White Savior thing. The sense that “the movie industry seems to think that white middle-class people can walk into a ghetto and ‘save the children.'”
But as we know from that cool black and white opening, these are kids being bused into a mostly white school, with mostly white teachers, and then segregated into Ms. Johnson’s class. In fact, Johnson is acting in good faith to try to fix a broken system originally intended to even the playing field between poor and rich neighborhoods. They’re being bused in allegedly to get better schooling, and she’s the one that wants to make sure they get what they were promised. In fact if this is how the schools are gonna work then there should be more white middle class people doing what she’s doing, holding up their side of the bargain.
And the real Johnson doesn’t buy into the movie’s emphasis on racial tension, saying her students never would’ve called her “whitebread.” She writes, “If you truly respect and accept other people as they are, and your motivation is to encourage them to develop their talents and skills to pursue whatever goals THEY have set (or encourage them to set goals if they have none), then they will be interested in what you have to say. People focus far too much on race, gender and money when they should focus on heart, soul and intention.”
And I do think some of that manages to come through in the movie, through Pfeiffer, even though the overall message ends up feeling wrong.
On the N.W.A timeline, DANGEROUS MINDS falls several months after Eazy-E died, and after Ice Cube released FRIDAY, and Belmont is a six hour drive from Compton. But it’s probly still the best Summer of 1995 movie to happen to fall during N.W.A week here at outlawvern.com. I don’t really know what the connection is other than that there is a reference to Snoop Doggy Dogg, who was of course discovered and produced by Dr. Dre. There’s also a song on the soundtrack by Devante Swing called “Gin & Juice,” but it’s not related to the more famous Snoop song. And Coolio, though never strongly affiliated with N.W.A, did happen to be straight outta Compton himself. Furthermore, one of his first recordings was on the WC and the Maad Circle song “You Don’t Work, U Don’t Eat,” which also featured Ice Cube and was produced by Cube’s longtime collaborators WC and Sir Jinx.
Wade Dominguez, who plays Emilio, the kid who dies too young, died a few years later. He was in CITY OF INDUSTRY though, which was a pretty good crime movie.
DANGEROUS MINDS is the third Summer of ’95 movie, after CLUELESS and THE NET, to be adapted into a TV series. It started in ’96, lasted 17 episodes and starred Annie Potts as LouAnne Johnson. Even more than the movie, the show had alot of content that bothered the real Ms. Johnson (an episode where she brings her students to a strip club, for example). She explained on an episode of This American Life that she felt the show portrayed schools as a “war zone,” which she doesn’t think is accurate, and that it promotes stereotypes of violent black males and other things that she was trying to dispel with her book. She tried to get on the show as a consultant, which they weren’t interested in. She says when they sent her her royalty checks for it she sent them back.
“Gangsta’s Paradise” was a big hit and won a Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance. It also inspired a Weird Al parody (“Food Paradise” or “Star Wars Paradise” or who knows) although it was already itself an unparody of Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise” from Songs In the Key of Life.
Pfeiffer actually appears in the video with Coolio. It was directed by Antoine Fuqua, who wouldn’t get into movies until THE REPLACEMENT KILLERS in 1998.
After this Coolio became an occasional actor, including an appearance as “sex educator” on the Dangerous Minds pilot. He’s shown up in BATMAN AND ROBIN, DAREDEVIL, LEPRECHAUN IN THE HOOD, and, honestly, mostly movies less watchable than those.
I don’t know what to think about all this, but in my opinion DANGEROUS MINDS is worth existing if it in any way inspired the SUBSTITUTE series of films, which started in ’96, and are our nation’s final word on education.
Nobody seems to have done any 20 year anniversary oral histories or anything like that, but I enjoyed this piece by a teacher talking about the tropes of teacher movies.