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Dangerous Minds

Dangerous Minds

By Pete Turner • March 2nd, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 4/5
Buena Vista Pictures

Original release: January 19th, 1996
Running time: 99 minutes

Director: John N. Smith
Writers: LouAnne Johnson, Ronald Bass

Cast: Michelle Pfeiffer, George Dzundza, Wade Dominguez

Dangerous Minds

Never in my time of teaching have I had to walk into a class of giants rapping, swearing, throwing things and generally looking more like a zoo than a classroom. In Dangerous Minds, LouAnne Johnson (Michelle Pfeiffer) does exactly that, taking over a class of difficult students after a string of substitutes are sent packing. She’s a brave, based-on-rea-life, character and an inspiration to teachers everywhere.

Dangerous Minds (as well as being the film that gave us Coolio’s classic Gangsta’s Paradise) is the story of one woman’s wish to change the future of an entire class of young adults who’ve been disregarded by the system and left with little chance to turn their lives around. LouAnne, an ex-marine divorcee enters the high school classroom determined to help these students graduate but there’ll be many complications that get in the way of her educational quest.

After her first encounter in the classroom, she reads a book on assertive discipline but quickly throws it out. What she realises is vital and most teachers will likely feel the same. You can’t learn to teach from a book, from classes or from gaining a qualification. You have to live it. You have to learn it in the classroom. Adapt to the environment and the students who you’re faced with. There’s no normality, every group’s different and every teacher must learn to survive the classroom in their own ways.
LouAnne faces racism, sexism, the threat of violence, apathy, negativity and foul language but eventually and begrudgingly the odd spot of support from a minority in the class. She even faces opposition from some parents and also the policies of the school. The obstacles she has to overcome reflect the height of the barriers that stand in the way of these kids graduating. She must think outside the box in order to reach these young people.

Dangerous Minds

Her first goal is to get their attention. She starts with karate, talking about death and the lyrics of Bob Dylan. With each and every lesson, we wish her to do well. She aims to tackle the ring leader, Emilio (Wade Domínguez). A heads up from another student suggests she can engage the group by getting to the boss of the classroom; not herself unfortunately but a respected student. LouAnne tries every trick in the book; giving them rewards, giving them an A to start with and letting them work to keep it. One promise of a reward even gets students into the library, working on their own, finding out for themselves. If the ultimate goal of education is to get people to be able to learn for themselves, then she’s already won a major battle.

What starts as an oppressive mass of mostly dark faces staring back at her, the odd voice standing out from the others to call her ‘white bread’ soon become recognisable individuals, some eager to learn and others still resistant. The boisterous group that won’t stay quiet or even sit in their seats eventually learn to sit still, to contribute in a positive way and to engage even with poetry.

LouAnne’s up against broken homes, poverty and hopelessness but the kids in the classrooms are really the ones living with these issues. They’re the ones with the most to lose but also the most to gain. We learn more about some of these students than we Dangerous Mindsdo about LouAnne. While the narrative follows her from starting the job to deciding to stay in the job, it’s the students who we learn the most about, finding their hidden layers, their intelligence and their kindness.

Despite this, LouAnne’s our hero. She goes above and beyond her duty and puts ordinary teachers to shame with her complete dedication to these students. The moment she enters the family home of one problem student Raoul (Renoly Santiago) and tells his parents possibly something they’ve never before heard about their son is extremely powerful and touching. It’s a story about inspiration and a teacher who can dedicate her life, her money, her sanity and her happiness to ensuring her students achieve. Some might argue it’s a typical white person’s burden film. Like so many cinematic stories, it has the white protagonist that has to lead, inspire and educate the other ethnicities ‘beneath’ her. If white people don’t do the rescuing and the civilising, then other ethnicities will always suffer. However, only the hardest of hearts will fail to be moved by LouAnne’s plight, and more importantly the plight of her students.

The smile on her face as she finally has a satisfying lesson is a minor triumph compared to what’s achieved by the end. As we learn a little more about LouAnne, we can begin to understand what’s made her such a selfless, caring and determined individual. The tragedy is what both LouAnne and these kids are up against.

Like with the kids in my own classroom, its real life that gets in the way of their activities in the school. Fortunately the students I deal with aren’t facing the threat of gun violence or crack on the streets. But being teenagers, their lives are full of emotional ups and downs and getting them to focus on the prize at the end of a long dark two year tunnel is tricky. Despite the posturing, the abuse and the threatening exteriors, there’s nothing as dangerous in these young minds as the fear of failure.

Dangerous Minds

Pete Turner

Pete Turner

Peter is a film and media lecturer and currently writing his PhD thesis on found footage horror movies. This means he must endure all sorts of cinema’s worst drivel in the name of academia. If that wasn’t punishing enough, Peter enjoys watching films with brutal violence, depressing themes and a healthy splash of tragedy.

If Peter isn’t watching films, he is writing about them, talking about them or daydreaming about them. He regularly contributes to Media Magazine and a range of film websites. You can find his film blog at www.ilovethatfilm.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter @ilovethatfilm.

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