I have a friend named Stephanie who went to Carlmont High School in Belmont, California, where the real events of “Dangerous Minds” took place. Stephanie is one of the sunniest, most endearingly cheerful people I’ve ever met and her connection to the infamous school intrigued me. One day, while we drove past the school grounds, I asked her, What was it like going to the school that inspired “Dangerous Minds”? Her response: “Well, every day, I took a walk down the valley through the shadow of death and took a look at my life, and realized, there’s nothing left!” Her droll answer (made all the more amusing in her unfailingly sing-songy cadence) was made in jest but who could blame her? When the lyrics of Coolio’s “Gansta’s Paradise” are that synergistic to “Dangerous Minds,” it was probably the best response she could provide me.
I’ll make the argument that, even back in 1995, when it was an ubiquitous, #1 song in America, “Gangsta’s Paradise” is still the best thing about “Dangerous Minds.” In terms of offering genuine “street cred,” that rap tune has more credibility than the whitewashed movie it provided the theme song for. Whereas Coolio rhymed about a poisoned landscape, in which empathy and hope are gone (“tell me why are we, so blind to see, that the one’s we hurt are you and me?”) the movie itself is one of the lousiest Teacha N The Hood movies, albeit one of the most successful.
Marine-turned-inner city high school teacher LouAnne Johsnon wrote the novel, “My Posse Don’t Do Homework,” the gritty and remarkable account of her struggles at teaching kids growing up in gang culture. Johnson cleverly engaged her English students by having them conjugate and constructively analyze lyrics to rap songs by Tupac Shakur. Her success was measured by the number of students who left her classroom with instilled passion, wisdom and a sense of direction for their future.
The film adaptation, horribly re-titled “Dangerous Minds,” feels like it could work at first. Coolio’s grim anthem plays over the opening credits, in which we’re provided glimpses of inner city life through black and white photography. We switch to color but get the sense that the world still looks and feels void of life or escape for those who grow up there. Johnson is played by Michelle Pfeiffer, who is an unlikely marine but has the presence and charisma to pull off the role. Immediately, the clichés stack up: her class is a unruly bunch of social misfits, the faculty are annoyingly uncaring and rigid about teaching practices that aren’t working and, very slowly, Johnson develops the trust of her students.
The direction by John D. Smith is unmemorable, as a series of TV-ready close-ups and framing mark the action. The best thing on hand from a technical standpoint is the editing, which is so smooth, a large subplot with Andy Garcia has been seamlessly cut out of the movie. Garcia was cast as Johnson’s ex, who is mentioned a couple of times. Considering the buildup, it seems odd that the character never appears, but at least Garcia’s exclusion feels less like a sloppy assemblage of deleted scenes and more of a missed opportunity.
In the film version, Pfeiffer doesn’t connect with her students over 2Pac but through the lyrics of Bob Dylan (!). She also uses a karate lesson, candy bars, bribery and sympathy to reach her gang banging students. Pfeiffer comes off more like a smiley big sister than someone who truly challenges her class and breaks through racial and social barriers.
The emphasis is on the soundtrack, set to shots of the teens goofing off. The teachers are painted as having no inner lives but are shown grading papers, remarking only about their students and planning how to be better teachers. Clearly, this was made to appeal to teens, who might embrace the fantasy of a teacher who can magically fix their lives like E.T. and spend their down time reading “Teaching For Dummies”.
In comparison to “Lean On Me,” “To Sir With Love,” “Stand and Deliver,” “Up the Down Staircase,” and the similar (and better) “Freedom Writers,” “Dangerous Minds” feels like a crock. It’s worth noting that this was one of the last films produced by superstar duo Jerry Bruckheimer and the late Don Simpson. I like a lot of their movies but providing social commentary and a credible depiction on “life in the ‘hood” were never their strong point. On the other hand, considering how savvy they were and how much money this made, a line by Coolio can sum up their efforts in making this film: “I’m an educated fool with money on my mind.”