Dangerous Minds

Movie review by
Brian Costello, Common Sense Media
Dangerous Minds Movie Poster Image
Cliches, stereotypes, mixed messages in '90s school drama.
  • R
  • 1995
  • 99 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Movie explores the idea of individual "choice" in determining one's present and future realities. Like other "inspiring teacher" movies, the power of learning and the importance of education are shown throughout the movie, and how learning has the possibility to change the lives of students. On the other hand, this movie can be viewed as an example of the "white savior" trope in cinema. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Students contend with poverty, teen pregnancy, abortion, gangs, and difficult home lives as they try to receive a quality education. Based on a true story, Lou Anne Johnson inspires her students to read poetry, get an education, and make life choices that will help their futures. However, the characters are essentially stereotypes often seen in movies in which an inspired white teacher takes on an entrenched bureaucracy while finding a way to inspire students from impoverished backgrounds to care about learning. 

Violence

 Students get into a fight in school -- punches, kicks. A student is killed (off camera), and the teacher and students receive the news while in class. Talk of spousal abuse. 

Sex

Before the teacher has earned the respect of her students, one of her students leers at her and says, "I'll eat you," which is greeted by hoots and hollers from his classmates. One of the students becomes pregnant and is on the verge of being sent to a different school as a result. 

Language

Frequent profanity, including the "N" word, "motherf---er," and "f--k." Also: "a--hole," "bastards," "piss," "damn," "bitch," "bulls--t," "ass," "hell." Middle finger gesture. 

Consumerism

Teacher eats Butterfinger candy bars, and uses them to reward her students. Teacher also snacks on Cheetos. 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

One of the characters (the teacher) is almost always shown smoking cigarettes. Beer drinking. Wine drinking. Talk about drugs and drug dealing. Teacher uses the lyrics to Bob Dylan's "Mister Tambourine Man" to explain how poets "use code words" -- in this case, how the song is about a drug dealer. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Dangerous Minds is a 1995 drama in which Michelle Pfeiffer plays a new teacher who finds ways to inspire her classroom of students of color from impoverished neighborhoods. There's frequent profanity, including the "N" word, "f--k," and "motherf---er." One of the students is killed (off-screen), and the teacher and students are obviously emotionally distraught upon learning of his death. Movie addresses teen pregnancy, abortion, drug dealing, fighting in order to keep one's respect on the streets. One of the characters (teacher) smokes cigarettes. Some product placement. Before the teacher has earned the respect of her students, one of her students leers at her and says, "I'll eat you," which is greeted by hoots and hollers from his classmates. This movie is an example of the "white savior narrative," and while it could be argued that the movie does at least try to address this, families can use this movie to discuss the prevalence of movies in which white characters come in and "rescue" people of color from their circumstances. 

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What's the story?

In DANGEROUS MINDS, Lou Anne Johnson (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a former Marine who applies for a teaching job at a Palo Alto, California high school. To her pleasant surprise, she's immediately offered a job. Soon, she discovers why she was hired so quickly: Johnson's class is made up of sullen, rebellious, and disaffected students of color from lower-income neighborhoods. The students assume that Johnson will soon disappear like all the other teachers before her. Instead, Johnson shows up to class in a leather jacket, informs the students that she's a Marine, and offers to teach them karate. With each passing day, the students' resistance to Johnson's authority lessens, and in an effort to circumvent a school bureaucracy unconcerned with teaching the students in Johnson's classroom, Johnson devises new ways to motivate and teach, doing everything from offering candy bars, amusement park visits, and fancy dinners to entice the students as they learn. As she really starts to break through with the students, Johnson finds she cannot overcome the challenges her students face outside of the classroom, and when a tragedy befalls one of her students, Johnson must decide if she'll remain a teacher in the school, or if the challenges and heartbreak are too much to bear. 

Is it any good?

While a true story, this movie hasn't aged well wasn't a particularly original premise to begin with, as part of the "inspiring teacher inspires uninspired students to be inspired learners" genre. While Dangerous Minds addresses topics like poverty, bureaucratic neglect in the education of children of color from low-income backgrounds, teen pregnancy, gangs, and abuse, these attempts to show what the students contend with is offset with a lot of "you don't understand me!" dialogue that's an obligatory part of trite teen movies, no matter the situation or circumstance. There's also a "white savior narrative" trope, and while they do attempt to address this in one scene, it doesn't really counter how the trope plays out in the rest of the paint-by-numbers Hollywood script structure. 

Furthermore, the attempts to counter systemic racism in the story are offset by a racism seemingly borne out of '90s focus groups. According to Roger Ebert, in My Posse Don't Do Homework, the nonfiction book upon which Dangerous Minds is based, Johnson didn't use Bob Dylan lyrics and Dylan Thomas poetry to better relate to the students -- she used hip-hop lyrics. It isn't difficult to theorize as to why the filmmakers made that change. Choices like these drive the point home that while there's no doubt a unique and inspiring story is lurking at the core of Dangerous Minds, that story gets lost in a dumbing-down whitewash that is Hollywood at its worst. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the "white savior narrative" in movies. How might Dangerous Minds be viewed as an example of a movie in which a white character enters the lives of people of color and "rescues" them from their circumstances? Does the scene in which a mother of two African American teen boys tells Lou Anne off for thinking she can help the boys address this problem? Why or why not? 

  • How does this movie compare to other movies in which an inspiring teacher motivates a classroom of intelligent teens who were never given the chance to prove their potential due to poverty and bureaucratic neglect? 

  • According to Roger Ebert, while this is "based on a true story," the true story is that Lou Anne Johnson used the lyrics of hip-hop artists to teach and inspire her students, not Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas. Why do you think the filmmakers made this decision, and how might it undercut the film's broader message? 

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