We gave it a C-
”White bread!” That’s the epithet that one of the tough, poor, mostly black and Hispanic problem kids in Danderous Minds hurls at LouAnne Johnson (Michelle Pfeiffer), their new teacher, the first day she strolls into class. LouAnne, a former Marine, has never had a full-time teaching job. The only reason she’s landed this one is because her students are the trouble-makers no one else wants to touch. Rude, taunting, rap-generation delinquents who don’t know much about history or English or math or anything else, they think that school is a sham and that no hoity-toity teacher could possibly help them escape their impoverished, crime-addled, no-future backgrounds. Of course, the moment LouAnne stares into their hostile faces, you know she’s going to disarm their cynicism and ignite the fire in their bellies. You know it because of the eager gleam in Michelle Pfeiffer’s eye. You know it, as well, because you’ve probably seen Blackboard Jungle or To Sir, With Love or one of the many other movies in which soulful, dedicated teachers wander into a war zone of unruly ”bad” kids, only to wake them up to the glories of knowledge.
Inspirational-teacher fables are always sentimental. At their best, though (Stand and Deliver, Conrack), they have an idealism that feels honest. They can put an audience in touch with the joys of intellectual discovery. At their worst (Dead Poets Society), they offer a singularly smarmy movie experience, one that worships the idea of knowledge without actually bothering to put any on screen. Dangerous Minds is of this latter, sham variety. The movie is based on LouAnne Johnson’s 1992 book, My Posse Don’t Do Homework, a sober account of her teaching experiences at a Northern California high school; it was directed by John N. Smith, who made The Boys of St. Vincent, the brilliant Canadian teledrama about child abuse within the Catholic church. Yet despite its promising pedigree, Dangerous Minds has a slick, syrupy fraudulence — it’s like an Afterschool Special made for MTV.
After winning over her students with an impromptu karate lesson, LouAnne institutes a reward system, tossing out candy bars to anyone who participates in class and promising to take the kids to an amusement park if they agree to read poetry. They do, and LouAnne promptly introduces them to the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s ”Mr. Tambourine Man.” This is followed by a ”Dylan-Dylan contest,” in which the students have to find a poem by Dylan Thomas that echoes the theme of the Dylan song. The kids seem to find matching poems and song lyrics pretty easy; mostly, though, they like the rewards. And the film, without a shrug, endorses this ”successful” system of education.
There’s a patronizing middle-class naïveté to the idea of knowledge put forth by Dangerous Minds. The movie says: Open yourself to literature, and the world will be yours. As the kids sit in the library, reading a disembodied line or two of Dylan Thomas (for the sole purpose of winning the contest), we noble folk in the audience are supposed to sit back, hands clasped to our hearts, and think, ”Listen! Inner-city kids reading…poetry!” Yet I couldn’t help wondering how, exactly, the Dylan-Dylan contest was supposed to help these kids escape their impoverished, crime-addled, no-future backgrounds. The fact that LouAnne shows absolutely no interest in teaching them anything that might actually be of use in landing a job is blithely brushed aside. In the end, though, her Pollyannaish zeal fulfills her fantasy more than it does theirs.
Speaking in a light, high-pitched quasi-drawl, Pfeiffer does her best to make LouAnne urgent and earthy, but she has to navigate a script that’s a minefield of clichés. LouAnne spars with the sexy class bad boy, Emilio (Wade Dominguez), and encourages the smart, pregnant Callie (Bruklin Harris) to defy school authorities and stay in school — a twist that lays the blame for inner-city distress on overworked bureaucrats as glibly as Newt Gingrich demonizes liberals. The film’s most unfortunate cliché, however, is LouAnne’s wheezy choice of Bob Dylan as the songsmith to make poetry ”relevant.” In a culture where the cutting edge of black pop music — and, indeed, the movie’s own soundtrack — is all but defined by the flow of its words (Dylan would have been celebrated for a line as memorable as Snoop Doggy Dogg’s inner-city koan, ”With my mind on my money and my money on my mind”), the film’s implicit assumption that the height of pop poetic achievement is white is enough to make you want to quit school. C-