Turn Back The Clock

Movie Review

Dangerous Minds

Distributed By: Hollywood Pictures

Reviewed by Melissa Minners


           When I first saw previews for Dangerous Minds in 1995, I remember thinking to myself that this storyline had a familiar ring to it.  In 1988, a movie called Stand and Deliver showed a teacher’s dedication to teaching his students that they were more than just working class kids destined to live life as their hard-working blue-collar parents had.  Both movies took place in California and both had a similar storyline.  However, Stand and Deliver was the true story about Jaime Escalante, a math teacher teaching Hispanic students from Garfield High School to learn a level of calculus that would allow them to pass Advanced Placement tests in the subject.  Dangerous Minds was story based on a novel written by a real teacher who had her hands full as an English teacher in a classroom filled with kids from the ghetto.

            I, myself, loved the concept.  I had gone to middle school with kids who were very much like the students depicted in this film.  To say middle school was tough is an understatement.  I watched as so many talented kids gave up on school based on what they experience in their home lives and the neighborhoods they lived in.  They had a set idea of what they could or could not do and gave up on trying for a better life.  Thus, any movie that has an uplifting message such as Dangerous Minds is preferable over a bash-‘em and shoot-‘em-up movie…though I do like those as well.  Even better is that this movie was based upon a true story.  This wasn’t a fantasy aimed at keeping kids in school.  This is something that a real life teacher experienced and wanted to share with the rest of the world.

            Dangerous Minds is based upon an autobiographical work by LouAnne Johnson, a former Marine who becomes an English teacher in a school program which features students bussed in from ghetto neighborhoods.  On the surface, the students she faces are streetwise punks experienced in violence, gangs and drugs, with no real interest in what school has to offer them.  But LouAnne Johnson is determined to discover what lies beneath the surface.  In an effort to get the students’ attention, she begins by showing them some karate moves. 

            Earning their respect as a cool teacher who can handle herself, LouAnne begins to teach them English.  However, she soon discovers that the students are bored with sentence structure and vocabulary.  If she is going to reach these students, she is going to have to challenge them to keep their interest.  Thus, she eases them into college level poetry and the outcome is both surprising to herself and to her students.

            All is not fun and games in this movie as we learn that LouAnne Johnson almost quit teaching almost as soon as she had begun.  Faced with the harshness of a school system that had all but given up on its neediest of students, gang violence, and ignorance, LouAnne almost admitted defeat and turned away from teaching for good.  It was her students who changed her mind, reminding her all they had achieved in her classroom.  It was at her students’ pleading that LouAnne continued teaching and bringing a new level of empowerment to students who had previously only known poverty and strife.

            The cinematography of Dangerous Minds is deceptively foretelling.  With slight nuances, the cinematography reveals what is going on in the story.  Dangerous Minds opens to black and white footage of life on the streets in the ghetto.  As the students board the bus and approach their high school, the footage becomes color.  This is symbolic of the hopelessness and harshness of their situations (black and white) and the hope (color) brought about by knowledge earned at the school.  Scenes in the school yard are also foretelling.  These scenes are very busy, always in motion.  But if one looks carefully, one can spot different things going on in the background that have an impact on the story itself.

            The performances in this movie are superb.  I truly believe that, of the many movie roles Michelle Pfeiffer has portrayed, her performance as LouAnne Johnson outshines them all.  Watching her frustration at trying to get through to her students and her bursts of enthusiasm at reaching just one, makes you truly believe that this is not just a role but a reality for her.  Courtney B. Vance, though not seen often in the film, is perfectly despicable as the Principal with a ridiculous agenda that is at odds with the very students he is sworn to educate.  Renoly Sanchero is both comical and adorable as Raul, a thug-wannabe who realizes that his mind is the key to his salvation from life on the streets.  Bruklin Harris is equally endearing as Callie Roberts, a bright student who the school system has given up on now that she has become pregnant.  Wade Dominguez’s performance as tough guy Emilio is intriguing.  Emilio presents the biggest challenge to LouAnne as he is not only a menacing character, he is also charismatic enough to be the leader of the classroom.  Whatever Emilio says, goes.  Unfortunately, though this was to be a defining role for the actor, Wade Dominguez’s acting career was destined to be short.  He died three years after the movie’s release from respiratory failure.

            And the soundtrack of Dangerous Minds!  What a soundtrack!  The score of the movie was composed and performed by Wendy and Lisa of Prince fame and featured a rap-beat that mirrored the life on the streets experience by many of the students in the film.  Gangsta’s Paradise, performed by Coolio became the anthem of the movie and is still revered to this day as a rap song with a poignant message about life on the streets.  The beats are slamming and fun at some points (Put Ya Back Into It by Tre Black and Don’t Go There by 24-K), serious and harsh at others (A Message For Your Mind and Problems by Rappin’ 4-Tay).  I own the soundtrack as well as the movie and I have to say that both are fantastic.

            There is one disappointment I found with the DVD version of Dangerous Minds is that there aren’t enough extras.  There were no commentaries or deleted scenes which really upset me.  I know quite a bit was cut from this movie’s original version, including scenes that included Andy Garcia as LouAnne’s ex-husband.  However, the only bits and pieces of deleted scenes to be found were in the Gangsta’s Paradise video that was included with the DVD.  The video is great, don’t get me wrong, but I still would have loved to see some extra footage or heard some words from the actual LouAnne Johnson and from some of the actors portraying various roles in the movie. 

            But, despite the fact that the DVD is lacking in the category of special features, I have to say that Dangerous Minds is one movie that should grace the shelves of any entertainment center in any household.  The entire movie is an emotional rollercoaster and the meaning behind it all is so uplifting, I can’t see any reason why parents wouldn’t want their children to watch it.  Dangerous Minds depicts the harsh realities of our times and the little rays of sunshine that emerge as hope for a better life.


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