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Film / Dangerous Minds

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They say I got to learn but nobody’s here to teach me
If they can’t understand it how can they reach me?
I guess they can’t, I guess they won’t
I guess they front
That’s why I know my life is out of luck, fool
Coolio, “Gangsta’s Paradise”

Dangerous Minds is a 1995 drama film, directed by John N. Smith. It is based on My Posse Don't Do Homework (1992), an autobiography of Lou Anne Johnson. Like the book, it narrates the experiences of a former marine turned teacher while teaching at Carlmont High School, a California-based high school, where African-American and Hispanic students are the majority.

The film begins with Johnson (played by Michelle Pfeiffer), a retired marine, applying for a teaching position at Parkmont High School. To her surprise, she is almost immediately hired. It turns out Johnson applied for a position nobody else wanted, teaching literature to a rather tough audience. Her new class includes "tough, sullen teenagers, all from lower-class and underprivileged backgrounds". Several of them involved in criminal activities and all of them indifferent to whatever school has to teach them.


The film focuses on her efforts to gain their respect, teach them to appreciate literature, and change the teaching methods to better apply to their needs. Some of her methods, such as bribing them with rewards, anger the senior staff such as George Grandey (Courtney B. Vance) and Carla Nichols (Robin Bartlett). She also takes personal interest in the lives of individual students, trying to help them out in situations rather removed from school. The first is Callie Roberts (Bruklin Harris), a promising student experiencing Teen Pregnancy. The teacher convinces her to keep pursuing further education even as a single mother. Her second case Raúl Sanchero (Renoly Santiago), a reluctant gang member who has to be taught the basics of self-respect and getting used to operating outside a pack.

The third case proves a failure. Emilio Ramírez (Wade Domínguez) is a student involved in personal conflict with a hardened criminal acquaintance. Emilio considers it a matter of personal honor to face his problems alone, never asking for help. Johnson tries to protect him but finds no support from the school system. Without sufficient protection, Emilio is easily killed. Johnson regards it as a personal failure, announcing her intention to retire at the end of the school year. Her students take offense and protest their mentor abandoning them. The film ends with Johnson reconsidering her decision.


Along with Bad Boys and Crimson Tide, it was one of three hits in a single year by producer Don Simpson. He died early in 1996 due to combined drug intoxication. His swan song was The Rock. The film had a television series spin-off, Dangerous Minds (1996 - 1997). It lasted one season, 17 episodes. Annie Potts was cast as Johnson.

This film provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Wimp: In the Cracked article with her, Johnson, a former Marine Corps officer, commented on the absurdity of the scene at the beginning, in which she runs out of the room crying after a student sexually harasses her.
    Johnson: If that kid had said to me what he said in the movie, I would’ve cold-cocked him. Real fast. He wouldn’t have known what happened. And I would’ve been fired! But I still would’ve done it.
  • Badass Teacher: Lou Anne Johnson as a retired marine. Among her first efforts to gain respect is to teach the students some martial arts moves.
  • Cool Teacher: Lou Anne Johnson.
  • Crazy Jealous Guy: Angela’s ex Shorty
  • Death by Adaptation: Emilio dies in the movie, but in real life, he's still alive.
  • Do Not Go Gentle: A memorable recitation of the Trope Namer poem takes place at the end of Dangerous Minds, just as the protaganist teacher is about to give up, feeling overwhelmed and impotent to make a difference. Not exactly life or death in that situation, but facing the prospect of being a dedicated, caring teacher for one of the roughest public schools around is pretty daunting too. When her friend asks her why she decided to stay, she answers only ‘they gave me chocolate and called me their light...’
  • Historical Beauty Update: Needless to say, Johnson never looked like Michelle Pfeiffer.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: The movie made Johnson's students out to be worse than they were in real life.
  • Hot Teacher: Lou Anne Johnson as portrayed by both Pfeiffer and Potts.
  • Inner City School: Parkmont High School. While the high school itself might be well off, the bussed in kids are typical of the trope. The TV show is more typical of the trope than the movie.
  • Mighty Whitey: An ex-Marine and sassy white girl inspires a class room full of angry minority teenagers to learn. Though based on a true story, some of the changes from the book also qualify. Johnson used musical figures popular among the kids, such as Tupac Shakur and his contemporaries, in order to teach them English. The film replaces these African-American figures with the inspirational power of Bob Dylan.
  • Not Now, Kiddo: A student ‘pushes’ his way into the principal’s office to try and explain that some violence is going to happen. The principal, who has very strict rules about knocking, dismisses the student, who ends up getting shot.
  • Save Our Students: Johnson’s efforts.
  • White Man's Burden: Caucasian teacher to the rescue. Not true of the book though.


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