Poetry may have lost almost all its voluntary readership in our era of shriveled attention spans and multimedia circuses, but in Dangerous Minds poetry still moves hearts and minds — those of bright, forgotten minority kids who most need the connection. The movie tells a simple, familiar story — of an idealistic young teacher riding to the rescue of seemingly unteachable teens — but it does so with an unsentimental conviction that is, in the end, deeply stirring.
The teacher is LouAnne Johnson (Michelle Pfeiffer), an ex-Marine who interviews for a student teaching position at the Peninsula's “Parkmont School,” but within moments finds herself being hired full time to teach a class of “special” kids. And special they are — a roomful of rapping, foul-mouthed adolescents, mainly black and Latino, whose undisciplined intelligence magnifies their alienation and resentment.
Johnson's first few moments at the front of the classroom are harrowing: She is a small, attractive, middle-class white woman trying to establish control over a group of kids unified by their dismissive anger. They do not trust her — why should they? — and over the thudding of their boomboxes they say so. They refer to her as “white bread.” She stalks out of the room ready to quit. But the Marine in her won't permit a pell-mell retreat, let alone an abrupt surrender. At home that evening she recasts her plans amid a tableful of heavy tomes about assertive discipline.
Pfeiffer brings to the role of LouAnne Johnson a steely pertness that captures both the Marine and the poet inside her. She is a chimera whose wide mouth opens in a genuine grin beneath two bright eyes that don't look away. When, the next day, she tells her rowdy assemblage that she's an ex-Marine who knows karate, they start paying attention to her. They grasp notions of force and violence because that's the world they've grown up in.
Parkmont School is as wildly divided as Johnson herself. Its student body consists mainly of preppy white kids from ritzy Peninsula towns, but Johnson's crew — a school within a school — is bused in from East Palo Alto and has little or nothing to do with the institution's mainstream. They are as culturally isolated as the town they come from. The movie's opening moments powerfully transmit the flavor of this other world; the grainy photography and slip-sliding camera create ominous images that might have come from a Nike ad on TV, and the thumping rap music, with its verbal snatches of violence and death, slowly builds unease, like water torture.
Yet Johnson's real problem is not with the kids but with the school's administrators, who have sealed off this unruly bunch behind a wall of bureaucratic edicts and lesson plans. Parkmont's principal, George Grandey (Courtney B. Vance), speaks in his honeyed gravel voice of rules and politeness and the Board of Education — all of it detached from reality and irrelevant. His shifty-eyed underling, Carla Nichols (Robin Bartlett), announces her untrustworthiness straight off by dissembling about the true nature of the job for which, with unseemly haste, she has hired Johnson. “I do what I have to do,” she says — it's her mantra.
The bureaucrats' cartoonish evil is the movie's chief weakness, but because they prance and caper at the story's margins, the caricature does no real harm. The heart of the film is Johnson's determined and imaginative assault on the barriers — of race, class, attitude — that divide her from the young people she's supposed to teach. Her karate exhibition earns her a tut-tut about unapproved pedagogical methods from Principal Grandey, but it also settles her class down long enough for her to be heard.
And she hears them. The strength of the bond that grows between Johnson and her class is mutuality; they come to respect her for demonstrating her respect for them, and she is able to teach them because she's willing to learn from them. She acts as a bridge between two worlds, and over that bridge she steadily marches her troops — toward better grades, graduation, a chance in the world they've never before imagined.
Yet establishing a rapport with the class as a whole is only the first of several fierce battles Johnson must fight. In any group of more than a few people there's likely to be a charismatic, a possessor of dangerous magnetism. Among Johnson's students the charismatic is Emilio (Wade Dominguez) — a sultry panther of a boy who in one breath brazenly flirts with the teacher and in the next jokes about killing her and feeding the remains to his dog.
Emilio senses in LouAnne Johnson a force to rival his anarchic domination of the class. “You have to get him,” Johnson is told by a girl named Callie (Brulkin Harris), whose hairdo looks like a volcano spewing braids and who is one of the brightest people in the entire school. But Johnson isn't about getting people; she's about getting inside them, helping them figure themselves out, and while Emilio is a tough nut to crack, she holds to the high ground, never stopping her efforts to pull him up while keeping him from pulling her down.
The crisis with Emilio is but one of many Johnson must confront. There's also a rumble in a school corridor, a teen pregnancy, a stolen leather jacket, and a surly parent who pulls her boys out of Johnson's class because she thinks that studying poetry, whether of Dylan Thomas or Bob Dylan, is a waste of their time. “They got bills to pay!” she says with a glare. Johnson is like a firefighter dashing from one blaze to the next, but in spite of all the turbulence she never loses sight of her main goal — educating people who are educable after all.
The movie's great awkwardness — its lingering image of a white person presiding over a mostly unwhite group — is unavoidable, because Ronald Bass' screenplay is an adaptation of LouAnne Johnson's 1992 memoir, My Posse Don't Do Homework. (The school where Johnson taught in real life is the Carlmont School in Belmont.) It's still a white world — but it's more than that, too, as Johnson teaches her kids. It's a world of human universals — birth, death, joy, and grief; a world in which language matters more than skin color or ethnicity. It's a world in which determination can conquer adversity and indifference, and in which an adult, by giving the best part of herself, can nonetheless continue to thrive alongside the young adults she's so passionately tended.
Dangerous Minds opens Fri, Aug. 11, at area theaters.