(This is my final essay assignment for my Sociology class. I’m officially on break until mid-January! I got a 90, BTW.)
The film, Dangerous Minds, follows the story of Louanne Johnson, an ex-U.S. Marine. Set in 1989, the story begins with Louanne entering into her first year teaching at an inner-city school with underprivileged youths, where she explores the challenges of teaching her students, and the necessary steps it takes to reach them. Roughly based on the autobiography, My Posse Don’t Do Homework, Dangerous Minds shows a social depiction of the forces of stratification and poverty, the bureaucracy of our educational system, and the subcultures that exist within that framework (Johnson, 2007).
The opening of the film shows you glimpses of poverty-stricken neighborhoods with run down buildings, busted windows, and graffiti. Neighborhoods where homelessness and drug deals are a commonality. In the background of these images is the song Gangsta’s Paradise, by Coolio, which is used as a reflection into their lives and culture:
“You better watch how you’re talking and where you’re walking, or you and you homies might be lined in chalk… I’m the kind of G the little homies wanna be like, on my knees in the night saying prayers in the streetlight (Coolio, 1995).”
This further builds on the imagery of a reality within this subculture where gang violence is prevalent, life chances are lacking, and reputations that invoke fear are a necessary part of surviving.
Photo Credit: [Source]
Louanne’s students are primarily minorities from working poor families, with no apparent interest in education, little to any educational skills and social problems. Seemingly fixated in their social position, these kids seem to lack confidence in their ability to be more than they are by virtue of their birth and circumstances.
In an effort to control some aspect of their lives, placing value in fearful reputations and violence become a way of carving out a place for themselves within society, and seem to be synonymous with power and prestige. Upon Louann’s first day of class, she is greeted with derogatory sneers, such as “white-bread” and “puta,” which translated to English would be equivalent to whore or slut (Smith, 1995). In their effort to intimidate her into leaving, and therefore maintaining their freedom, they effectively make Louanne more determined to reach them.
In order to obtain the attention of her students, and teach them in a way that they can understand and identify, Louanne begins to think outside of the box. However, the bureaucracy of the school system becomes a problematic hurdle with its rigid rules, and administrations unwillingness to try something new, even despite the fact that the existing curriculum and approach isn’t working for the “special & challenging” kids (Smith, 1995). The impersonality of their organizational structure leaves you feeling that the school has little real interest in whether these kids actually learn anything, but sees Louanne as more of a babysitter to get them through the day and out the door. Despite the bureaucratic resistance Louanne takes her chances, challenges the system and begins breaking school rules.
Attempting to form a connection with her students and build rapport, she asks the class to teach her some karate. After two students try to show her some karate moves she proclaims, “You guys don’t know shit! (Smith, 1995)” Louanne starts the class with a clean slate, giving everyone an A, while telling them all they have to do is try in order to keep it, which is a persuasive message to a group of kids that have never experienced having an A before.
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Appealing to the background of her students she breaks the school’s standardized curriculum. In teaching the kids about verbs Louanne writes, “I want to die,” and “ I choose to die.” She bribes them with candy, prizes and field trips to motivate them to do their work (Smith, 1995). She has them analyze poems about death and drugs. However, one of the more important factors is the interest she takes in her students as individuals, encouraging their abilities, and building a foundation of honest communication and respect, all of which are in direct conflict with the bureaucratic ideals of impersonality.
Throughout the film, you get this sense of jadedness coming from her students through their actions and how they verbalize themselves with comments such as, “ Come and live in my neighborhood for one week & you tell me if I still have a choice” (Smith, 1995). Yet, Louanne counters this mentality by telling them that everyone makes choices. “Those that choose to show up for school make the choice not to ‘lay down to die’. There are no victims in this classroom” (Smith, 1995). These are powerful words that seem to strike a cord with her students, but throughout the film you still see the influence of societal structures negatively impacting the student’s life chances, regardless of the fact that they make the choice to come to school.
The role that familial influence plays on social mobility can be seen in the film when two brothers in Louanne’s class stop showing up for school. When Louanne goes to speak with the boys she ends up having a confrontation with their grandmother:
“You’re that white-breed bitch messin’ with my baby’s minds. My boys don’t go to your school anymore and that’s going to be it. I saw what they were bringing home – poetry and shit. A waste of time – they have more important things to worry about. I ain’t raising no doctors and lawyers (Smith, 1995).”
Another example of negative societal influence is shown through institutional discrimination when school administrators push a very bright student out of school due to her pregnancy, so that she can attend a “parenting school” to learn about baby care. This discrimination is performed with the justification of being best for all students with the assertion that “pregnancy is contagious,” but this effectively creates an environment that lowers their chances of graduating from high school (Smith, 1995).
Perhaps, the film Dangerous Minds puts too much emphasis on the character of Louanne as a savior for the children, and sensationalizes the idea of “gang life.” However, it nevertheless manages to draw attention to important social factors that can influence the lives of children growing up in poverty, and how these factors can effect who we become. I see the film as an avenue to begin breeching mainstream views that cloud the issue of poverty in the United States, to start opening up paths for discussion, and consideration for the steps that might lead to social change.
Coolio (1995). Gangsta’s Paradise [CD] New York, NY: Tommy Boy Records
Johnson , L. (2007, June). My thoughts on the movie dangerous minds.
Smith, J. N. (Director) (1995). Dangerous minds [DVD].