Friday, April 18, 2008

white movie friday : dangerous minds

It may seem to white folks like a strange thing to say, but a lot of movies out there are especially white movies. Unfortunately, what's especially white about them rarely gets any attention. In an ongoing attempt to address this cinematic attention deficit disorder, I plan to devote Fridays to reviews of especially white movies (and by the way, watch for "saturday book rec" again tomorrow).

My inaugural selection is an especially effective Hollywood portrayal of white do-gooderism, Dangerous Minds.

In this 1995 Michelle Pfeiffer vehicle, which is based on a true story, LouAnne Johnson is a white ex-marine who finds a job teaching English in an inner-city high school. Hired on the spot, Johnson's job is to deal not only with the "dangerous minds" lurking inside the skulls of inner-city teenagers. The one class she teaches is filled with what she fearfully labels "the rejects from Hell," the students who are in this "special" class because they couldn't make it in the regular ones. Putting on her tough-guy face, along with her marine boots, Johnson tries to connect with the students, almost all of whom are black or Hispanic (her two or three white students continually sulk in the background, never emerging as named, full-fledged characters).

When the students yawn and snarl at Johnson's attempts to get them interested in traditional poetry authored by dead white men, she takes what's portrayed as a radical step, junking the textbook and switching to music. It never seems to occur to Johnson that her students already listen to music, and that much of it has lyrics worthy of study. Instead, her choice is “Mr. Tambourine Man,” written by Bob Dylan, another old white guy the students have never heard of.

Pfeiffer’s Johnson does try to connect--she chooses Dylan’s song because it’s about drugs, a topic she knows the kids can “relate to.” But as Roger Ebert astutely notes in his review of Dangerous Minds, when the real LouAnne Johnson switched from poetry to lyrics, she chose rap lyrics. Shifting rather deftly out of his own white perspective, Ebert also writes:
Rap has a bad reputation in white circles, where many people believe it consists of obscene and violent anti-white and anti-female guttural. Some of it does. Most does not. Most white listeners don't care; they hear black voices in a litany of discontent, and tune out. Yet rap plays the same role today as Bob Dylan did in 1960, giving voice to the hopes and angers of a generation, and a lot of rap is powerful writing.
Throughout the movie, Pfeiffer’s character continually holds up white culture and values as the ones the students should aspire to, denigrating pretty much everything about their current lives and backgrounds in the process. In order to further “get through” to her students, who start warming up to her after she demonstrates her martial arts skills by flipping a couple of the bigger boys, Johnson takes to bribing them. She tosses them candy bars for correct answers, takes them on an unauthorized class trip to an amusement park, and then announces that if they win a contest that involves matching Bob Dylan’s words with those of another dead white guy, Dylan Thomas, they could win the grand prize, dinner with her at an expensive white-tablecloth, white-customer, white-food restaurant.

Along the way, various non-white student personalities emerge, including, as Ebert describes them, “Emilio, the obligatory rebellious class leader (Wade Dominguez), and Raul, the class brain (Renoly Santiago), and Callie (Bruklin Harris), the bright girl who gets pregnant and is headed for ‘unwed mothers classes’ when Johnson discovers she can stay in school if she wants to.” Johnson wedges her way into these students’ personal lives, doing all she can both inside and outside classroom to save them, apparently from themselves.

In her discussion of white efforts to empathize with the difficulties of non-white people, African American philosopher Janine Jones labels people like this movie’s LuAnne Johnson “goodwill whites.” Such people are praiseworthy for the concern they have for others, but what they don’t realize is that their efforts amount to more than just helping others—they’re trying to help others become more like themselves. And this means assuming, unconsciously in most cases, that their beliefs and ways are the “best” beliefs and ways, rather than just another set of beliefs and ways. According to Jones, goodwill whites offer their assistance from such a condescending position because they don’t actually see themselves as white, and thus don’t understand how that has come to inform so deeply who and what they are. For goodwill whites, Jones writes,
race is something that others possess. Whites are just ‘normal.’ Whites’ inability to form the belief that they are white skews the nature of the relationships that exist between whites and blacks. It affects their ability to empathize because they are unable to import an ingredient essential to empathy: an appreciation of their own situation.
Educational theorist Henry Giroux has written insightfully about Dangerous Minds, demonstrating that this movie is not only about a white teacher trying to do some good in a non-white world. It's also about whiteness itself--how white assumptions and values subtly, and not so subtly, determine both Johnson's teaching methods and the movie's overall message about race. As Giroux writes, "the film attempts to represent `whiteness' as the archetype of rationality, authority, and cultural standards." Johnson could have been portrayed as willing to learn from her students (and from their parents when she visits them), particularly what they could teach her about her own values and ways as just another set of values and ways, rather than "better" ones. And perhaps this is what the real-life Johnson did, given her willingness to teach her students about poetry with their own music. But the cinematic version of Johnson remains, from beginning to end, entirely confident that the outside world she is trying to expose her students to, a world that is markedly white compared to theirs, is an entirely better world than theirs.

Ultimately, the worst thing implied by this film's portrayal of Johnson as a "goodwill white" is that the world outside the ghetto offered to these students, and to its viewers, is a world full of people who don’t have “dangerous minds.” People who are better, that is, than those filling the seats in underfunded, poverty-stricken, racially oppressed inner-city classrooms.


I'd like to offer the movie's trailer here, but it doesn't seem to be available online, so here's a music video that came out of the film. It contains scenes from the film set to 2Pac/Tupac's "Changes."


  1. White as normal. And the avoidance of interacting with POCs outside of trying to free them from their colorness maintains that. White as culture is met with hostility; culture is seen as what POCs have and it must only be explored and vacationed, but never lived in or a member of. Great post.

  2. I'm so sick of "and a white person came and saved them all" movies, "them" being underprivileged in some way, shape or form, blacks and latinos.
    Someone, please make it stop!

  3. I mean, so many damn movies are white movies simply by virtue of not having any POCs in them. Or, for a nice change, having POCs as one-person punchlines in throwaway side roles. I know what you mean by saying this is an especially white movie - the plot hinges on Pfeiffer's whiteness as thrown into sharp relief against the supporting characters' coloredness - but since most US movies are default "white movies" I feel almost like these posts should have a more distinctive title.

    Maybe "Painfully White Movie Friday?" "White Savior Movie Friday?" Hmmm.

  4. Thanks for the suggestion, Katie, I'll have to think about that. There are so many different types of white movies that I could label "movie friday" those ways . . .

  5. Great blog. But I do agree with Katie: almost everything that comes out of Hollywood is white. It is like when someone on Oprah asked why there was no White History Month. Because every month is White History Month.

    What made this post interesting is how the true story was whitened for white audiences.

  6. Have you seen the latest version of this 'Freedom Writers' with Hilary Swank? Bring a bucket to vomit in.

  7. Thank you for this post.

    Dangerous Minds is on my top 10 list of what I call "Are You Kidding Me?" films. It's hard to choose the most disgusting/ridiculous thing about this one, but I'd have to say for me it's the black grandmother who berated her grandson for his interest in poetry -- give me a freaking break!

    Yeah, the "dangerous minds" might be the ones who wrote and directed this.

  8. As the author of the original book, My Posse Don't Do Homework, which was retitled by the publisher after the movie release - I'd like to remind people that the movie was a Hollywood concoction and I had very little to do with it. I never used Bob Dylan's lyrics, for example. I used rap lyrics by Public Enemy. But that's not cool, according to the movie producers. And since I knew nothing about contracts, I signed away the rights (for 2% of the net and there is NEVER any net in Hollywood). But I didn't become a teacher to become rich. Ha. And the person who said that the black grandmother was ridiculous is right on. That's racist, stupid and disgustingly insulting. We talked about race and class a lot in my classes. And I encouraged students to see themselves as whole people and realize that their race is part of who they are, but it doesn't dictate them. I do some things because I am white, but most things I do because that's what I choose to do. For example, if I help a student, I do that because I believe in helping people, not because I happen to be white. So, it's important to talk about race and give students skills for being successful (however they choose to define success), but it's also important to teach them to view themselves as humans who have much in common with each other.

    I tried to discuss the racial stereotyping with the producers but there weren't interested in telling the truth as much as they were interested in telling their version of the story. Here's something amusing and sad. The fifth screenwriter for the film called me to talk about the opening scene which was ridiculous by the way. If real life had played as the movie die, I would have punched Emilio in the mouth in two seconds. End of career. Anyway, when I explained what really happened on my first day, the screenwriter said, "Oh, that's much more dramatic than the script." I suggested he read the book. He actually said, "I don't have time to read the book. I have to write the script." That tells the story.

    Michelle Pfeiffer, by the way, read every word of the book. She also visited my classroom and spent two days with my students. She changed their lives and the reputation of our program forever. That's a hero who happens to be white.


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