McNeely, B. (1997). A discussion of the movie, Dangerous Minds. S. Hamilton, MA: Center for Youth Studies.
The media is the eye of our culture. Because it offers insight into a society, it can be valuable for youth workers trying to understand teens. Movies driven to be financially successful, attempt to attract the largest viewing audience possible. Youth, ages 13 to 19, comprise 25% of the world population (Borgman, 1997, p.3). Therefore, movie producers often create stories that will be well received by people in this age group. Because of the powerful influence of movies, it is important for people who work with youth to seek the current messages communicated to them.
This topic discussion will specifically address the messages communicated through the movie, “Dangerous Minds,” with regard to the cast roles of African-Americans. This 1995 movie, produced by Buena Vista, was ranked 12th out of the top 100 movies for that year; total box office revenue in 1995 was $84,211,543 (Aasen, Internet search). “Dangerous Minds” effectively uses characterization, music, and theme to target a large teen audience.
The overall theme is positive: it conveys that even those youth who distrust authority and devalue traditional society will positively respond to a committed, expressed belief in their potential. Dr. A.G. Miller, professor of history of the African-American religious experience at Fuller Theological Seminary Summer Institute, says that “Dangerous Minds” supports the positive belief that “kids will rise to the level of expectation.” He further says, “teaching is not just about rote memory. It’s about relationships”-a point clearly made in this movie (Miller, interview).
When looking at the movie’s secondary messages, however, one finds characterizations that do not foster a healthy African-American image. Because it is our responsibility as a culture to “provide justice for all people and classes of society,” it is imperative to become informed of images which may cast a particular people in a harmful role (Borgman, 1997, p.82).
In “Dangerous Minds,” Michelle Pfeiffer portrays Ms. Johnson, a school teacher who accepts a position teaching in an inner-city classroom where the students have little respect for authority and no desire to learn. While believing in the students’ ability to excel, she nevertheless plays the role of a “white hero” to the community, and her implied message says, “I understand. Just follow me, and I will make things well for you,” according to Robert Goodrum, Area Director for Young Life in Newport, Rhode Island (Goodrum, 1997, July 8, interview). Instead of portraying a relationship where one’s strength supercedes another, if would have been helpful to depict caring individuals working side by side with a community; respecting the difficulty of the task and remaining open to guidance along the way.
Another negative message expressed. Callie, one of Ms. Johnson’s students, discovers that she is pregnant and succumbs to faculty pressure to transfer to a school for mothers-to-be, despite its poor academic environment. Callie has college potential, but her reasoning in this situation does not convey wisdom. She chooses a direction based on short-sighted thinking-an undesirable approach for anyone.
A similar characterization is seen with the mother of Durell, another student of Ms. Johnson. Durell suddenly disappears from class, and Ms. Johnson visits his mother to find out why. His mother angrily replies, “We are not raising no doctors or lawyers here.” The implication is that Durell must work instead of attend school. B.B. Robinsons, in an article entitled, “Dangerous Minds and Hopeless Lives,” responds to this by saying, “Apparently, the mother is more concerned with Durell earning a few dollars as a day laborer then with his potential for earning a respectable lifetime income after he completes high school, and possibly college.” (Robinson, 1995, Internet search.) Although this may be true in some cases, an accurate view would show this to be a possibility but not necessarily the standard.
Lastly, Mr. Grandy, the high school administrator, is shown to use his social status unwisely, in such a way that brings harm to a student. His unbalanced use of structure and rules creates a situation which severs communication between him and a student; as a result, the student is murdered. A.G. Miller recognizes that rules are important and clear expectations are necessary, however, this was not positively conveyed in the movie. (Miller, 1997, July 8, interview.) Instead, another unhealthy African-American characterization was portrayed.
The following sources were used for this topic discussion:
- Aasen, L. Daily variety. Internet search.
- Borgman, D. (1997). When kumbaya is not enough: A practical theology for youth ministry. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers.
- Goodrum, R. (1997, July 8). Colorado Springs, CO, Interview.
- (1997, June 15). Magill’s survey of cinema. Internet search.
- Miller, A.G. (1997, July 8). Colorado Springs, CO, Interview.
- Robinson, B.B. (1995, September). ‘Dangerous minds’ and hopeless lives. New Pittsburgh Courier, 13. Internet search.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Consider how you perceived the messages of “Dangerous Minds” before this review. If you are not African-American, did your perception change? If you are, do you agree with this review?
- How do your personal experiences affect how you perceive movies and television programs?
- Cite other examples in the media which cast negative images of African-Americans. Cite positive examples.
- What can youth workers do to combat negative messages toward other races and/or cultures?
- One’s personal, limited experiences may prevent one from seeing potentially destructive racial or cultural influences.
- Youth workers need professional training to more effectively reach across racial and cultural boundaries.
- Consider the powerful impact of the media. Seek to be more aware of negative racial and cultural messages.
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