One of America’s great white-teacher-savior films celebrates a big anniversary this year. The film features a beautiful novice teacher, played by a famous white actress, surrounded by a sea of unruly and poor black faces, whose enthusiasm for their own brand of incomprehensible music and culture is matched by their resistance to schooling. The students’ home lives, marked by substance abuse and the near certainty of an early death, poses an obstacle to the heroic work of the teacher, as do the students’ families, who see no value in the kind of learning that the teacher has to offer. The teacher’s goal becomes a matter of liberating her students from the unfortunate conditions of their upbringing and into the light of learning by way of their own desires.
If you guessed that the movie described above is Dangerous Minds, starring Michelle Pfeiffer and released 25 years ago, you would be almost right, as nearly everyone would dispute that film’s greatness. Despite its popularity, Dangerous Minds has served as a regular and easy target of cultural and academic criticism for its comfortable, paternalistic solution to white guilt over the continued oppression of minority children in a nation that prides itself on empty promises of equal opportunity—a formula that has been successfully repeated in films such as Conrack (1974), Stand and Deliver (1988), Freedom Writers (2007), and a dozen others less worthy of mention.