Wow, a post I just discovered I had in ‘draft’ mode, written in Aug 2015. Rather than delete it, I’m putting it out there:
How far we’ve come.
As Patricia Arquette learned earlier this year, the best of liberal intentions can lead to P.C. Hell.
Much like the ‘Magic Negro’ meme in Hollywood, nowadays movies like the liberal, white fantasy, feel-good, Michelle Pfieffer vehicle, Dangerous Minds (1995), are now condemned as a paternalistic white savior meme in films. In Slate, Aisha Harris (guess her ethnicity) discusses “How the Michelle Pfeiffer hit Dangerous Minds put an overtly paternalistic twist on a saccharine genre.”
When Dangerous Minds opened 20 years ago this week, the critics couldn’t tell their readers loudly enough just how totally over it they felt. The film “tells another one of those uplifting parables in which the dedicated teacher takes on a schoolroom full of rebellious malcontents, and wins them over with an unorthodox approach,” began Roger Ebert in his unrelenting slam of the film. The New York Times’ Janet Maslin hit the same theme: “[It’s] formatted to match every other account of a dedicated teacher taming rebellious teens.”
Such critiques were not without merit. By 1995 the inspirational teacher movie, otherwise known as the “save our students” trope, was already several decades old, and Dangerous Minds stuck closely to its formula. That formula is simple: A new teacher takes on failing or at-risk kids who have long been abandoned by the system (usually in a poor, urban neighborhood) and helps turn their grades, and thus their lives, around. At some point, the teacher will reach a point at which she will want to quit, but an out-of-the-blue grand gesture by the kids will change her mind by the third act. It’s a subgenre that is naturally prone to sentimentality, so even the good or at least watchable examples of the form—like To Sir, With Love and Stand and Deliver—are at least somewhat cheesy.
Dangerous Minds stands out from its predecessors and many of the films that followed as a particularly egregious example of the inspirational-teacher idiom, particularly when it comes to its feel-good oversimplifying of two of its themes, pedagogy and race. The drama, loosely based on the memoir My Posse Don’t Do Homework by retired-Marine-turned-teacher LouAnne Johnson, doesn’t just stick to a well-worn path; in heightening the genre’s worst tropes so effusively, it elevates the condescendence and, more embarrassingly, the white-savior narrative that so frequently rests at its core.
The good news with all this: White liberals will become less inclined to make movies celebrating black accomplishment, and/or condemning white racism, for fears of being tarred vis-à-vis the Coalition of Fringes constituency that is mainstream liberalism.