LouAnne Johnson was skeptical when producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer approached her about turning her 1992 teaching memoir, My Posse Don’t Do Homework, into a glossy movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer. ”People say, ‘Don’t sell your book to Hollywood. They’ll ruin it,”’ recalls the New Mexico-based writer and former Marine, lounging in a New York hotel. ”But after I met Simpson and Bruckheimer and they met the kids, I trusted them. And once I decided to sell it, I thought, I’m not going to be one of these people who complains about every change.”
But as technical adviser on the film, which was renamed Dangerous Minds, Johnson wasn’t shy about voicing her views. ”She tells you exactly the way it is — the world according to LouAnne,” says Bruckheimer. ”In story meetings, everybody picked her brain.” During one of these, screenwriter Ronald Bass wondered whether Pfeiffer was too glamorous for the role. Johnson’s response: ”What, like teachers are ugly?” (Indeed, her lithe frame and delicate features put her well within the Pfeiffer ballpark.) She also asked why her character had a love interest. ”I said, ‘Why does she have a boyfriend? If I’d had one, I wouldn’t have been spending evenings with these kids!”’ Eventually, Andy Garcia, cast as Pfeiffer’s beau, was cut from the film when his character scored low with test audiences.
Even if the test screenings brought the film closer to reality, Dangerous Minds is no documentary. Johnson says that dialogue, characters, and events have been changed or synthesized from the book. For example, Bob Dylan’s verse never entered her classroom — Johnson used rap lyrics to teach her kids about poetry — and while all but two students in the film are black or Latino, her actual class was one-third white. Nevertheless, Johnson, who’s taken a breather from teaching and writing a novel, is sticking to her no-complaints credo. ”The movie may not be factual, but it carries the same lesson as my book: You do have a choice….” shesays. ”You can choose to learn.” Class dismissed.