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The 3 Rs: Rebels, Rock and Redemption

From 'Blackboard Jungle' to '187,' Hollywood has created classrooms filled with bureaucratic principals, angry students and the maverick teacher who makes a difference.

August 03, 1997|RICHARD LEE COLVIN | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Who can blame the Big Screen's newest teacher for taking matters into his own hands and giving those punk kids one final--and fatal--chemistry lesson?

The fictional Trevor Garfield first gets stabbed by a student in Brooklyn after giving him an F. Then he heads to Los Angeles and winds up teaching in the Valley, where the students are worse: They are tattooed hooligans who cuss him out, rape his one promising pupil and even slap their own mothers. Where's the principal? Holed up in his office, worrying about lawsuits.

"New and drastic rules must be formulated," advises a fellow teacher, a classic burnout.

Garfield comes to agree with that. "We can't expect the system to protect us," he says after rubbing out the biggest troublemaker in his class.

That's the message of "187," the classroom movie released last week. And while the film may be extreme for its genre--turning good ol' "Teach" into a vigilante--it has the same fundamental point of view Hollywood has had for decades whenever it focuses its lens on America's public schools.

From "Blackboard Jungle" and "Up the Down Staircase" to "Dangerous Minds," movies have suggested that "the system"--policies, curriculum, administrators--is part of the problem. So are most teachers, having given up on making a difference. Most students are bad too, angry and preoccupied with sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll . . . or, these days, rap.

Only a remarkable individual--driven by passion and a social conscience--can turn them around by the closing credits.

In 1955's "Blackboard Jungle," New York English teacher Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford) declares, "I've been beaten up, but . . . I'm not quittin'," and persuades moody student Sidney Poitier to stick around until graduation. Richard Dreyfuss, as a high school music teacher in 1995's "Mr. Holland's Opus," gives a gawky clarinet player the dose of confidence that propels her to become governor. And now in "187," Samuel L. Jackson, playing Garfield, tries to save a macho gangbanger during a climactic game of Russian roulette.

Movies, of course, need drama, heroes and villains. Hollywood does not pretend to be a perfect reflection of our society and values.

Yet the depiction of schools on film has featured strikingly consistent themes: Success hinges on isolated, heroic efforts and not on a long-range educational philosophy; being a social worker is more important than teaching technique; and what works in the classroom comes not from a curriculum but teachers' inspiration--to show a cartoon of "Jack and the Beanstalk," for instance, to spur a discussion of ethics. (Was Jack right to steal the hen that laid the golden egg?)

From movie to movie, it's an uphill struggle to overcome rule-bound administrators, work-to-the-contract teachers and social forces that leave promising students pregnant, stoned or dead.

"It's no wonder that some members of the public think we need to do away with public education," said Amy Stuart Wells, a UCLA associate education professor who has studied school movies.

In the films, she noted, fixing education is left to "superhuman agents, generally teachers, who come in and tame the wild beasts."

So why has this portrait been so consistent through the years? And what do these films tell us about our attitudes toward schools?

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To some degree, film insiders admit, Hollywood is just being Hollywood--following a proven formula. Americans love heroes who battle the system, whether it is Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry thumbing his nose at police department rules or Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith railing against the corrupt old-boy network in Congress.

Such renegades can find a natural home--and adversaries--in the classroom, a world that is easy for audiences to identify with because school is part of our shared experience.

School also is where you find teenagers, the prime moviegoers. And where you find teens, you find the latest music--meaning a chance at a potentially hot-selling soundtrack.

"Education does travel," said producer Jerry Bruckheimer, whose 1995 "Dangerous Minds" grossed $85 million in the U.S. and $100 million in other countries.

The pursuit of profits--and entertainment--also has inspired classroom comedies, especially sex-obsessed coming-of-age-films set in suburbia in which the kids are always outsmarting the teachers.

Aside from commercial interests, Bruckheimer and other movie makers say there are altruistic motives behind serious school stories--the desire to spotlight troubling conditions in urban schools, even if they create exaggerated heroes in the process.

"We've recently lost a couple of generations of kids, and part of the reason was that they weren't getting educated," said Bruckheimer. "We have to make teachers into heroes so the best and brightest will go into teaching."

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