An entire genre of film has been slowly dying, and it’s a shame since it’s one of my favorites. What genre is that? The “good teacher in a bad school.” What follows is a list of my favorite films that embody this forgotten genre. If you’re expecting to find Freedom Writers on here, don’t waste your time, yo — this ain’t for you!
Class of 1984
My earliest exposure to this style of film is also the most grindhouse-y on this list; I can best describe this one as a poor man’s The Warriors. When Andrew Norris gets hired at an inner city school, his eyes are opened to the realities of early 80s teens. Featuring the lamest gang in history (they make One Direction look like Nuestra Familia), this one has to be seen just to see how far bad kids have come. Still not sold? Did I mention it features a pre-Back to the Future Michael J. Fox?
Seems like this one was on my local late night basic cable channel (KTLA 5) every Saturday when they weren’t showing Chuck Norris’ Missing in Action. Jim Belushi is a good principal sent to the awful Randall High School, known throughout the school district as a “war zone.” He and Louis Gossett, Jr. are a two-man army fighting possibly the oldest-looking student gang leader ever, Victor Duncan.
Stand and Deliver
Described by critics as “the Rocky of the classroom,” this one is legitimately good, and based on a true story. It stars a young but permanently old-looking Edward James Olmos as mathematics teacher Jaime Escalante, who dared to teach calculus in one of the worst high schools in East LA. Co-starring Lou Diamond Phillips and Estelle Harris (Toy Story’s Mrs Potato Head), if you can only watch one of my recommendations, make it this one, homes.
I’m not 100% sure, but I think this soundtrack, featuring Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise,” might be the first CD I ever purchased. Former-Marine-turned-teacher Michelle Pfeiffer — yes, you read that right — is given a temp teaching job at an urban high school, and her first day doesn’t go over too well. But through the power of Bob Dylan songs and karate, she figures out the keys to reaching her misunderstood students. I really think not casting Steven Seagal in the role was a huge mistake, and with the recent announcement of Kindergarten Cop 2, I think now’s the perfect time for “Dangerous-er Minds.”
The most unlikely film on this list. A former mercenary takes over substitute teacher duties for his girlfriend after she is attacked by her students who happen to be involved in the drug trade. Okay…? The most action-oriented film on the list, it also features the most recognizable cast: Tom Berenger, Luis Guzmán, Latino Frankenstein Marc Anthony, Ernie Hudson, William Forsythe, and the “shit pushed in” guy from Training Day. Not sure how well this one holds up today, but as a teenager, it was one of my standby rentals from the local video store.
One of my personal favorite Sam Jackson performances of all time, this one is about as legit as the genre gets! After teacher Trevor Garfield (Jackson) is stabbed by a student, he moves from his New York City school to an LA one because he’s less likely to be stabbed there (and more likely to be shot…?). This is the film that introduced me to the extremely underrated Clifton Collins, Jr., and his portrayal of gang member Cesar Sanchez is by far the baddest cholo ever captured on film. Plus, it has one of the craziest endings in the history of film. #CesarNo
Well, you all have your homework assignment now, so get to it. If you have a favorite film that wasn’t mentioned, please leave me a comment below!
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