Is it possible that The Blind Side, the movie directed by John Lee Hancock (The Rookie) from the book written by Michael Lewis (Moneyball), is a sincere piece of work?
For those who may not already know, Hancock’s picture, which has become a big box-office hit in the United States since its Thanksgiving release, revolves around the fate of a soft-spoken African-American boy with bad grades (real-life NFL rookie of the year candidate Michael Oher, played by Quinton Aaron) who slips sideways into a private Christian school with the help of a coach who hopes he might turn out to be a valuable addition to the football team come springtime. All but one of his teachers quickly decides he’s an intellectual lump, but no one notices that, after school hours, he seems to have nowhere to call home. That is, until tough and frosty Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) and her family spot him lumbering to nowhere in particular on a rainy night. For no apparent reason other than compassion for this boy, the Tuohy’s take Michael under their wing-- Leigh Anne frets later over whether she’s done the right thing, and it’s clear what she’s really worried about is whether they’ll have any furniture or valuables left in the morning. But the more she learns about Michael, and the more the family gets to know him, the more she’s compelled to take responsibility for the boy, to provide him the things that her family can provide him, including enthusiastic guidance when spring rolls around and it’s time for the coach to cash in on his investment in Michael as a worthy football prospect for his team.
The Blind Side comes shrink-wrapped with a big red target on its back, ready for instantly gratifying condescension on the part of those who choose to read it as another self-congratulatory tale of the white man helping the poor hapless Negro on the road to self-actualization, living out a modern-day version of the slave-master relationship in the process. It’s ready to go too, if your game is heaping scorn on white Christian conservatives and their specious motives, a demographic group that isn’t often portrayed minus the closet full to bursting with ugly skeletons ready to fall out onto the floor at the most agonizing moment. But the truth is, the movie, while somewhat rudimentary in its construction and certainly not up to The Rookie’s occasionally poetic visuals, is as secure in its belief that men and children of men can help themselves out of their own circumstances (Michael keeps himself out of the nasty situation in the projects that his mother sets him up with long before Leigh Anne Tuohy ever roars up in her BMW) as it is that righteous charity born of Christian beliefs can and should be subject to self-questioning. (Is the motivation behind the Touhys’ generosity, and particularly that of Leigh Anne, as innocent as it initially appears?)
Sandra Bullock pulls off a neat trick in the movie by showing us the vulnerability behind a woman whose profession (interior design) and religious conviction are not just a front, but at the same time demand the adoption of a shell of outward contentment, satisfaction and surety to reflect back to the rest of the world. We’re encouraged to enjoy Bullock’s spunky rejoinders and headstrong protectiveness toward Michael (Aaron’s performance is a counterpoint of quiet reserve and tentative curiosity about his unlikely benefactors), and Bullock makes that enjoyment a pleasure, especially considering that such behavior exhibited in a real person (Leigh Anne Tuohy, perhaps?) would more than likely come off as annoying at best, smug entitlement at worst. In fact, one of the movie’s almost perversely refreshing moves comes from Leigh Anne’s absolute refusal to apologize for her family’s wealth or how they got it. (Her husband, played with laid-back charm by Tim McGraw, owns hundreds of Taco Bell franchises.) This is only a plus here because Leigh Anne often displays a refreshing self-criticism regarding elements of her own lifestyle (the $18 salads she eats for lunch with her socialite sisters take it on the cinch once or twice), and because she is not lacking in hesitancy to use the power and benefits of her wealth not just to pamper her family but also to help improve the level of possibilities along Michael’s life path.
As I watched The Blind Side I was plenty aware of the melodramatic tactics the film often puts to crude use—the ghetto environment from which Michael escapes could have probably been drawn a tad more subtly, ambivalently, giving us a better idea of how the comforts of this other constructed family and its bad influences can be so seductive, so welcoming. There’s not much juice in the film’s attempt to lead us to believe that Michael may be willing to retreat back into that world if he can only locate his crack-addicted mother—Aaron’s (and Hancock’s) conception of the high-school-age Oher is too much the innocent for that. And the movie’s use of football as a metaphor for how Michael comes to see life has been radically simplified to encourage the participation of viewers who wouldn’t know a left tackle from a place kicker. But if, on the basic level of racial perception, we are looking for a movie that encourages a certain color-blindness (part of what the title of the movie and the book are referring to), then it seems to me The Blind Side is not dredging up all the old clichés for yet another self-righteous drubbing but instead setting a template in which we are encouraged to look at those around us not as blacks (or whites) in need, but simply as children, women and men. Mutual familiarity with cultural traditions, beliefs and practices can come later; for now, let’s get out of the rain. Leigh Anne and her family “impose” their Christian values on Mike as they would any other member of their family—Leigh Anne’s benevolent “my way or the highway” is meant more as a family principle, not overtly religious guidance, and Mike adopts the family rituals as any of the Tuohy children do, with the option to decide for himself whether or not they are relevant to his adult life when the time comes. When the movie was over I asked my daughters (nine and seven) why she thought Leigh Anne Tuohy did what she did. I was not surprised when my oldest did not say, “Oh, to help the poor, oppressed black boy out of his savage existence and into a sheltered life of privilege the quality of which can only be afforded to him by the gentility and generosity of Whitey.” Instead, she looked at The Blind Side as a story of simple kindness, sans religious or racial prerequisites, and fairly judged that had Michael Oher been Chinese or white or Hispanic, the Tuohy’s response would have (or should have) been the same.
Unfortunately, the movie offers an easy mark for cynics, and some reviewers, urban lefties as well as conservative writers, have been swinging for the fences in an attempt to knock the wind out of this unassuming picture on grounds of its supposed white-bread superiority complex. But after I came home from the movie I discovered that, because of my enjoyment of The Blind Side, I was not only misguided--I was also a racist. Denver-based film critic Walter Chaw, who writes for the site Film Freak Central and has never been one to shy away from overstatement, may have topped even himself for hyperbolic tongue-lashing with his review of The Blind Side. (You can read the whole thing for yourself here, as well as some reaction it here.) The review is a pinnacle of sour self-satisfaction, apparently seriously positing The Blind Side as our very own Triumph of the Will, Ole Miss iconography apparently standing in for those swastika thingies. But Chaw’s brand of bombast may suggest to you that Hancock’s evil film may not be the only elephant in the room with an agenda:
"Michael Oher—as played sub-vocally by gentle, Lenny-ian giant Quinton Aaron—is not only the Super Duper Magic Negro who heals a household of rich shit-kickers (“Shoot! We done gots a Black Man living with us ‘fore we even met a Democrat! Hoot!”-- forgetting that wealthy Southern landowners have a long tradition of keeping black people on their grounds without commensurately progressive attitudes), but is the passive mute object around which every single person who likes The Blind Side convinces themselves they aren’t racist for the liking of it. If this movie doesn’t piss you off, if it doesn’t make you nauseated with its dangerous smugness, you’re part of the problem.”
That concluding section of Chaw’s first paragraph (in which his own possible culpability in racism is magically excused by his superior bullshit detector) is filled with enough condescension, presumptions, falsehoods (“Super Duper Magic Negro”?) and specious claims— Hancock and the Tuohys are about as unaware of the history of black slavery and servitude in the South as Quentin Tarantino was of the Holocaust— to make anyone question the writer’s stability, let alone the level of vitriol he seems prepared to let fly at this rather minor movie.
Chaw clearly has distaste for Bullock’s performance, and perhaps also for the sort of stridently religious, moneyed Southern matriarch she represents in the movie, and I must say if I met Leigh Anne Tuohy in the flesh she probably wouldn’t be someone to whom I’d naturally gravitate either. But by denouncing anyone who likes the movie as a racist or an “asshole,” and by saddling the movie with claims of its “manifest destiny as applied to an entire culture as it asserts itself over another in an act that can only be seen as pathological fundamentalism,” Chaw shows himself up as trying too hard in one act of look-at-me posturing after another. If you’re going to claim that a movie as essentially good-natured as this one is an equivalent illustration of American foreign policy since 9/11, then I suppose the language you use to do so must be suitably bombastic and overstated, and helpfully ignorant of the tenor of the actual film as possible. It’s only through self-important haranging like this that Chaw could attempt to sell Tuohy’s introduction of Michael to her family’s Christian beliefs, beliefs that Michael may already share or is at least aware of, as achieved with anything like “overwhelming, relentless intimidation and cajoling.” That’s more accurately a description of Chaw’s review.
But it’s not nearly as funny as Chaw’s description of the game that The Blind Side is built around. Of course Chaw is perfectly correct to suggest that Michael should be asked if he even wants to play football, or whether he even wants to go to college. The implication is that the film itself doesn’t ask these questions when in fact it does, just not as quickly as the reviewer would have them asked. (It’s called dramatic tension.) And how about this one: “With the Tuohys, Michael gets his first bed and first glimpse of football, where, ultimately, he’ll be drafted into the ranks, as an underprivileged black man, to entertain a stadium full of 70,000 richer (at least, relatively) white people.” Now who’s being patronizing? The Blind Side makes it clear that, although the Tuohys help him in academics and well as athletics, he is drafted not as “an underprivileged black man” but as a talented and athletic left tackle, precisely what any football coach at any college is looking for, regardless of the player’s color. But Chaw outdoes himself when he claims that Oher is being groomed for some sort of Romans/Gladiators contest to slake the violent appetites of rich white folks, as if the stadium were filled with 70,000 Mr. Burnses warming their feet on the backs of their Negro valets. On the field, in the stands, and at home in front of the TV (where economically challenged fans of all races, colors and creeds enjoy much less expensive access to the games), blacks and whites fill the ranks of college and professional football fandom.
All this, however, this probably won’t matter to someone bent on seeing The Blind Side as “a horror movie about animals that can’t help the way they are preying on an animal without the power to resist,” “institutional racism as inspirational melodrama… our very own Triumph of the Will.” Anyone paying attention yet? Are these objections merely narrative and aesthetic or do they extend, as the pomposity of the language in which the review is written suggests, to the idea that the real Leigh Anne Tuohy had no business taking in Michael Oher in the first place? Why else would Chaw feel it necessary to point out, right after noting Tuohy’s “patronizing” attitude toward the boy, that Tuohy gets “sanctimonious with any friends who stupidly question the wisdom of bringing in a boarder with an abusive, deeply-troubled past into the same home as young children?” Willful ignorance or smug sanctimony—you get the feeling that in the eyes of some this is a battle the charitable will never win?
I actually like Chaw’s question about what “the same assholes who love this movie (would) say about a Kabul-made film in which fundie Muslims save a white kid from Indiana with dangerous misinterpretations of the Qur’an and teach him how to rock it at Buzkashi?” Personally, I‘d go see it (especially if it had a blistering Steve Earle soundtrack), but I’m guessing most of us, Christian and heathen alike, would be forced/encouraged to ignore that film because it wouldn’t likely have the marketing muscle of Warner Brothers behind it or the distribution arrangement to get booked more than a couple of weeks in one or more of our most radical liberal pinko urban art houses, where it might likely be proclaimed a masterpiece or at least viewed with tolerance. It’d be interesting to read the reviews, wouldn’t it? Especially the ones coming out of Denver, where one lone critic howls against Sandra Riefenstahl and the encroaching and insidious cultural, religious and political treachery that bear themselves on the cold, stiff winds blowing her new movie into town. Evil does, after all, have many faces. I’m pretty sure the Bible told me so. But I’m not even slightly convinced that The Blind Side is one of them. Whether you buy Christianity or not, sometimes helping a fellow man is simply helping a fellow man, and telling that story is simply telling that story.