Monday, October 11, 2010

The Blind Side

The Blind Side (2009; dir. John Lee Hancock) offers another melodrama about white and black folks getting acquainted in the American South. The message: mutual interdependence will make us better people. In the film, a conservative, wealthy Christian woman befriends a large and passive African American boy who is practically a street person. She feels sorry for him. His mother is an addict, and his father is nowhere to be seen. When she sees him walking down the street in the rain and asks where he is headed, he answers that he is going to the gym. She knows the gym is closed and realizes he has nowhere to sleep. To the surprise of her family, she offers to let him stay at her house for the night, and then for as long as he wants. She buys him clothes, pays his tuition at the local private school that her children attend, and ultimately she and her husband become his legal guardians. He calls her Mom, and she calls him her son.

There is much potential for sentimentality and stereotyping here, but though the film has its sentimental moments it for the most part evades both pitfalls. The characters run contrary to type. The woman, Leigh Anne Tuohy, is exactly the sort of person you’d expect to have no interest at all in homeless black kids. Michael Oher, the kid she takes in, is not your stereotypical street-smart black teen-ager. He’s shy, unassertive, and virtually never talks. He’s been bruised and traumatized by his difficult life. School bores him because he’s convinced he can’t do the work. He’s given up on himself and on life—he’s fundamentally depressed. Most of all he’s alone. Tuohy would undoubtedly say that Christian charity is why she took Oher in, and the movie offers no alternative explanation. It’s fairly free of platitudes and points of view. It speaks through the actions of its characters.

I dreaded watching this film for three reasons: it was about football, it featured Sandra Bullock, and because of the first two reasons the advertised length seemed too much to ask. It’s difficult to conceive of a subject less interesting on film than football. Unless it is golf, or maybe bowling. And Sandra Bullock, well, I’m just not a fan. On all three counts, the film won me over. Football is an issue, but only a minor one. Sandra Bullock, though she still plays another version of herself, is fully convincing as Tuohy. Quinton Aaron, who plays Oher, is excellent. There’s not tremendous depth to this film, but there is a winning and earnest sincerity. Sincere films normally drive me howling out of the theater. But in this case I was entertained and moved.

But perhaps also I was seduced, lulled, by the vulnerability of Oher, by Tuohy’s earnest concern for his well-being, into overlooking other aspects of the film. In a sense, by choosing characters that run counter to type or stereotype, the film is able to avoid specific commentary on race and economic disparities. It’s focused on individuals, not on their social and racial contexts. Tuohy never comes to any realization about the conditions of life in the projects—she knows something about the projects because she visits them twice in the film. She even threatens a drug dealer. She sees Oher as someone who needs help, and she responds to him on that basis. Oher’s passive vulnerability wins our sympathy, and as he begins responding to Tuohy’s efforts to help him, we like him all the better, but that’s because he’s trying to become the kind of person Tuohy wants him to be. When he becomes a member of her family, he does so primarily on her terms, not his.

I have no arguments with Christian charity. But in this film it operates on the premise that people like Oher are victims incapable of raising themselves up without the white folks’ help. Moreover, where the victims are raised up to is defined by the white folks too—eating well, living in a nice house, showing courtesy and manners, studying, attending college, acting like white folks. This is made all the more clear in how the film divides its characters into categories: the rich white people on the one side, the poor and drug-addicted black folks in the projects on the other side. In this film, solving the problems of the projects means getting people like Oher to live and be like their white benefactors. I am oversimplifying, but my point is that The Blind Side does not argue for social change. There is nothing radical or even moderately progressive about its solution to social problems. It argues the case of the Good Samaritan. Be good to people fallen by the wayside, but pay no attention to how they got there, to their ethnic or social origins.

Oher’s immense size automatically makes his high school football coach see him as a valuable addition to the team. He convinces the school admissions officer to admit Oher, despite his academic problems. (The football coach is played by Ray McKinnon, who played the title character in The Accountant, 2001, and in the recent film That Evening Sun, 2009). In fact, Oher is so shy and unaggressive that he bumbles around during practice and during games. Tuohy finally realizes that he’s afraid of hurting other people, so she persuades him to think of his team as his family, which he must defend. This does the job. The white lady shows the black kid how to play football and rise to his potential.

The Blind Side at moments seems almost aware of its disingenuousness. Tuohy and her husband as graduates of the University of Mississippi are archly fierce football fans. They want all their children, including Oher, to attend the school. Tuohy early on recognizes that Oher might qualify for a football scholarship to Ole Miss, and she does everything she can to help him qualify, which primarily means giving him pep talks and hiring a tutor (another arch Ole Miss fan) to help him with his studies. When an NCAA officer tells Oher that the Tuohy’s might have befriended him solely so that he could play football at Ole Miss, there is a genuine crisis. Oher wonders whether his new family loves him after all. And Tuohy questions her own motives. The film resolves the crisis in a way that seems satisfactory to the viewers, and to the characters, without wholly answering the question about motives. In real life, whatever that is, motives are always tangled, never pure and simple. In The Blind Side, what matters from the film’s point of view is the way in which racial and economic divides are bridged through the kindness and love of one family for a young man in need. If every wealthy family behaved like the Touhys, many problems in our nation might be solved, though we’d have a less diverse, more homogeneous nation as a result. And here we have another film suggesting that the way to success for a disadvantaged, minority character is through sports. The fact is that most families do not behave like the Tuohys, or cannot afford to, so what The Blind Side gives us is an isolated incident rather than a program for change. It makes us feel good without asking us to question how we live our lives.

[Old Smiley’s note:  A recent Slate article argues that the befriending of black athletes by white families is not as unusual as I’ve suggested.  See http://www.slate.com/id/2270482/.]

1 comment:

Bill Condon said...

Hugh,
It's actually disturbing how many films give us this very message. The Batman films, for example, portray us all as depraved and deprived weaklings in need of a rich man who will rescue us from, basically, ourselves.

I have read a portion of The Blind Side, and the book does seem to get into the issues you're raising, though still not to the extent one might hope for. Even in print, where there's room to deepen the analysis, this story relies primarily on an example of individuals reaching across a divide. The question of how we close that divide remains unexamined.