Friday, January 15, 2010

The Blind Side

I confided yesterday to a friend that my write-up of The Blind Side had spiraled out of control. I had too much to say on the film and the book it's based on; I couldn't rein it in.

"Just abandon it," he told me. This is sound advice, as I've been working on the piece for a couple weeks now and have already a thousand words and no coherent thesis. I don't want to spend any more time on a movie like this if it's not going to go anywhere. At the same time, however, I have already put so much thought into it, the possibility of letting the movie go unremarked upon really irks me.

Somehow, The Blind Side got under my skin.

It began, as it so often does, at the bar. The incredible popularity of the new Sandra Bullock movie came up, and either I or someone at the table used the word "racism". My friend Josh asked, "How can a true story be racist?"

Josh brings up an interesting point, and in doing so he inadvertently challenged me to go see the film. How can The Blind Side be a racist film if it's based on a true story? Let's start at the beginning and see if I can get this out.

Here's that story, in a nutshell: Once upon a time, Michael Oher was a very poor, often homeless kid in the worst part of Memphis. Through a series of fortunate events, Oher ended up the adopted son of Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy. The Tuohys fed, clothed and sheltered Oher through two years at the Briarcrest Christian School before sending him off to their Alma Mater, Ole Miss to become a football star. Oher now plays right tackle for the Baltimore Ravens.

His fame and fortune Oher would never have achieved were it not for the charity and kindness of the Tuohys. His story is of an impoverished youth being hoisted back up through the cracks.

Truth for truth, the film manages to match the source material almost line for line, Michael Lewis' journalistic account of the events The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game. At least, it does so until the third act of the film, wherein writer-director John Lee Hancock does to the story what I'm always begging for more of in fictional adaptations of true-life events. He dramatizes the story.

The turning point from truth to drama takes place during a scene where Oher, having run away from the Tuohys, shows up in his old neighborhood. The point of the scene would have to be to give Oher (the character) some badly needed agency in a film that has, to this point, been mostly a PSA on how to be a good Christian with spokeswoman Sandra Bullock.

Hancock positions Oher's return to Memphis' Hurt Village as, essentially, the boy making a choice between his two lives - rich or poor, east or west, black or white. In this racially charged scene, the blinged-up, gold-crowned gangsta who runs the streets hands Oher a forty and asks him about his new white family. Things get tense, and when he suggests that Oher's new white mother would probably be a decent sexual partner (my words, not his), Oher goes all Bruce Banner on him, tossing him into a shelf and destroying the room.

The double-entendre of Lewis' title is so important to the telling of Michael Oher's story. The racial backgrounds of Sean and Leigh Anne, un-touched in the film, are spelled out and presented as evidence as to why this was the Christian family that finally started acting Christian. Sean grew up poor and made his name playing basketball; he is described in the book as "not knowing his own color". Leigh Anne, on the other hand, is the daughter of a U.S. Marshal who "raised her to fear and loathe blacks as much as he did." At the sight of Sean's former teammates in the crowd at their wedding, Leigh Anne's father asked, "Why are all these niggers here?"

Now there's an anecdote that didn't make the film. This is because while Lewis presents Oher's story as the complicated story of race that it is, in which a family is formed through exception to each other's colors, the film confuses the notion of "the blind side" as the first Hollywood exemplification of the Obama-era fallacy that as a country, we have moved beyond race. That every single character in the film is a stereotype of his or her class, religion and race (the exception, in all things, being Leigh Anne) becomes moot. These are issues, says Hancock, from a more primitive time.

Following his bust-up in the 'hood, Michael goes home to finally confess to Leigh Anne about his troubled past. Except, he doesn't. Hancock invents a truly remarkable device for his hero: Michael tells Leigh Anne about how, when something in his past is bothering him, he closes his eyes, counts to ten and it all goes away. Leigh Anne tries this as the film comes to a close fifteen minutes later; the final shot of the film is Sandra Bullock's smiling face, eyes shut in wonder, washing away 230 years of racial tension in America.

Problem is, a lot of what I've just written could be excerpted or quoted and might make me sound like I think this is a great movie. This is why I'm struggling with it so much. In spite of its casual, seemingly harmless Hollywood trappings - the country-singer turned actor (Tim McGraw, actually pretty good), the precocious, freckled youngster (Jae Head, unbearably obnoxious), the gloss and glitter, the triumph of the big game - The Blind Side is a dangerous, frightening movie that white washes issues of racial tension in the name of heartstring tugging.

Perhaps "racist" is the wrong word. To call the film that would be to simplify its crimes in much the same way it simplifies the life of Michael Oher. That it's a true story becomes irrelevant, because the perspectives chosen for the telling are, rather than "blind," consciously selective in which angles to present. Innocuously working its way through our popular mainstream, The Blind Side exhausts me, worries me and terrifies me. If this is our popular entertainment, we're all doomed.


  1. This is nice work Todd. It's always fascinating to me when films or books become such huge hits that they become social artifacts, sociological touchstones as opposed to actual unique objects. The talent involved with this film leads one to believe that there is probably a dearth of anything resembling actual filmmaking, and I can't imagine any serious film fan taking it seriously (other than unloading its baggage, which you ably acomplish here). But clearly someone is getting something out of it, to the tune of three hundred million bucks.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Dan.

    Sandra Bullock won a Golden Globe tonight for her work here, which is really a lot more than a meaningless trifle for a meaningless film. I take this stuff seriously because I live in a country full of people who, against their better intentions, also take stuff like this seriously. Someone's gotta voice the opposition.