Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Commentary: How "The Blind Side" Rapes the White Daughter

I finally saw The Blind Side over the weekend; frankly, were it not the sole remaining Best Picture nominee that I’d missed, and Sandra Bullock not the odds-on favorite for Best Actress, I would probably have never seen it at all. When the trailers debuted last fall, the whole thing just had a pungent Radio vibe about it; there was a “been there, done that” air to the entire enterprise. But familiarity breeds profit, and The Blind Side became Warner’s fall sleeper hit, scoring an astonishing $250 million box office haul and a robust 70% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

As far as the movie itself goes, it’s nothing special. It delivers on about the level it’s expected to—a laugh here, a tear there, so on and so forth, it’s a true story, and it is a remarkable one. John Lee Hancock’s direction is capable if uninspired; his primary gift appears to be with actors. Bullock is, indeed, very good (if nowhere near as memorable as fellow nominees Gabby Sidibe or Carey Mulligan), though I wonder why no one is singing the praises of Quinton Aaron, who is wonderful as Michael Oher. Tim McGraw is also solid as Bullock’s husband (seriously, this guy can quit his day job), and little Jae Head, as S.J., has a nice screen presence that dances up to cutesy without crossing the line.

So, yeah, as an entertainment, it’s fine. What’s not so good, and what is getting surprisingly little ink, is the film’s troubling racial undertones. Put in simple terms, it is the story of a young, good-hearted black man who is abandoned by all of the irresponsible black people in his life, and is only saved from the cesspool of the ghetto by the Tuohys, rich white Christian Republican family that takes a shine to him. Fine, fine, we’re used to that kind of thing in movies. Where The Blind Side steps further is in its attitudes towards every other black person in the film—there is, it seems, no one of his own race who is not standing in Michael’s way, and the remaining black characters are either grossly negligent, maliciously obstructive, or out-and-out criminals.

Michael gets into his upscale Christian school with the help of family friend “Big Tony”, but that affable black man doesn’t hesitate to put Michael out on the streets when his shrewish (off-screen) girlfriend objects to him sleeping on their couch. His absentee father commits suicide, and his transient mother is a drug addict who, we’re told, has begat roughly a dozen children. But that’s not enough—when the NCAA suspects that Michael may have been taken in by the Tuohys as part of an elaborate recruiting scheme, it’s a black woman who stands between him and a rosy future.

Look, I know it’s a true story. And for all I know, maybe that woman was African-American. But maybe we could fudge that part? Maybe one person trying to keep the brother down could be white? I’m just saying.

Oh, no, right, there’s Leigh Ann’s friends. Early in the film, after the Tuohys have taken Michael in, she’s out to lunch with her fancy white rich lady friends. They exist in a movie like this only to be vile racist stereotypes, and they fill the job nicely. To wit: they express their concerns to Leigh Ann that big black Michael will prey on her sweet white 16-year-old daughter. It’s a ridiculous notion (big, gentle Michael, in the spirit of the “Magical Negroes” of The Green Mile or Bagger Vance, is apparently an entirely asexual creature, and a big laugh comes later when we’re told how much he disliked a college recruiter who took him to a strip club), but hey, it’s the ultimate white nightmare, from back in Birth of a Nation, and must be given its due. Leigh Ann is horrified, and rightfully so. She walks out of the restaurant in a huff.

But consider a scene late in the film, when Michael has let that mean NCAA lady fill his head with notions about the Tuohys’ motives and gone wandering back to the projects. We saw him and Leigh Ann make an earlier visit to this project, which is inhabited solely by thugs (not an auntie or granny in sight). This time, he is invited into the apartment of the gang leader, who makes small talk for maybe sixty seconds before inquiring about his new white family, his “white mama,” and asking, you guessed it, if he’s got a sister. He then proceeds, lewdly and graphically, to explain how he would take advantage of such a situation.

Keep in mind as you’re watching this occur that, aside from the two scenes with that mean NCAA lady, these are his only meaningful onscreen interactions with other black characters in the entire film. (When he encounters a long-lost brother in a restaurant, we observe the wordless scene through a window, as the Tuohys do.) And what do those black characters do? They immediately act exactly as Leigh Ann’s racist friends assume they do. The movie, it seems, is just as racist as her friends are.

Again, The Blind Side is skillfully made, and well acted. But they’re playing with a loaded deck here. In the film’s repulsive closing voice-over, Leigh Ann bemoans the losses of so many other talented athletes who were unable to escape the trap of the projects. Her point is well-taken—there are too many gifted children (and not just athletes, but scholars, artists, musicians, writers) crippled by economic circumstances and institutional racism, born into circumstances beyond their control and lacking the resources and/or encouragement to shake them. These are serious problems, and require serious solutions. That last voice-over seems to think that all those poor black kids needed to find was a nice white family to save them.

1 comment:

  1. I was surprised (REALLY surprised) at how much I liked this movie but I couldn't shake that same feeling of unease. I dismissed it thinking that this is just the true story of a family so any presumptions I'm making are just my presumptions and nothing to do with the way the story is told.

    I had no trouble believing that Michael was part of the Tuohy family- clearly this is an extraordinary family and the level of trust it required for Michael and each of the Tuohys to become a family is incredibly moving.

    I did, however, have the same confusion at the final message. Was that a call-to-arms to overprivileged white people to come in and rescue poor black children? Of course, it's not the job of Leigh Ann (the character) or the person she was inspired by to solve the inherent socioeconomic divide within the races in this country. The problem here is that the movie uses the character to do just that. Thanks for articulating what made me so uncomfortable.

    Plus, that flashback scene was just lazy- easily knocked the film down a letter grade IMHO.