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Non-Review Review: The Blind Side

Is this some sort of white guilt thing?

– anonymous female friend #1

The fundamental problem with The Blind Side is that it takes Michael Oher’s struggle to overcome everything stacked against him, and makes it abundantly clear that the real hero of the story is Leigh Anne Touhy, the rich and privileged white woman who took him in. In fact, the sports legend ends up playing a supporting character in his own damn biopic.

The trouble with this story is in the telling...

I don’t suggest that the reason for this decision was racist. Leigh Anne is the lead character because she’s played by Sandra Bullock, who really wanted an Oscar. So she found a script that was full of all the elements that Oscar voters love – triumph over adversity, disadvantage, people helping one another – and decided to star in it. The movie feature Leigh Anne more prominently because it’s Sandra Bullock’s Oscar audition tape. That’s the reasoning behind it, nothing more sinister.

And yet, the movie is very difficult to watch. In order for Bullock to earn her award, she has to be put through the proverbial wringer. She has to show the Oscar voters triumph and tragedy – and Leigh Anne needs to experience both. So, while the movie takes the story of Michael Oher’s triumph over adversity, it superimposes Leigh Anne’s emotional arc over it. This creates an unfortunate sense of dissonance about it. Instead of this being the story of a kid who triumphs against impossible odds over institutional disinterest and neglect, it becomes the story of a rich white woman who took in a black kid.

Curbing my enthusiasm...

The movie isn’t concerned with how difficult it must be for Michael to be in a school that clearly doesn’t want him (even the teachers dismissively call him “the big kid”) it instead dwells on how difficult it must have been for Leigh Anne to take him in. “What is your sudden interest in the projects?” on of her girlfriends teases her. I’m sure she also faced some institutional pressures in taking care of Michael, but to equate his life experience to hers seems disingenuous at best, and ignorant at worst. Leigh visits the projects once or twice over the film – and portrays the act as one of huge courage and bravery. Perhaps it was. However, the film is rather dismissive of the fact that Michael used to live there every damn day.

Indeed, when Michael goes back to the projects and meets his old acquaintances, he handles himself pretty well – until they threaten violence against his adoptive family. They can sell his birth mother drugs all they want, but just don’t threaten his new surrogate family – even that scene, without Leigh Anne in it, centres around her rather than Michael. It isn’t about how tough it was to grow up in the projects, it’s about what the people in the projects think about Leigh Anne.

Anti-Social Services...

It doesn’t help that the movie is essentially about how the black kids learn to trust his white surrogate family and white team, because they won’t let him down – unlike his real family or social services (which, I couldn’t help noticing, are presented mostly as black people). The movie panders so hard, and is so damn patronising toward Michael that it’s hard to stomach at times. We’re told he is “brave kid” for “wanting a quality education” – basically for daring to show up at school in the first place. This seems to suggest that pretty much all disadvantaged people are quite happy to stay that way, and don’t want crazy things like education or a better standard of living. The movie so damn condescending that it turns Michael simply showing up to a proper school into an act of heroism – ignoring the very really institutional prejudices and pressures which weigh against kids from his background.

Indeed, once Michael shows up to school, he clearly has no real interest in engaging. It takes the hard work of the white staff to get him to learn. The movie makes it repeatedly clear that he’s “not dumb”, but he just doesn’t want to be there. It almost turns his inability to engage into a hurdle to be overcome by the white cast members – as if he simply can’t be bothered. It’s the same troubling portrayal of the disenfranchised and disaffected that we saw in Precious, where it was made abundantly clear that people from that background won’t necessarily choose to be helped.

It's pray time!

On the other hand, the movie glamourises the wholesomeness of upper-class living. The Touhy family consciously put on a show for Michael, pretending to be a family that always dines together. “Why are we eating in here?” the younger kid asks as they eat in a huge dining room that they never use. They are attempting to sell Michael a Middle American life which doesn’t actually exist. It just plays up the wholesomeness of the family, creating the impression that they’re trying to appear “better” than they actually are. Indeed, the movie seems surprisingly okay with the middle-class prejudices of the Touhy family.

When the family are taking the photo for their Christmas card, Leigh Anne decides to include Michael in a shot (who has been living there for months), remarking, “It’s not like I’m going to put it on the Christmas card.” Of course, she does use it on the Christmas card – but it makes me wondering what the underlying assumption was. Why wouldn’t they use it on the Christmas card? He does, after all, live ther – even if he’s not formally adopted until later. Hell, why was Michael left out in the first place? The film treats it as a mark of Leigh Anne’s tolerance and magnimity that she eventually includes Michael, but it makes the audience wonder why he was excluded in the first place.

The Blind Side is actually a decently made film. Sandra Bullock is good in it. I wish I could make a comment about Quinton Aaron, who plays Oher, but the script really doesn’t give him enough to work with. He’s very much a tangential and supporting character. The plot itself is straight forward and predictable – it hits the notes that it needs to, and flows smoothly enough, but it never stops feeling more than just a little bit manipulative.

Child's play...

I probably suffer a bit since I know nothing of American football – so I don’t appreciate the context of the film or the game that its playing. That said, I’m not sure I’d get too much more out of it. Great movies have been made about the sport, which I can jump into with no real knowledge, so I get the sense that this isn’t the real barrier.

I should also take the time to observe that none of my criticisms are in any way rendered moot since it’s based on a true story. I have no doubts that the real Leigh Anne Touhy did a great thing and that the real Michael Oher might have been very quiet to the point of being timid. It’s how the film illustrates these facts which creates the problem, not the facts themselves.

It’s a trite film. You know pretty much exactly what you’re getting by glancing at the poster. It’s your standard fell-good Oscar buzz, but applied in the most awkward and poorly thought-out manner possible. It should be the story of Michael Oher, but instead he’s rendered a passenger in the story of how difficult it is to be an upper-class white woman who takes a young black man into her home. It just feels like the movie is entirely missing the point and focusing on the wrong parts of the story.

5 Responses

  1. Interesting review Darren. I haven’t seen the film but I’ll be watching it from a certain perspective now. These sorts of American sports movies that feature race representation often focus on the teachers/coaches, who become the ‘hero’ so to speak but I think it does throw up some interesting questions when you’re basically saying the white, middle-class lifestyle is the route to success.

    • Yep. It just seems like it’s the teachers and coaches who are trying to claim almost complete credit for Michael’s success – the film rarely acknowledges that he’s trying or working, without somebody standing over him and directing him.

  2. Excellent, insightful review Darren. You are right that you are not really missing anything even though you may not fully understand American Football. The movie is very watchable but the way it made Oher a secondary character of his own movie is quite offensive. Sandra Bullock gives a good performance but nothing Oscar-worthy. Her character is basically the same at the start and end of the movie and it doesn’t take anything to be brash-spoken in a movie because there is no repercussion to it like in real life.

    • Yep, thanks Castor. Yep, that’s a huge part of the problem. Bullock is a supporting actress who just eats up the screentime. She doesn’t have an arc of her own – her character’s supposed to support Michael. Instead, she overwhelms him.

  3. Ya, I dislike this movie a lot. Not just because of the white guilt thing but because it always feels like it is afraid to ever let a real emotion creep in. I always think of the car accident which is set up like it will be tragedy and then the kid sits up and says something about wondering if the blood will come off his shit. Or the scene when the dude pushes the rival player out of the playing field and the coach asks what he was doing and he responds that he was taking him to the bus because that guy had to go and they both share a big smile. How lovely. The kid, as well, wouldn’t you just love to smack the precious out of him. It makes me cringe just thinking about it.

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