Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Weekly Rant: The Blind Side
Because most sports movies are mediocre, and because most movies starring Sandra Bullock are worse than that and because I have read the book upon which it is based, I had no intention of seeing The Blind Side. That’s why I spent my lunch hour last Friday clicking through Metacritic to read about it: I wasn’t worried that my own experience with the film would be colored by my prior exposure to these reviews, because this wasn’t a film I was planning to experience. But the more reviews I read, most of them negative, the more interested I became. At a time when Precious, a sensationalistic story about a black woman who is used as a dramatic punching bag, is being widely celebrated as worthwhile art, The Blind Side, the true story of a black man who rose from homelessness to a career in the NFL with a lot of help from a white family, has been derided by some as condescending toward black people. That I had to see to understand.
And so I saw The Blind Side, only to leave the theater as confused as when I went in. Is the film offensive? Yes. If Precious takes itself too seriously, The Blind Side doesn’t take itself seriously enough. This is a film with a high school football coach who doesn’t use the headset hanging around his neck but does take a cellphone call on the sideline during a game. It’s a film in which a teenage Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), now a starting tackle for the Baltimore Ravens, gets whipped into shape by an elementary school kid. It’s a film in which Bullock’s saintly yet spicy Leigh Anne Tuohy confronts a threatening gang leader by threatening him right back – in his neighborhood, on his porch, in front of his homeboys. More often than not, The Blind Side adopts an air of preposterousness that suggests it’s more comfortable emulating a made-for-Lifetime melodrama than approximating reality. For me, at least, that’s offensive. As for the film’s supposed condescending treatment of its black main character, that’s where things get tricky.
In The Village Voice, Melissa Anderson suggests that The Blind Side “peddles the most insidious kind of racism, one in which whiteys are virtuous saviors, coming to the rescue of African-Americans who become superfluous in narratives that are supposed to be about them.” Scott Tobias of the AV Club argues that The Blind Side “finds a new low” in the sports genre’s “long, troubled history of well-meaning white paternalism, with poor black athletes finding success through white charity.” Both critics support these arguments by citing scenes in which white people must act upon Oher in order for him to act for himself. They also note how the film treats Oher, in Tobias’ words, as a “gentle, oversized puppy in need of adoption.” Frequently their arguments are compelling. Tobias notes that the Tuohy family “literally picks (Oher) up from the streets during a rainstorm, like a stray,” quipping: “All that’s missing are the children pleading, ‘Mom, can we keep him?’” One only needs to read such descriptions to see how neatly The Blind Side rests within the shamefully deep mold created by all the tactless “whiteys”-as-“virtuous saviors” films that have come before it. But I’m not sure that means that The Blind Side is automatically as tactless or shameless as its predecessors.
The thing that struck me about John Lee Hancock’s film is how faithful it is, a few indulgences aside, to Michael Lewis’ nonfiction book. Does that mean the film is capital-T True? Of course not. As I suggested, the film has a wink-wink demeanor about it that manages to undercut even the things that are factually accurate. Nevertheless, if Lewis’ account of the story can be trusted at all, many of the elements that might seem especially condescending toward black people are in fact based on truth. Indeed, Michael Oher was taken in by a rich white family. He did attend an almost all-white school. He was given special treatment by some of his white teachers to help him along. He did have a white tutor who guided him through high school and even college. He was inward and slow to reveal his feelings and history. He had been homeless. He did lose a father he barely knew to a sad death. He did have siblings he hadn’t seen in years, if ever. He didn’t take to football immediately and really was coached to equate offensive line play with the protection of one’s family. Perhaps most important of all, the black Oher really did form a bond with the white Tuohys, and they became a genuine family in the process – not just during high school, not just for the span of the film, but then and now. Any way you slice it, Oher was in fact “rescued,” in almost every sense of the word, by white people who, through their acts, were both “virtuous” and “saviors.”
None of this is to suggest that the film doesn’t take liberties in the specific depictions of these broader truths. Nor is it to suggest that The Blind Side gives us the “whole truth,” whatever that is. Furthermore, I don’t mean to imply that this is a good film. (When the professional actor playing the high school coach delivers a performance more forced than that of the career college football coaches who make cameos in this film, you’ve got problems.) Yes, it’s true that we leave The Blind Side better understanding Leigh Anne Tuohy than Michael Oher. But explain to me why this isn’t her story as much as his? Seems to me that without a Leigh Anne Tuohy we'd never have heard of Michael Oher. Sure, it would be condescending to depict Oher as the family pet being taught to sit, stay and play football. But I’m not convinced the film portrays him that way. I’d suggest the film portrays Oher as a young man in need of a mother and a lot of guidance, which by virtue of the formula means that Oher is placed in the role of a child. Is that offensive? If untrue, I suppose. But here’s the thing: What if it's accurate? Has our political correctness gotten so out of hand that stories about whites saving blacks are now taboo? That doesn’t sound like progress.
More than a decade ago, then living in Oregon, I eagerly followed the development of another sports-related film: Robert Towne’s Without Limits, which proved to be the better of the two Steve Prefontaine biopics released almost simultaneously. One thing I remember from the prerelease buzz is that Without Limits, which dedicates quite a bit of time to Prefontaine’s efforts to medal at the 1972 Olympics, didn’t score well with test audiences. Their complaint? Prefontaine didn’t redeem himself by winning gold at the 1976 Olympics. Why? Because he died in 1975. In that instance the real story – one of promise unfulfilled – wasn’t the story that (many) audiences wanted, but it was the story of what really happened. I have a feeling that something similar is happening here. In this era of heightened sensitivity to political correctness (which is a good thing for the most part, don’t get me wrong), The Blind Side is indeed hampered by Hancock’s sometimes overly simplistic approach to his subject matter. Just as often, though, what hurts The Blind Side isn't the depiction of its subject matter but the realities of it.