Several weeks ago, I saw “The Blind Side” which is, aslotsofpeople havealready pointed out, yet another addition to that long list of white savior movies. If you’re not familiar with this particular movie trope, you should read Hernan and Gordon’s Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness. The film also trades in the “magical Negro” meme, in which black people perform various miracles for white people (see also, “The Green Mile”). This particular theme is deeply embedded in American culture and for more about this you can read the classic Langston Hughes’ Black Magic: A Pictorial History of the Negro in American Entertainment or the more recent Brannon Costello’s Plantation Airs.
This is all well-trod ground for examining race in this, and other, films. I agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates that the sort of one-note discussion of this film that asks “is it racist or is it not racist?” suggests that:
“if you’re not a racist, if a movie isn’t racist, then presumably it’s all good. Arguing over the contents of people’s hearts, or the admittedly myriad interpretations of modern movie, prevent us from getting at all those beautiful and ugly elements which we have yet to name.”
In that spirit, I want to take a slightly less well-worn path to discussing this film and talk a little about some of those ‘beautiful and ugly’ elements we have yet to name.
As Mark Blankenship notes, the movie is based on a true story. A rich white family really did adopt Michael Oher, a homeless black teenager, and eventually, he became an NFL star. In the real world, that’s very moving. In parts, I found the story compelling. It is sometimes the reality that white families adopt and raise, even “save,” black children from sometimes dire conditions. While I’m well-aware of the vehement critique of this practice by the National Association of Black Social Workers (and others), that’s still a story that I’m interested in knowing more about in its particulars, as Coates would have it, “getting at all those beautiful and ugly elements.” For example, how does a white mother raising a black son teach her son to deal with racism? How does she confront her own racism in that copmlex mother-son relationship? And, given that this story is set in an affluent, Southern, Christian, all-white community, I wanted to know the particulars of how this boy became a man in this world.
There was one scene in the movie that almost tapped this rich potential for storytelling, and it was when Sandra Bullock’s character, Leigh Anne Touhy, confronts her ladies-who-lunch friends about their own racism in their comments about her newly-adopted son. She stops them cold and says to them, “Shame on you.” It’s a remarkable filmic moment in many ways. First, it clearly depicts whites – in this case, white women – engaging in the kind of back stage behavior we’ve talked about so often here on the blog. It’s rare to see the whites talking about race in explicit ways portrayed in a film. Bullock’s confrontation of them is refreshing, too, but it’s underplayed and comes out of nowhere for her character. We know nothing about how her character has dealt with her own internalized racism – or, even if she has – to get to the point of confronting her lunch-friends. Is she conflicted? Has she always wanted to confront them about their racism? Or, does she secretly agree with them, but just prefer them to engage in the “polite silence” around matters of race that has come to prevail in many social settings? Does she continue to be friends with these women? Does she lose their friendship because of this confrontation? If so, is that painful? And how does that pain factor into her feelings about her son?
We will never know. This is not a film with much nuance (the predominant metaphor is about football). While it’s a moment worth noting in the film, (I can even see using the clip of that lunch-table confrontation to foster discussion in a class or workshop), the moment is a lost opportunity for anything more multifaceted, or artful even, about transracial adoption, about race, or about the journey away from individual racism. All of which is too bad, because that’s a film I’d really like to see.
Ultimately, the film’s screenplay and Sandra Bullock’s performance (one many are saying is the best of her career) misses the opportunity to connect with the tradition of the few white women who have stood against racism like Mary White Ovington, Lillian Smith, or Viola Gregg Luizzo, and instead draws on the much broader tradition of white women perpetrating paternalistic racism, set in stark contrast to portrayals of black women as unfit mothers. This kind of storytelling, repeated again and again throughout the culture, is just not that interesting and it certainly doesn’t rise to the level of ‘art’ in my view. It does, however, seem to draw a crowd. “The Blind Side”is this season’s “surprise hit” at the box office.
Tags:" movie, "The Blind Side, Sandra Bullock
Throughout The Blind Side, Michael Oher is an outsider. Thanks to the persistence of a father figure, Big Tony, Michael becomes one of the only black students at Briarcrest Christian Academy. He’s also the biggest kid at Briarcrest by far, and he comes from an impoverished inner-city family. At school, he’s extremely shy and lonely, partly because he isn’t sure how to make friends with his wealthy white classmates, and partly because he hasn’t had many stable relationships in his life. Michael’s outsiderness is particularly noteworthy since The Blind Side is set in the state of Tennessee, which has a long history of racism against African-Americans, and which, even in the early 2000s, is a de facto segregated state in some ways. In The Blind Side Lewis examines how Michael responds to his outsider status in white, upper-class Memphis—in particular, the varying degrees of racism that he experiences as a young man.
In some ways, Michael Oher successfully overcomes the challenges of being an outsider. He befriends the Tuohy family, who eventually adopt him as their own son. In becoming a Tuohy, Michael conquers some of his loneliness: for the first time in his life, he has a family that gives him unconditional love and takes care of his needs—something that couldn’t be said of his biological mother, Denise Oher. Because he’s comfortable with his new family, he begins to befriend classmates, teammates, and others. Furthermore, in becoming a Tuohy, Michael escapes the poverty he experienced as a child in the Memphis inner-city. More broadly, he escapes the institutional racism that keeps the inner-city squalid and dangerous. In other ways, Michael uses his outsiderness to his advantage: as the biggest kid at Briarcrest—if not the biggest 16-year-old in the state of Tennessee—he’s a natural football player. Michael becomes a popular Briarcrest athlete, further allowing him to fit in with his peers. In all, Michael adjusts to his new community, partly with the help of the generous Tuohy family, and partly because of his own innate kindness and talent as a football player.
Even after Michael overcomes some of the challenges of outsiderness, however, he continues to experience racism and discrimination. Over the course of the book, the Memphis police arrest him for no discernible reason, racist fans and opposing players call him offensive slurs, and at the heavily white, historically racist University of Mississippi, where he’s a star athlete, he still feels like a stranger. The tragedy of The Blind Side is that Michael Oher is trying to adapt to a culture that was once overtly racist and remains racially prejudiced even in the 21st century (during Michael’s time at the University of Mississippi, for example, there are still fraternities that refuse to admit black students). We’re reminded of Michael’s continued outsider status when, toward the end of the book, he flees from the scene of a fight with a teammate and refuses to answer calls or texts from his family. As the book ends, the Tuohy family is planning a foundation designed to help inner-city children like Michael, who don’t always have the talent or support to finish school and go to college. Even if Michael still feels like an outsider, and continues to face racism and prejudice, his success as a football player has helped him escape some of the worst forms of racism in American society. Furthermore, his unlikely success story draws attention to inner-city conditions and hopefully inspires other people, including the Tuohys, to do more to fight institutional racism and help impoverished, struggling children.