So I’m late coming to the party on writing about this film, but since I finally got a chance to see it on my Christmas vacation (thanks to some free grandparent babysitting), I’m hoping my tardiness will be excused. Watching the previews for the movie made me almost cringe. It seemed to contain both cliches and sappiness, and I try to avoid both when I invest precious box office dollars and two hours of my life to movie-going. Add that hesitation to the numerous devoted praises for the film I heard coming from middle-aged white women, and it took me a few weeks to actually work up the will to go.
In case you’re on a media fast or have just been tuned out to anything non-holiday related, The Blind Side is based on a true story of the transracial adoption of a football-star-in-the-making by a wealthy, white Christian family. As with any film that tries to capture the history of a family, there are inevitable short cuts that reduce the members of that family to simpler characters. But when artfully done, characters, even those based on real people, can be numerous and still retain a dynamism that makes them believable. The Blind Side did not accomplish that, despite a decent representation of seasoned players (Sandra Bullock, and even Kathy Bates) in the cast.
The unfortunate part of the film’s failure on that count is that the most truncated character is, wait for it, the black kid. My husband summed up Michael Oher as “that big guy who walked around sad for most of the movie. Every time you see him, he’s sad-walking. Walking sad in the ghetto. Walking sad at the new school. Walking sad into the laundromat.” We’re told by Sandra Bullock’s character, Leigh Anne Tuohy, that Michael has changed her life, that having him around has made her happy. But we have no idea why. When they go shopping, he picks out horizontally-striped rugby shirts to the bemusement of the family. This little footnote is, sadly, given to us as one of the dimensions of his character.
We are told who Michael is entirely by other [white] characters. There is only one scene in the film where he demonstrates anything other than utter gratitude and love for his new family, and the scene is short-lived as the conflict is all-too-quickly resolved in such a slick manner that I wonder why they even included it in the movie. Michael, in many ways, is portrayed as a phlegmatic, gentle giant, a defender of the Tuohy family without much else to think about or do through the course of the film. Some commentators have expressed the concern that the use of such a trope might invite the stereotype of the magical negro or even the eunuch, whose only purpose is to aide the white characters in their development.
Michael’s challenges are often oversimplified and understated. He has a hard time in school, but thanks to an observant science teacher and an at-home tutor, he finds his way past his reading impediments. Deeper problems are treated likewise. While the film doesn’t shy away from having a drug dealer use sexually graphic language to threaten Michael’s white sister, in describing the sexual activity Michael was exposed to as a child, the script has Michael describe his experience at home as “mom did drugs or other bad stuff.” While Leigh Anne is portrayed as imperiled when she drives through the ghetto (even though she’s armed, or so she tells the drug dealer who threatens her: she’s a member of the NRA, she pats her purse), Michael is depicted as invulnerable. In one scene he is surrounded by gun-wielding criminals and as they pull their weapons on him, he sweeps them away with almost supernatural (say, magical?) physicality, warding off an attack with his bare hands.
The story takes place in the South, a setting that creates its own implied social and racial dynamics, and I expected the challenges of transracial adoption to be amplified by that fact. The film does try, showing Leigh Anne behaving as a white ally at different points identifying as Michael’s even when it costs her relationships with her rich, white “friends.” She also takes the initiative to seek out Michael’s absentee mother for her blessing before arranging for his official adoption, even though the state wouldn’t extend her the same courtesy or dignity. Time and again, she travels into Michael’s old neighborhood, braving whatever discomfort or insecurity she might feel in that setting.
But the film deals exclusively in those extremes: glorious white wealth versus desperate black poverty. One moment in particular for me served as a metaphor for what was missing in the movie. Michael and the family are out for a fancy dinner. As the family leaves the restaurant, he returns because he recognizes one of the waiters. He says nothing, but goes back inside. “Where’s Michael?” The family turn and sees through a window that Michael is embracing a waiter. They stand outside watching Michael hug the man and when he comes outside, we learn the man is his brother that he hasn’t seen since they were separated by social services as children.
As they drive away, Leigh Anne says she’d like to meet him sometime. While Leigh Anne can go out of her way to sit next to Michael’s mother on her couch in the projects, for some reason, she cannot bring herself to go inside the restaurant to talk to a man who is clearly important to Michael and say, “Hey Michael, who’s your friend?” Here she’s introduced to a character who doesn’t appear to need rescuing, and so she stands looking in from the outside, uncharacteristically reluctant to intrude on the scene.
While I am troubled by elements of the film, I am not prepared to classify it as a “white savior” story. There are kids that need loving homes. For some kids, adoption, even transracial adoption, is a form of rescue. And that is not a bad thing. It sounds like that was the situation for the real-life Michael. But even if those are the circumstances that create a family in the beginning, building a family is a lifelong process and the challenges and conflicts that are part of that process shouldn’t be glossed over for the sake of making movie-goers feel good at the holidays. I have no doubt that what goes on in the real-life Tuohy family is much deeper than what I saw onscreen. It’s just too bad the filmmakers couldn’t even get a microcosm of that up there.
The Blind Side fails because it tries to prove the humanity and dignity of a kid from the ghetto by focusing entirely on the family that took him in and reducing him to a flat, uninteresting character that Sandra Bullock brought home from school one day. With a few football drills and a couple suburban road humps along the way, we’re all fine and post-racial at the end. Race. Family. Faith. Community. It’s just not that easy.