Posts Tagged ‘holidays’

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.

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I’ve often struggled personally with how to reconcile my education as a budding anti-racist with the realities of my family life.  Inevitably at this time of year, when prayers of thanksgiving are offered in my church and in the homes of various family members, we tend to gloss over or flat out ignore the significance of this day in our nation’s history.

As kids, we’re taught all kinds of wrong things about the first Thanksgiving.  Fortunately, things are improving from the time when I was a child parading around in a paper-feathered headdress in a school play.  Scholastic even has some advice for educators who still haven’t gotten the story right.  As Resist Racism points out, this is often the only time of year that non-native people even think about Native Americans, and sadly, our thinking is usually caricature.

While in my own little piece of the world, I’m reading and blogging about racial injustice, white privilege, and the life, what happens when I go home with my head full of this stuff and encounter challenges at the dinner table?  How can I present what I’ve learned in a gracious way but still remain committed to my ideals?

Love Isn’t Enough has a great guide for alternative activities that would be helpful if I were teaching elementary school, but inviting my family over for a day of mourning in solidarity with my native brothers and sisters wouldn’t exactly fly at Thanksgiving with the in-laws.  The mere mental image of that scene reminds me of the passage that says,

And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.’ -Matthew 13:57

I’m not looking to get run out of town, or stoned, but I know that often times those are the breaks for doing the right thing. I’ve taken my fair-share of attempts at insult, bearing up under the labels of “bleeding-heart” (which doesn’t really hurt my feelings) or hearing, “lighten up, you’re so sensitive.”

For me, it’s not just limited to participating in activities where people will remember to thank God for the bounty of America, while ignoring the past and present pain our riches have cost others.  We never neglect to give thanks for the troops, but often forget all those civilians killed in the crossfighting.

It’s also the fact that in many of these family gatherings, there will be open use of racial slurs, or stereotypes.  Because ours is a white family, we are a meeting of “us” that can launch into conversations about “them.”  Do I confront these things?  Make passive-aggressive sarcastic comments (as I’m prone to do)?  Should I make a scene or let these things pass knowing that this will be my children’s only exposure to most of the folks for a whole year, and my husband and I can clean up the mess later?

I’ve done it all, and rarely gotten any of it right.  Anyone out there have similar experiences?  How (if at all) do you handle it when you go home with this for the holidays?

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Bartolomé de las Casas was not yet a teenager when Christopher Columbus returned from his first voyage to the “Indies” with seven native Tainos. “I saw them,” he wrote, “in Seville where they stayed near the arch to St. Nicholas.” His father and uncles joined Columbus’ second voyage, and Bartolomé soon moved to Hispaniola with his father in 1502, becoming a merchant and owner of land and Indian slaves. He was ordained a priest in 1507.

Here the story begins to change. Fr. Bartolomé became increasingly disturbed by his fellow Spaniards’ treatment of the native Tainos—the brutal torture, the massacres. “I saw here cruelty on a scale no living being has ever seen or expects to see.”

In 1511 a Dominican priest, Fray Antonio de Montesinos, preached, “Tell me by what right of justice do you hold these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? On what authority have you waged such detestable wars against these people who dealt quietly and peacefully on their own lands?”

Around the same time Fr. Bartolomé read in his Bible, “Tainted are the gifts of one who offers in sacrifice ill-gotten goods! Mock presents from the lawless do not win God’s favor. The Most High approves not the gifts of the godless, nor for their many sacrifices does he forgive their sins. Like the man who slays a son in his father’s presence is he who offers sacrifice from the possessions of the poor.  The bread of charity is life itself for the needy; he who withholds it is a man of blood. He slays his neighbor who deprives him of his living, he sheds blood who denies the laborer his wages,” (Sirach 34:18-22).

The colonists’ treatment of the native peoples, Fr. Bartolomé began to realize, could not be reconciled with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He resolved to give up his slaves and land grant (encomienda), and preached that other colonists should do the same. Against those who claimed that native peoples should be subdued and even converted by force, he argued that the only acceptable way of evangelization was through reasonable appeal. He argued that Europeans had no right to enslave the Indians, and that according to natural law the Indians were entitled to live as free men, under their own rulers and their own laws.

Fr. Bartolomé was by no means perfect, and he made some terrible mistakes in the gradual course of his own conversion. When he first began to seek relief and emancipation for Indian slaves, he proposed that “black slaves” and “slaves both black and white” could be imported to take their place in the mines and sugar industry. He did not yet fully understand that the means by which these people entered servitude was also unjust. But when he learned about the Portuguese slave trade firsthand, his heart was changed again. Again he meditated on Sirach 34:18-22. “I soon repented and judged myself guilty of ignorance. I came to realize that black slavery was as unjust as Indian slavery.” Thereafter Fr. Bartolomé defended the rights of black slaves in the same way he defended Indian slaves, condemning slavery altogether and calling for the repentance of all who participated in the abominable trade.

Beverly Daniel Tatum, in Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, writes:

White people must seek new ways of thinking about Whiteness, ways that take them beyond the role of victimizer. In fact, another role does exist. There is a history of Whites who have resisted the role of oppressor and who have been allies to people of color. Unfortunately these Whites are often invisible to us…. the names of White allies are often unknown…. There is a need to know about White allies who spoke up, who worked for social change, who resisted racism and lived to tell about it. How did these White allies break free from the confines of the racist socialization they surely experienced to claim this identity for themselves? These are the voices that many White people… are hungry to hear…. having access to these stories makes a difference to those Whites who are looking for ways to be agents of change…. “allies need allies,” others who will support their efforts to swim against the tide of cultural and institutional racism.

In Fr. Bartolomé de las Casas we find a white anti-racist ally whose life we can celebrate on Columbus Day.

This is not just history. Please get involved.

Lessons of humanism, spirituality and effort to raise man’s dignity, are taught to us by Antonio Montesinos, Córdoba, Bartolomé de las Casas, echoed also in other parts by Juan de Zumárraga, Motolinia, Vasco de Quiroga, José de Anchieta, Toribio de Mogrovejo, Nóbrega and so many others. They are men in whom pulsates concern for the weak, for the defenseless, for the natives; subjects worthy of all respect as persons and as bearers of the image of God, destined for a transcendent vocation.

(Pope John Paul II, homily in Independence Square, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, 1979)

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Much of the blogosphere is buzzing today about President Obama’s unexpected Nobel Peace Prize win.  Many of the President’s detractors (and some of his supporters, even. Read: aides in shock) are asking if Obama deserves the prize.  While I’ll refrain from rendering an opinion on that, I’d like us to spend this weekend considering/commenting relentlessly on another [un?]deserved honoree whose celebration is affording a few of us Monday off:

And, just to give you guys a little sneak peek into what’s in store next week, Kate and I will be going to see Chris Rock’s Good Hair on our day off Monday.  If you get a chance to do the same, join us here in a few days for a conversation about what we all learn.  Take that, Mister Columbus.

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