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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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Sharing a little Sunday video action to hold y’all until tomorrow’s Derailment Monday.  For the transcript of Chimamanda Adichie’s talk, visit Restructure! here.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

 

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Immigration Reform Now!

I had hoped to share one of my favorite movie clips today, but unfortunately I was unable to find the video with the soundtrack.

I refuse to admit defeat, so I’m posting the audio and video separately. First, turn up the audio volume. Click play on the first video, wait about four seconds, then click play on the second video, so they’re playing at the same time. Listen to the first and watch the second.


Awesome.

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After fortifying myself with a strong dose of caffeine (I am not a morning person), I went with Cayce to see Chris Rock’s Good Hair this morning.

I had only seen the preview on YouTube, and I had not seen any of the interviews Rock did before the release. Judging by anticipatory blog comments, people were both eager to see this movie and dreading it. They hoped, like I did, that it would actually address the social pressure on black women in a racist society to conform to Eurocentric beauty standards, but also feared that it might come across as “Ha! Black women are so stupid to spend that much time, money, energy and attention on hair!” and/or as a “demonization of nappyness.” Rock’s interviews did not seem to help.

Having seen the movie, I think the result was somewhat mixed. Too much of the movie was about the styling competitors at the Bronner Brothers show. The conclusion seemed ambivalent, indecisive. There was not much historical contextualization. The movie did touch on the issue of Eurocentric beauty standards, and it was not merely flippant, but it didn’t pose a strong challenge to racism and white supremacy. If other people saw the movie, I’d love to hear your own thoughts.

I found one of the scenes especially disturbing, and I keep coming back to it in my mind. Rock was interviewing a group of high school students.

One of the young women in the foreground led the conversation by saying something like she didn’t think a woman with natural hair was as likely to be hired and respected in a professional environment, that it was a kind of “contradiction” (her word) because that woman would not seem to care about her appearance. Another of the young women echoed her sentiments and, as I remember it, even implied that she wouldn’t think well of a woman with natural hair either. There were comments to the effect that they weren’t referring to the young woman behind them (“I love your afro”), but these seemed to me somewhat insincere in context.

I see what the young women were saying. They are living in a culture of racist beauty standards where black women with natural hair are not normally held up as beautiful. They feel pressured to conform, to have straightened hair, in order to succeed. But as someone who prefers natural hair, it really unsettles me to hear racist beauty standards internalized. My own prejudices, and I admit that they are prejudices, tend to go the other way. I understand that people will sometimes want to try a different style or color just for fun, so I shouldn’t be unfair, but I tend to think of women with natural hair as people more in touch with who they are and self-confident, qualities I do associate with beauty and professionalism.

Reading over recent blog comments in various places, however, I become very self-conscious. Do I really respect and like natural hair, or am I engaging in some sort of fetishizing? And what should I say when I do like someone’s hair? My normal inclination would be to simply pay a compliment, and I certainly don’t want to perpetuate the racist beauty standards by saying nothing. On the other hand, I’ve seen that many compliments from white people are perceived as “forced” or insincere, often with very good reason. I wouldn’t want my compliment to do harm. Guess I’ve got a long way to go. Can anyone help me out? :)

Edit: I think the movie I may have really wanted to see was My Nappy Roots: A Journey Through Black Hair-itage:

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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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