Elevate Difference

The Blind Side

I didn’t intended to write a review of The Blind Side, but when my aunt responded to my Facebook status deriding the film’s racist indoctrination by saying my critiques were a figment of my liberal imagination, it all came flowing out.

The Blind Side is a version of (Black) NFL player Michael Oher's true life story of being taken in by a (White) Christian family in Memphis, TN during his final years of high school after ending up homeless. (How he ends up that way is never explained in the film.) The family cares for him and helps him graduate from high school, go to college on an athletic scholarship, and eventually play professional football. Meant to be a feel-good film, Oher’s story actually isn't told from the vantage point of Oher himself, but from the perspective of his surrogate mother. And this is where the misstepping begins.

When a creative work is made, it is necessarily imprinted with the not only the aesthetic lens of its creators, but their social, political, and personal ones as well. In The Blind Side’s case, this is especially important. The movie is based on a book, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, written by Michael Lewis, who collaborated with director John Lee Hancock on the script. Both Lewis and Hancock are Southern, class privileged, and White, and this standpoint is heavily felt throughout the film. Though not always a recipe for cinematic disaster, the choice to center a White, upper class point of view dooms The Blind Side from the jump.

Every person of color in this film is a stereotype and, with the exception of Oher (played by Quinton Aaron), a villain: Oher's crack addicted mother; the 40-drinking, gun-toting thugs in the Hurt Village projects; the storeowner who makes fun of Oher's height and weight; the immasculated caregiver who folds to his selfish wife's demands to give Oher the boot. Oher himself is depicted as a mentally slow, physically intimidating, overly protective Black boy (a la King Kong) whose simpleminded thoughts on most things are either silenced or overtaken by whatever the White lead, Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock), thinks about things. This is so much the case that Oher begins parroting her toward the end.

The Tuohy family, who takes Oher in, is also shown as a stereotype: benevolent White saviors who shower Oher with money and materialism in order to 'fix' his problems (as they perceive them, of course). They use their wealth to buy their way out of everything; however, in reality one doesn't overcome sixteen years of abuse and trauma just because you give him his first proper bed and a shiny, new pickup truck. Any time a traumatic issue comes up, the film shows Leigh Ann's hurt (not Oher's) and quickly cuts to a new scene without lingering on questions about the causes or effects of Oher's suffering.

When the suggestion of Oher’s going to therapy does come up, the flippant response is “he just wants to forget it,” which should make any mental health professional choke on their popcorn. We are shaped by our pasts from the ground up (why do you think Oher was mostly mute and intellectually stunted in the first place?), and we don't just forget our personal histories and move on to the next scene—unless you're a filmmaker who doesn't place importance on such things or prefers to put the focus on how knowledge of Oher's past effects Bullock's character (the person the audience is encouraged to identify with) rather than Oher himself (who is simply a vehicle for the back-patting, ‘White people are good’ plot).

The times we see racism enacted, mentioned, or alluded to, it is swept aside with little explanation. For example, the myth of the black rapist (though not so straightforwardly named) is brushed aside with a simplistic “shame on you,” and the myth of the welfare queen isn't even acknowledged enough to be given the courtesy of dismissal. On the contrary, it's reinforced. Both just lie there, unaddressed, like so many other things in this film. (At one point, Oher’s surrogate father jokingly says, “he thinks he’s a redneck,” with no hint of irony given that the term is typically applied to racist Whites.) The overt racism that is addressed receives only pat responses, like name-calling and an underplaying (e.g., the deliverance dad and the discriminatory ref) of their sustained importance on the life of a young man of color.

The Tuohy family supposedly looks past race—except that they conspicuously have no friends of color in a city that is only a third White and apparently have little knowledge of the poverty that is destroying people's lives just a few miles away from their posh mansion and private Christian school. They live in a safe bubble of White, upper class ignorance that absolves them of any need to know about such an untidy reality—and they're still living there at the end of the film.

The fact that racism’s pervasiveness in American society shields it from being recognized by many people, like my aunt, who sat through a viewing of The Blind Side (or is that the titular reference?) is all the more disturbing in its ‘white is right’ programming. If I believed the film was supposed to be calling attention to the way racism functions in America (like Precious, for example), instead of further diminishing its presence and impact, I could get down with the idea that art is simply imitating life. But it doesn't unmask racism in America; instead, it works to further conceal it.

Good intentions are just one side of the story, folks. Although The Blind Side is rife with those, its failure to deliver a complex look at Oher’s side of the story, ultimately, reinforces the exact system it intends to disassemble.

Written by: Mandy Van Deven, February 22nd 2010

It's really sad that both of the major mainstream American films that dealt with African American youth poverty were so damned matter-of-factly racist!

First "Precious and now "The Blind Side"!!!!

I'd prefer that Hollywood not make movies about Black people at all than to make liberal racist garbage like those two movies!

Now I'm confused about which Anon is which, or if they're all the same. :P

A question occurs to me for the Anon who says I'm just patting myself on the back: So is all white engagement in conversations about racism a form of back-patting? That may well be the case, so I'm interested in what you think about the question.

Just so you know Mandy, I appreciate your website and I enjoy reading your perspectives. Not trying to be a hater!

Actually, two more comments:

1) I don't claim to be an authority on the experience of racism. That would be silly.

2) The King Kong reference is to a long and well-documented history of racist depictions in film. One of the most racist films of the 20th century is King Kong, which began a cinematic stereotype of Black men that has continued to show up in films since. The Blind Side is only the most recent example.

Thanks for your perspective, Anon. To clarify one claim you make: I am not, nor have I ever been, an academic. I am a writer, editor, and grassroots organizer.

Your review speaks quite authoritatively on a subject which you merely only observe from your white background rather than any kind of subjective experience.

The main problem with your perspective, is that you want this film to be about racism, when in fact it is about two people from differing backgrounds connecting. The goal of the film is not to dissect racism. If you want a film about racism, then write one. Your review comes off as if you think you are an expert on the subject of racism more than the black man who's story was told. Not to mention, your reference to him being like "king kong" seems racist in itself. Your dismissal of the approval of the man who's story was told has given, is far more racist than anything in this film! YOU are the white educated academic telling the black man all about his oppression.

So many of your criticisms have to do with what was left out of the story. Unfortunately, there is really only so much you can include in a hour and a half film. You can't include everything. It's just not possible. You never know, maybe those scenes about Oher's emotional reactions were included in the original screenplay, but were cut because they didn't flow with the story of the film, not because the editor and director think a white, rich, christian's perspective is more valid.

This is film is not an attempt to educate people on racism, as you want it to be. It is a story that appeals to their hearts more than their brains. It's like Obama constantly trying to use logic to appeal to right wing morons--a waste of time. These people don't use logic, but there are things deep within people's hearts that have a much more powerful affect than intellect.

It sounds like you are the one who wants to pat yourself on your white back.

Yup, that's what we need more of: the perspectives of rich, white, Christians who save the one "good" and "deserving" person of color in the film and then demonize the rest of the "bad" and "undeserving" people of color depicted. That's really going a long way to change the racist mindset of white America, and not reinforcing racism at all.

I haven't seen this movie, but I've read several reviews from multiple perspectives. Based on what I've read it actually sounds like the story was told from the rich, white, christian woman's perspective, not to devalue the perspective of the other characters, but to tell a story that rich, white, christian women would relate to as a way to open their minds. I agree that stories told from the perspective of anyone on the margins, so to speak, are more few and far between than they should be. But opening the minds of the middle and upper class who may hold prejudices is probably more effective when told from "their" perspective. So for that reason, I think it may have done more to challenge racism than it does to reinforce it.

I will, and you're welcome. Great blog!

Hey Kevin - Please thank Chris for sharing the review, and thank you for your insightful comments!

Anon - I appreciate your harm reduction perspective, and wish Hollywood (and film-goers) would take that perspective to the next level of 'truth' telling. One way is to have films that purport to be the 'true' story of a 'real person'--this isn't actually possible to do in a film, by the way, as aspects of the 'truth' are always removed to make way for 'good' storytelling--center that character in the film. (In this film, Oher is nowhere near the center of his own story. Here, what is being called Oher's story is even narrated by Leigh Anne.) Another way is to have a level of self-awareness when a cliche is being used, like in the film Precious. A lot of the characters in that film, if they had been shown in a light devoid of such self-awareness, would have easily fallen flat as stereotypes, but the dialogue and acting was intentionally crafted in such a way that the audience wouldn't write the characters off as simplistic. Even the villains in Precious were shown complexly as victims of a racist society that ignores the struggles of people living in poverty. That is, it addressed the source of stereotypes and, thus, prevented oversimplification within the film itself. That is a Hollywood rarity. The entire impact of a film can't be boiled down to one simple message of helpfulness because that isn't all that is conveyed in its viewing.

A response to 'Anonymous': Yes the film does have its merits. But the problem is that the story, as truthful as it may be to the source, is a fairly common one in U.S. mainstream films. Think about all of the independent films written, produced, directed by a person of color, featuring a cast with people of color...its a rarity (especially PRECIOUS, directed by a black gay filmmaker)...and the industry simply doesn't seek those films. Instead, they revert to a story that offers a simplistic view, without the intricacies and/or contradictions. Why? Because it needs to be marketable for a (emotionally gullible) mainstream audiences. Make a film that cuts a little closer to the bone...well, the U.S. film industry doesn't want to go there. I think its fair to critique THE BLIND SIDE because its yet another example of a well-worm narrative that doesn't change the scheme of things, or really change the mind, rather than the heart.

I am a feminist and a woman of color, and I think The Blind Side helps more than it hurts. First, we must remember it's a true story. Sure, it's told from the perspective of the white woman. And yes, I'd like to see more films shown from the perspective of minority characters. Is is a revival of the "benevolent white master" trope? Probably. But the thing is, the cliches really happened. I've read the book upon which the movie is based. And I've actually read and watched interviews with Michael Oher, and he is quite pleased with the telling of his story. I think it's fine to question which stories get told in Hollywood (and from which perspectives), but let's remember that this one really happened, it's been endorsed by Michael Oher, and it has a lot of positive messages. I think the overarching theme is helping others, and that's about as feminist as it gets.

Spot on review (came across it through my buddy's Chris's stream on FB)! Its a curious thing to see the U.S. movie industry continually reverting to films featuring a person of color 'overcoming the obstacles' at the expense of a sympathetic White character and/or family...and heaping praise and acclaim to it as proof that our country cares about the 'Other'. But like you've stated, its a film that obfuscates context, prioritizing sentimentality (poor helpless Oher!) to cover its shortcomings. And audiences swallow it up, believing that this 'social problem' film is all that they need to see to understand the intricacies of racism and classism in the U.S. Wouldn't be surprised if Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for this. But its not for her: its really a move by Hollywood to help legitimize an industry that continues to feature narratives that never cut deeper into these issues, all under the guise of, "See, we do care about black and brown folk in America. We do tell their stories." But those of us in the know are well aware they they fail all of us.

Thanks for writing this, Mandy! I will DEFINITELY be skipping this one.

Ebony Edwards-Ellis

Thanks for the link love, Nomad! I'm not saying I recommend this, but there are ways to keep your money and use the inet to your advantage to see films. ;)

Hooray! Someone agrees with me about The Blind Side. My review of it posts tomorrow. I'm still fuming I spent $8 to see it and that middle class America truly thinks it's a Best Picture contender. Oy. Your review is spot on, articulate, and I'll link to it tomorrow!

it's the same thing with Avatar - it was infuriating to watch stereotypes and so what the earthling military was defeated - racism prevailed under that guise.