Friday, April 30, 2010

Playing 'House' -- Reflections on "The Blind Side"

There’s this game kids love to play: “house.” A group comes together and one plays the role of dad, the other of mom, and then the other kids play a variation of roles, from siblings to grandparents, etc. I remember the girls who played “Mom” loved telling people what to do, where to go, and how to act. That seemed to be what their concept of motherhood was. The message was clear: Mom wears the pants in the family, and what Mom says, goes. There’s another axiom that goes with this perfectly: “If Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”

The Blind Side is a movie that plays out like a child’s game of “house.” Everyone basically does what Momma tells them to, or she ain’t happy. And if she ain’t happy…

Since it was nominated for two Academy Awards, including Best Picture, I was expecting a lot from The Blind Side. What I got instead was a movie that I enjoyed watching, but also found myself offended by.

The story is basic: Michael Oher (a real-life NFL athlete, played here by Quinton Aaron) is a poor black child who captures the attention of a football coach at a private Christian school because of his size and quickness. Unfortunately, Michael’s mom is a crack addict and he’s been in-and-out of foster homes for years. The fact that the boy is such a lovable teddy bear is amazing. Michael is brought into the school as an act of charity, but still has no where to call home. Enter Leigh Ann Tuohy (Sandra Bullock), who recognizes the boy’s needs and decides to fill them, eventually becoming his legal mother. Working together with family, teachers, and friends, Leigh Ann is able to help Michael achieve beyond what anyone would have expected from a kid born and bred in a hardcore ghetto called “Hurt Village.”

The movie is sincere in telling this simple rags-to-riches tale, yet at the same time I felt it put most of its focus on the Great White Christian Folk helping out the Poor Black Child than it did on all the hard work Michael had to do himself. Most of the time, it feels like Michael is just “there” and it’s everyone else working to help him. In several scenes, he’s this passive guy to whom people give directions. Everyone bosses him around, like he’s a stray puppy who needs to be house-trained.

About the only words I can use to describe Michael’s character are quiet and lovable. That doesn’t do much for me. Michael doesn’t cause much conflict in this story. He’s the source of conflict for a bunch of white people that have different ideas about how to help him, but he doesn’t really have much of a conflict of his own. Eventually, near the end of the film, the writers provide him one, as he questions the Tuohy family’s motives for taking him in, but it’s too late in the game for that struggle to seem like more than a plot contrivance. I have a hard time believing that Michael Oher didn’t question the family’s motives from the get-go. He just goes along with everything he is told and provided until someone puts a question in his head. Either he’s not a very smart person, or he’s just easily manipulated. Neither makes for a compelling central character.

The film’s most compelling character, though, is Leigh Anne. She is the traditional stubborn Southern woman who is a master multi-tasker. She’s also kind and has a soft heart underneath that conservative Christian shell. I did not love Sandra Bullock’s performance, even though she won the Oscar. While it is probably her personal best, though, I don’t know if that’s saying much. She also starred in The Proposal and All About Steve last year. Maybe she won the Oscar because of the stark contrast between this film and those ones. Or maybe it was because she plays a tough mom, like Julia Roberts did in Erin Brockovich, and Hollywood voters love their mommas. It could be she won because the Academy loves nice stories about white people who do good deeds for black people, because as we all know, black people need to be saved by the white (wo)man.

I was offended by The Blind Side because it caters to stereotypes, and seems to congratulate itself for doing so. In this film, the only positive black character is Michael. The others all live in “Hurt Village” where they drink and drug and party. During the days they hang out on the curb with their 40s, trying to look tough. Michael’s mother has multiple children by different dads, and she doesn’t seem too concerned with Michael’s well-being when the white woman shows up to ask for permission to adopt him. Overall, this just goes to push forward certain stereotypes about black culture.

A better example of this type of movie is Precious. That movie had a similar main character. Precious, like Michael, is shy and scared and beaten down by the infernal ghetto world. And they both encounter helpers to help them achieve new heights individually. Both enjoy writing. The differences, though, are what make Precious the superior movie. Precious comes across as a young woman who wants to overcome her trepidation and fear so she can break the cycle of abuse and destitution in which she was raised. Michael comes across as the reed in the wind, swaying to and fro as the winds of change arrive. He doesn’t play football because he wants to, but because he’s expected to. It’s only at the end that Leigh Anne finally asks him what he wants. His answer, though, is expected: “I’m pretty good at it.” It’s a non-answer. The implication is, “whatever you want, momma; whatever you think is best.”

It’s easy to dismiss these thoughts by claiming that The Blind Side is a true story. It’s based on a true story, meaning all sorts of things are changed. Regardless, I can only comment on what is committed to film, not what really happened. I’m certain Leigh Anne Tuohy and her family are lovely, honorable people, just as I’m sure the real Michael Oher is a great guy. But I can talk about what is on the screen, and this film, while easy and enjoyable to watch, really seems to be about how white people can save black people.

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