Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Blind Side: Even Black People Can Succeed… with Help

I’ve been using Peace Corps to catch up with my movies. When you live in a tiny town and you’re constantly enervated by unwanted attention and unwavering heat, sometimes remaining inside and using your downtime to stay prone watching something – anything – can be the best way to go. Although I’ve only seen a very few movies in theaters since I arrived a year and a half ago, my netbook has been working hard to provide me with entertainment of dubious quality.

Actually, I’ve been able to watch a lot of good movies I missed (or am missing) in the States. Sometime I’ll make a list of the best, but this post isn’t about the best. It’s about the worst.

I didn’t know much about The Blind Side before I watched it. I knew it’s a true story about a football player. I know it got generally good reviews and was nominated for something or other. Aside from those things, I was clueless when I started watching it; and now that I’ve finished, I wish I had known a little more so I could have avoided it entirely.

The Blind Side is perhaps the most patronizing, denigrating white-fantasy nonsense I’ve ever seen. I don’t say this in reference to the story, which depicts a young black man, Michael Oher, with academic troubles and a mushy heart transcending his disadvantaged past to unlock his potential as an athlete. Although I don’t know for certain how true-to-life the film adaptation is, I’m fully willing to accept the story arc as legitimate.

No, what I find infuriating and disturbing is the relentless reinforcement of the film’s basic message: if you’re black, you’d better be sure there’s a rich white person selflessly working for your welfare… because you can’t do it alone, bucko.

Maybe it’s just that other similar films manage to package that same message in a more artistically subtle way, while The Blind Side has no qualms about walloping you over the head with it. Or maybe the movie simply is that ethically bankrupt, that it manages to stand out even among the impressively varied slagheap of WASPish self-love monuments. Every moment seems carefully constructed to fill your ears with screaming propaganda and scrape stereotypes across your eyes.

Sandra Bullock, an actress against whom I have no particular grievances, is ghastly as Leigh Anne Tuohy, a glaringly pale and blond southern socialite, wife to a fast-food maven whose head seems as empty as his restaurants’ calories. In Bullock’s hands, Leigh Anne fairly oozes duplicity; every line is as insincere as her Botoxed brow. It isn’t helped by a total lack of character development – apparently too much of the budget was spent on Bullock’s purses to allow for incidentals like depth.

Among the other paper-thin caricatures are Miss Sue, Michael’s tiresome-within-ten-seconds tutor, played by an astonishingly blase Kathy Bates; SJ Tuohy, Michael’s white bro, whose obnoxious precociousness becomes unbearable as soon as it becomes clear that his presence is essentially pointless except as a foil to Michael’s oft-emphasized dimness; and Leigh Anne’s husband, whose name I don’t remember. He is played by a painted-smile Tim McGraw and his moment in the sun is reciting, with the dynamism of a coconut, Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade.” There’s a Tuohy daughter involved as well, but she’s only there so a yuppie friend of Leigh Anne can make a prediction of rape when Michael moves into the house.

Michael’s character is played with equal shallowness – I don’t recognize the actor – but this is appropriate, since the film is really about Leigh Anne and the myriad white gods and goddesses who populate his magical world. Michael doesn’t do things, and things don’t happen to him; rather, other people do things to him. He is so obviously an object, a project for the whites, that a big stuffed bear could easily be substituted onscreen and the feel of the film would be perfectly preserved.

A typical scene: at Thanksgiving, Michael separates himself from his football-watching “family” to eat alone in the dining room; sensing an opportunity, Leigh Anne harangues her husband and children into having a more traditional Thanksgiving by joining Michael at the dinner table. And Leigh Anne’s caked makeup suddenly smells like family values!

Leigh Anne buys Michael a truck, a gift after he receives his driver’s license. It is happily sacrificed so that Leigh Anne can show her forgiveness in the aftermath of a crash. And her drippy mascara grows even thicker with slimy compassion!

And she needs lots of that compassion, because man is Michael dumb! He’s having trouble at football practice, can’t seem to muster that protective instinct to guard his quarterback. Luckily Leigh Anne knows that all it takes is a two-bit metaphor comparing his teammates to his adoptive family and the lightbulb, all ten watts of it, flashes on above his head. This kid’s so slow that it takes Mr. Tuohy’s moronic comparison to a football match – because of course at this point Michael can’t comprehend anything so well as a game centered around violence – to get him to understand Tennyson’s poem.

Speaking of violence, there is of course one scene in which Michael acts for himself. (Okay, actually there is a second one later in the film – but that time only happens because he is manipulated by the Mad Black NAACP [oops, that's NCAA] Woman into believing he was tricked by his white family. Which he was. But he comes around to their point of view in the end.) This scene is his big rejection of the life of destitution in which his unenlightened black fellows live. And his method of rejection is… violence, of course. Docile as a rabbit, Michael is, so long as he’s on the right side of town. Get him back in the sticks and his “darker” nature is revealed.

That docility extends even to the imitation of his white saviors. Michael has few lines in the movie – that would ruin its appeal, of course – and none are memorable, but the writers did try to work in a couple that go beyond monosyllabic grunts: “Don’t you dare lie to me” and “I need a proper hug.” These are obviously far too complicated for Michael to have invented on his own; they’re actually lines stolen from earlier utterances by Leigh Anne herself.

I could go on. The film is a two-hour Rorschach test: study the inkblots and tell what picture the white spots make, and what the black. It’s so comically over-the-top and perversely self-assured that I don’t even know if it’s worth getting worked up over. Perhaps my emotion comes more from embarrassment than offense, but it is truly galling to watch what could have been a humanizing, inspiring story turned into a disgustingly smug ode to the pure white heart.


jmmurphy said...

The Blind Side is quite obviously not the best movie ever made. The fact that it was nominated for Best Picture, while not surprising, is pretty disappointing. But the movie is hardly as offensive as you seem to think.

I don't intend to ever watch it again, and so my desire to defend the movies' merits is not very strong. I think, however, that a few of your statements are misleading or possibly even misguided.

As you note at the beginning, the movie is based on the actual upbringing of Michael Oher. Unless you've done some additional research on the subject, it lessens the validity of your assertions - for all I know, The Blind Side is completely factual. I'm not likely to follow up on that, but having a foundation of true events, in my opinion, makes it more difficult to write off the movie as white propaganda.

Secondly, and this may be a bit of failed wit on your part, but I think the lady was with the NCAA, not the NAACP. I could be wrong - tried to look it up, but can't find a definitive mention. Either way, if he was being interviewed regarding NCAA sports by someone from the NAACP, well, that doesn't make sense.

Next on my disjointed list of plot points - The truck crash. The crash was meant to show, in part, how Michael had accepted the Touhy family, and was willing so sacrifice himself to protect them. I'll admit that we've been beat over the head with this message throughout the movie, and the manner in which Michael protects his family does seem to come from animalistic instincts, rather than any conscious thought on his part, which may reinforce your point.

As for your issue with the Michaels ghetto rejection... Well, it's cliche, but I think your interpretation is somewhat biased. This particular scene has been done thousands of times in thousands of movies. It's cliche, but I don't think it particularly dehumanizes Mike. He rejection of his past life through some mild violence was what we all expected. I'm sure they could have made the scene play out in some other manner, but it's hardly a window into Michael's "darker nature."

jmmurphy said...

Janelle also wanted me to point out that the book was as much about Bullock's character as it was about Oher. So the focus on Touhy and her extreme generosity and humanity was intentional, and as much the subject of the movie as Oher's physical abilities.

Matt Murphy said...

I'm just gonna add something real quick. Maybe not too quick. You said the movie is all about "Leigh Anne and the myriad white gods and goddesses." Like what Janelle said, it is partially about Bullock's character. But besides her and a couple of others (the teacher, I guess the dad, although he was reluctant and kind of came off as a jerk, and I don't really know who else), I didn't really notice any other white people being portrayed as saints or gods and goddesses. The coach was depicted as a selfish idiot, who only cared about furthering his own career. It seemed that way to me at least, and last time I checked, that's not a positive description. Of course there were her fancy salad-eating friends. The little brother was acting the way one would expect. The sister was...well, she was just there, there wasn't much of a story about her. Also Oher's tutor, Miss Sue (I think). I dunno if it was just me, but she was really annoying.She wasn't really portrayed as a goddess either. She was just a tutor, who was just there to bring up Oher's grades and influence his decision on where to go to college.

Also, you conveniently failed to mention why Oher attacked the gang-leader. Hypothetically, if I heard someone talking about my sister and my mother like that, I would probably resort to violence, and I'm pretty sure most people would too. It wasn't just about him rejecting his past life in that scene.

jmmurphy said...

Matt makes a good point. None of the white characters in the movie, excepting SB, are portrayed as decent people.

Watch a Tyler Perry movie and see how rich a African American portrays other African Americans. Far more damaging, insidious, and patronizing than The Blind Side.

Ryan Murphy said...

Back in the cellar, jackals.