The opening-weekend success of the football drama The Blind Side wasn’t necessarily surprising: The director, John Lee Hancock, had previously served up The Rookie (2002), a sports movie that pushed viewers’ buttons with uncommon eloquence; the film’s star, Sandra Bullock, was riding a wave of audience goodwill from last summer’s hit The Proposal. What no one expected is that this modestly scaled, fact-based tale of Michael Oher, a homeless teenager taken in and guided toward gridiron glory by a wealthy Memphis family, would quickly turn into a phenomenon. In its second weekend, ticket sales increased by 17 percent; in its third weekend, it surpassed New Moon and became the number one film in America. By year’s end, domestic grosses were fast approaching $200 million, and Bullock had been nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance. (She also earned a nod for The Proposal.) More than a few awards prognosticators were predicting that Oscar recognition would follow. (The nominations will be announced on February 2; this year’s ceremony takes place on March 7.)
And what’s most remarkable is that virtually no one has been willing to acknowledge the subtext of all this: namely, that this collaboration between two of the most high-profile Texans in Hollywood—Hancock was born in Longview and graduated from Baylor; Bullock owns numerous properties in the Capital City, including a restaurant and an event-planning business—is among the most naively racist American movies of the past ten years. Yes, you could argue that The Blind Side is simply a fable about two people from opposite sides of the tracks whose eyes are opened to the other’s experiences (think Driving Miss Daisy with pigskin). But that ignores the film’s racial coding, which paints every black character other than Oher as a demon and every white one as a savior. You could also argue that the film’s success merely speaks to our recession-era need for comforting tales of triumph. But that ignores its place in a recent pantheon of similarly retrograde works—Clint Eastwood’s 2008 film Gran Torino, Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel The Help—that has captured imaginations in a supposedly post-racial America. These are entertainments that reaffirm white audiences’ sense of superiority while making them feel “open-minded” and “progressive” at the same time.
For those who have managed to avoid it, The Blind Side—based on Michael Lewis’s 2006 nonfiction book—introduces us to Leigh Anne (Sandra Bullock) and Sean (Tim McGraw) Tuohy, whose children attend an expensive private school in Memphis. Driving home from a school event, the Tuohys see Oher (Quinton Aaron) walking along the road, carrying his belongings in a plastic bag: This hulking, inarticulate black teenager turns out to have nowhere to go. In the tradition of many a cinematic study of white guilt (remember that cringe-inducing moment in Crash when Bullock hugs her Hispanic maid?), the Tuohys offer Oher a couch, welcome him into the family, and then push him on the high school football coach (Ray McKinnon). Would they have displayed such generosity toward a young black man who didn’t also reveal extraordinary potential as an offensive lineman? Does the brash and brassy Leigh Anne look upon Oher as a kind of mascot whose presence in her home will deliberately shock and scandalize her circle of socialites? These are just two of the thorny questions that Hancock (who also wrote the screenplay) glosses over in his feel-good treatment of Oher’s story.
“What happened, happened,” argues critic Joe Leydon in Variety, defensively anticipating that the “professionally outraged” will likely be disturbed by the way The Blind Side suggests that the only way out of the ghetto for black people is to be rescued by a rich white person. That’s a fair point: If a director accurately represents a true-life story that hews to racial stereotypes, does that make his film racist—or simply honest? But the deeper you dig into The Blind Side, the more problematic it becomes. Oher, for one thing, is portrayed as a simpleton who seems to have no perspective on what’s happening to him. (Did his tutor, played by Kathy Bates, really spook him into not attending the University of Tennessee by convincing him that the school buried bodies beneath the playing field—a scene that comes off in the movie as a grotesque Amos and Andy–style skit?) Far more bizarre is the way the film portrays the black NCAA investigator (Sharon Morris) who questions whether the Tuohys adopted Oher with the sole intent of directing him toward the football program at their alma mater, Ole Miss. Her legitimate investigation is presented as a witch hunt, and this seemingly well-intentioned woman comes across as one of the most contemptible of all movie clichés, the “uppity Negro” who dares to question the unimpeachable motives of the white characters.
Indeed, that’s the real sticking point of The Blind Side: It turns out that it’s not about Michael Oher at all but about a rich white woman who proves both her stodgy, racially insensitive friends and the rules-bound NCAA wonks wrong. To be fair, Bullock is impressive as a manicured steel magnolia who previously had no grasp of the socioeconomic divides of her own city; all the awards hype isn’t bluster. But the screenplay repeatedly focuses on Leigh Anne’s feelings and not Oher’s. Note the scene in which she journeys into the Memphis slums and meets Oher’s crack-addicted mother (Adriane Lenox), who warns her that the young man will eventually disappear and break her heart. For black moviegoers who’ve seen so many films that rightly should have been told from an African American perspective but were turned into vehicles for famous white actors—see Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), Mississippi Burning (1988), and Ghosts of Mississippi (1996)—history is dubiously repeating itself.
Maybe it’s unfair to hold The Blind Side to such exacting standards. It’s an uplifting sports movie, and from Hoosiers to Rudy to Remember the Titans, American moviegoers have always loved their uplifting sports movies. But there’s no denying that Hancock and Bullock, however unintentionally, are propagating a deeply conservative vision of race relations, one that has unexpectedly taken hold of popular culture. Consider Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, which encourages us to laugh at an ol’ codger’s steady stream of racial slurs, until the codger must avenge his Korean neighbor’s rape. The film, which went into wide release two weekends before Barack Obama’s inauguration, turned out to be the biggest moneymaker of the actor-director’s long career, grossing nearly $150 million. Meanwhile, debut novelist Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, which was published two and a half weeks after Obama’s inauguration, has spent much of the past year perched atop the New York Times best-seller list. It tells the folksy tale of a progressive Mississippi white woman, circa the early sixties, who helps two black maids find their self-worth by collaborating with them on a book about their experiences working for white people. (A film version, produced by Harry Potter and Home Alone director Chris Columbus, is set to go into production in the spring.) Both Gran Torino and The Help—just like The Blind Side—are stories of racial harmony that nonetheless assert that without white people to aid them the minorities of America would be nothing. The inevitable conclusion to be drawn from the popularity of these works: Upon electing a black president, the white population of America now seems to need assurance that it is still in charge of things.
So while it might be nice to cheer along our hometown heroes on the road to Oscar victory, work this blithely ignorant of its own impact should not be celebrated, especially if we ever hope to see complex portraits of race like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) and Sanaa Hamri’s Something New (2006) as the norm and not the exception. The triumph of The Blind Side, finally, is nothing to be proud of.