Hey, it’s Mutual Oscarbation, our awards season feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart crawl out of their Netflix envelope-insulated dens and find out during what sorts of movies Academy members are receiving athletic scholarships. This week they get pulled out of poverty by John Lee Hancock, who takes them to The Blind Side of town.
Ugh, Ben! I’m so sick of these fucking Oscar movies! Up in the Air may have been the most vexing of the lot so far, but The Blind Side, disgusting in its every detail, is by far the most insipid—and, uh, racist. And, uh, American. It’s about three of this country’s favorite things: Christianity, Football, and dumb black folk succeeding thanks to the charity of white people. I argued in one of our earlier epistolary conversations that Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire was conservative in its own tricky way, but this movie wears its Republican agenda like a badge of honor. In Lee Daniels’ movie, Precious succeeds thanks to a network of social institutions; Michael Oher, the hero of this movie—who, in Real Life, went from homeless to N.F.L. star—succeeds thanks to the intervention of privatized forces: generous and wealthy individuals, private schools and private tutors. Look at that Free Market, takin’ care of business!
For those of you playing at home: Sandy Bullock plays Leigh Anne Tuohy, a tough Southern white lady who adopts a big black boy who ain’t got nobody else. (As Scott Tobias describes it, “The family that takes him in literally picks him up from the streets during a rainstorm, like a stray. All that’s missing are the children pleading, ‘Mom, can we keep him?'”) They put him through a Christian high school, get his grades up, get him into college and, ultimately, on the path to football stardom. It’s really fucking Inspirational.
So, we’re only watching this movie because of Bullock, right? Even though it garnered a Best Picture nom, too, most likely because of the category expansion. Well, OK, she’s fine, I guess; her character is revolting—introduced with orange skin, white clothes (she’s white!), styled hair, shouting into a cellphone like a jerk—but she does a satisfactory job of highlighting her character’s…saintliness? Near the end, she asks her husband (Tim McGraw) if she’s a good person; it’s a perfect opportunity to acknowledge the ambivalence many members of the audience must be feeling up to this point, but Hancock uses it instead as a moment for McGraw—playing a fast food magnate, complicit in the obesity that affects Oher, never acknowledged, whatever—to tell her how wonderful she is. As though she only asked the question to get attention. The Blind Side’s biggest problem is its total lack of complexity (or, uh, conflict)—which, as I understand it, is its most notable point of departure from its Michael Lewis source material. Watching all 125 minutes of this shit is a chore.
Or, no, The Blind Side’s biggest problem is its goddam racism. Leigh Anne, of course, defends Michael against the most overt and odious attacks: the white player on an opposing team who kicks Michael in the head and mutters epithets, the white country club ladies who compare him to King Kong and express concern that Michael, a “big black man,” poses a “threat” to the family’s white, teenage daughter. But the movie Leigh Ann inhabits is just as racist as any of those white ladies: in its portrayal of the black man as Magical Negro (“you’re changing [Michael’s] life,” one of Bullock’s friends tells her; “no,” she responds, “he’s changing mine”), a dolt who scored huge on “protective instincts” (who tests for that?) who can only understand football in terms of protecting his white family from other black people. How about those other black people, Ben? The oversexed gangstas—who would be a threat to white women like Sandy if she weren’t packin’ a gun (and an N.R.A. membership) of her own—who deliver lines like, “I will bust a cap in yo’ fat black ass”; and the black woman “on the crack pipe” who fucks so much she loses track of her lovers. Well, I guess that’s just what black people are like. Thank goodness (er, The Christian God) for sports, right Ben? Because how else would white people be able to help black people help themselves?
Well sir, though I take it that you enjoyed this bloated rags-to-riches/coming-of-age/inspirational teacher/family dramedy/sports movie hybrid just about as little as I did, you sound much more offended. Part of the reason for this, I suspect, has to do with how thoroughly unambitious, inconsequential and unpretentious this film is. As opposed to something like Precious or, to dip way back into the Sutton-Stewart archives, Bruno, which self-consciously provokes viewers by assaulting us with more or less shocking Social Issues that are so belabored and over-determined as to be (nearly) unassailable, The Blind Side goes about its racist stereotyping and Republican-redeeming so clumsily and earnestly—in the light of day rather than in the murk of art-house allegory, as it were—that I almost feel bad criticizing it. What’s the point of attacking a film that seems so clueless about and content with its myopic worldview? I’d like to think that part of the point is that Best Picture nominees have to answer to some higher standards, but given the typically disappointing nominees this year that’s clearly not the case. Rather, maybe it’s precisely because proud Texan John Lee Hancock is something of an expert at packaging terrifyingly regressive politics into seemingly innocuous Americana—his previous films include mid-life crisis baseball inspirational The Rookie and call-to-arms origin myth The Alamo—that it’s worth cutting through The Blind Side’s thin, poorly rendered surface to expose the rot beneath.
And since you’ve done so much detailed work on the racist rot already, I’d like to underline the filmmakers’ comic incompetence. From Hancock’s hackneyed adaptation—Sean jokes to Leigh Anne as they watch inspirational lefty tutor Kathy Bates working with Michael: “Who’d have thought we’d have a black son before we met a Democrat!”—to the grating, repetitive, soap opera pacing and disastrous editing of it all, I found myself offended by the film’s formal ineptitude as much as its conservative politics. How many times in the opening hour did Leigh Anne forget that Michael had grown up poor only to be abruptly, awkwardly reminded?
Michael: I’ve never had one of these before.
Leigh Anne: What, your own room?
Michael: (dramatic pause) A bed.
Oh shit, right, he was really fucking poor! That said, it’s not like he’s the only poor kid in the movie: whatever happens to the family that Michael is staying with when the film begins? He enrolls along with another African American kid whom we never see again. Poor white folks also make one appearance before vanishing, which I found frustrating because in that scene—Michael’s first football game against a visiting (not to say invading) “redneck” team—you get a sense that there might be some more complex tensions playing out in Memphis’ insular upper-class community, maybe some issues of guilt and entitlement not pertaining strictly to racial difference. Complexity is very much minimized in this one-note, two-toned film, though. Thereafter, every white person we see is rich and friendly, and every black person is poor, sad and bad—with the notable exception of the NCAA official whose meeting with Michael bookends the film.
And speaking of rich and friendly white people, could the Tuohy family be any less interesting? For most of the film I kept expecting the fast food franchise mini-mogul husband to do… something, anything: tell his wife she’s crazy, have an affair, get angry at Michael. Leigh Anne mentions early on that Sean sleeps on the couch “when he’s been bad,” but he never seems to behave anything less than angelically. Same goes for the cheerleader daughter Collins (Lily Collins, Phil’s daughter), who doesn’t even feel jealous or angry when her mother (who also finds time to coach the cheerleading team) storms off mid-practice to go watch Michael perform for college recruiters. Under the cover of this movie’s racial tokenism there’s an equally conservative gender politics at work: Men do stuff, women help them along their way—the tutor Ms. Sue (Bates) actually tells Michael at one point: “All you have to do is trust me and I’ll get you there.”
Leigh Anne, ostensibly, is an exception in as much as she’s a professional interior designer, a mother, a wife and a kind of philanthropist. But her crazy multi-tasking seems more like a feminist backlash fantasy, as in: “I can be an empowered woman who does meaningful stuff, and have kids, and a husband, and a giant spotless house, and a job, and coach the cheerleading team. I am Wonder Woman!” (She’s also a safer Erin Brokovitch.) Still, Bullock is far better than all her co-stars, who seem to have been cast completely at random, particularly the part of the youngest Tuohy. What’s the deal with Sean “SJ” Jr. (Jae Head)? His role seems to be something akin to that of Jonathan Lipnicki in Jerry Maguire (which SJ actually quotes: “Help me help you!”), except he’s so hyper-active and awkwardly shoe-horned into the plot for comic relief that whenever he speaks he brings the already slow-moving narrative to a grinding halt. It’s as if all the character traits that were taken from Michael—because, let’s face it: easiest “troubled kid” performance since Forrest Gump—were refracted and amplified in SJ. Maybe he’s the disgruntled family member I was looking for this whole time, crying out for attention with jokes and an over-compensating personality while everyone worries about his big blank slate of a brother. Yep, SJ is The Blind Side’s real victim, and us for having to put more thought into this movie than the filmmakers did.
(photo credit: TM & © 2010 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. photo by Ralph Nelson)