Monday, May 24, 2010

Watching The Blind Side, thinking about Hollywood's problem with race

Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for portraying Leigh Anne Tuohy in The Blind Side.  Bullock's performance is quite good--nuanced, funny, natural, and absorbingly watchable.  The film, on the other hand, is riddled with major problems in race representation.  But Hollywood doesn't care.  In addition to Bullock's nod, the movie was nominated for best picture.  Could Hollywood voters not tell that the film's representation of black characters was deeply problematic?  Or, do they just not think that's very important?

The Blind Side is a tricky case.  It's a true story, so we can't blame the film for the story of a white woman as the savior for a poor black child's problems--it really happened.  This was how I defended the film, when I initially expressed interest in seeing it, and my boyfriend said, "doesn't that sound a little bit racist?"  I said, "But it really happened!  Michael Oher really got taken in by this rich, white, Southern family!"  It's a true story, and it's also an inspiring one.  It's the story of an incredibly talented athlete who likely would never have become a household name if it weren't for the intervention of a conservative, white, Christian family that took him into their home and helped him get the grades he needed to play in the NCAA.  The story is real.  The story can't be racist.  But I believe the movie is.

Firstly, the choice to make the film itself is problematic.  This story is the type of story that gets told about black individuals because this is the sort of story white viewers are comfortable with: people of different colors are poor; they need help; light-skinned person arrives to help; redemption is had; tears are savored with popcorn.  The relationship between races is something Americans are deeply uncomfortable with, and neat, digestible narratives like this one help the medicine go down more easily.  And so we retell this story, the nice white lady narrative, time and time again.  Given this, if the producers wanted to tell this story, they should have recognized how it played into a common and infinitely repeated trope, and tried to create a film that went beyond this simple story.  Instead, the film embraced the simplicity of that story, and took every opportunity to play up the racist blackness=poverty=violence=addiction narrative.

The problem with The Blind Side is not in its representation of whiteness.  I actually think it did a fairly good job with that.  Leigh Anne's friends are casually racist, while considering themselves good Christian philanthropists.  A school official assumes a black family won't be able to pay tuition.  Leigh Anne herself is ambivalent about her feelings towards a poor, black kid even as she wants to help him.  When she first invites Michael to sleep in her home, she does so instinctively--then later wonders to her husband whether he'll steal something.  She tells off her friend for suggesting there's something inappropriate about having a "large, black boy" sleep in a house with her teenage daughter, then goes home and asks her daughter if having Michael around makes her uncomfortable.  I found these reactions to be fairly realistic for members of a conservative white community.  The white characters are allowed to be three dimensional--to have doubts and fears, be ethically ambiguous, to be people.

The black characters, on the other hand, are given no such courtesy.  Although it is ostensibly a story about a black man, Michael Oher, no one could claim the movie is about the character of Michael.  That would be a difficult story for Hollywood to tell, while the story of white people doing charity by helping the so very destitute uneducated black people is an easy story to tell.  As the Dallas Observer puts it, "Blind Side the movie peddles the most insidious kind of racism, one in which whiteys are virtuous saviors, coming to the rescue of blacks who become superfluous in narratives that are supposed to be about them."  Michael is never a fully realized character.  Many of his actions make little sense, and we never see things through his perspective or understand his emotions.  Throughout, he's treated as a child, not just an under-educated teen.  His white tutor tries to scare him off from going to Tennessee by telling him a ghost story.  He doesn't understand football until Leigh Anne explains it in dumbed-down metaphors.  Really?  Is this what Michael Oher is like?  Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for mirroring Leigh Anne Tuohy drawl for drawl, but did anyone even try to represent Michael Oher believably?  In addition to this infantalized portrayal of what should be the main character, we're treated to a revealing look at the white vision of blackness.  We get scenes of Michael's crack addict mother, of gang-bangers drinking 40s, of newspaper headlines of kids killed in crossfire. 

Do I think that putting negative representations of the black experience on screen is necessarily racist?  No.  I defended the film Precious against similar accusations.  But, to me, what made Precious's negative portrayal of blackness NOT racist was that it carefully maintained its position as one girl's story.  Precious's life was sad, she was abused, she had HIV, her mother was a "welfare queen"--but this wasn't meant to be a universal depiction of blackness.  It was one story--a unique and authentic story.  The black characters in the Blind Side, however, aren't meant to be individuals.  They're caricatures, not characters: the crack mom, the gangbangers, and even the gentle giant that is Michael.  To drive this point home even more, a voice-over by Leigh Anne at the end mentions all the kids dying in the projects, and says her son Michael was just like them, could have ended up like them, until she saved him.  This is not the story of Michael Oher.  This is supposed to be a "universal" story of black indigence and white charity.  This story, and Hollywood's need to tell it, disgusts me.

And, not only does Hollywood need to tell this story (over and over again), they apparently need to live it, as white celebrities repeatedly adopt black children (who we are meant to assume would be destitute without their intervention, but who are actually from unknown origins) and are celebrated as heroes.  I think adoption is great and is much-needed, and I have no problem with trans-racial adoption.  But I do think we need to be critical about why this is a narrative we are so comfortable with, and what makes these white celebrities want to act as saviors to people of color.  You don't have to reject Sandra Bullock's decision to adopt a black baby to be critical of it, and to question what it says about our society.  On this topic, I think everyone should read a piece by Renee Martin about why black mothers are in the best interest of black children.  I am almost 100% positive this piece will make you uncomfortable, as it made me, but I hope you'll read it regardless, and I hope you'll ask yourself, why would a black woman feel this way?  Why would she write this?  Just as I hope we all will ask, why does Hollywood keep making movies like The Blind Side, and why do we love it so much?


  1. Why, might you ask, am I five months behind on this discussion? I just watched The Blind Side when it finally arrived in a little red Netflix envelope. Plus, that whole life imitating white savior art adoption added a creepy postscript to the whole thing.

  2. I finally got around to watching this movie. I'm a Memphis, private school mom - white, affluent and so forth. ULP! I wanted to throw up at the simplistic, insulting, overtly racist portrayal of blacks! Yes, Sandra Bullock got the accent right - but that's about it! The movie is unfair to Blacks and really demeaning to Memphis as well. Hell, I hope Micheal Oher gets his own story written and lets Spike Lee direct it. We need a different viewpoint!

  3. Just saw this movie today - lagged longer than you because I assumed much of what I saw.

    Excellent analysis and I had a very similar response:


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