Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Blind Side


[Although The Blind Side does not appear on disc until next week, I'm reviewing it now, in the absence of new releases I wanted to write about. Next week  I will review one or two other films released on March 23.]

"The Charge of the White Brigade"

In a clip that received continuous play on Oscar night - featured on both the Barbara Walters special and as a favorite of the Awards broadcast when highlighting the nominated Blind Side - Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock), a blonde, beautiful, sassy Southern housewife with wealth and attitude to spare, confronts several young black men sitting on a stoop in the projects. Leaning forward after one of them calls her "bitch," she stares him down and fires back with everything in her arsenal. She lets him know that if he comes to her side of town, he's in for a world of hell, that she lunches with the D.A. on a regular basis, and that she's a full-fledged member of the NRA who's always packing. Earlier we've seen the sinister youth threaten gentle giant Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), Leigh Anne's adopted son, with his own gun, all while boasting about his criminal operations and salivating over Leigh Anne and her teenage daughter. Yet now, confronted with a woman in heels, surrounded in his own territory, he cowers. Whatever his own prowess and presence in the ghetto, he can't touch the threat of a pistol-packin' mama with an open line to the enforcers of political authority. And how are we supposed to feel about this? After all, as the young man is written, he deserves to be threatened and "put in his place." Yet the racial elements are impossible to ignore - as is the reflection that the film must know this, but proceeds anyway, without acknowledging the diatribe's deeper implications.

It's an extremely unsettling scene, and as such a fascinating one - and its fascinations appear periodically throughout the movie, which is best appreciated as inadvertent pop sociology and perhaps minor entertainment if you can cast aside desires for subtlety and complexity. By now we're used to Hollywood's demonstrations of white liberal guilt (usually insensitive and condescending) but rarely in the past twenty years has a racially-themed movie so unapologetically celebrated white paternalism - or, in this case, maternalism. The film's Best Picture nomination is an immense head-scratcher; while production values and visual competence are adequate, in terms of storytelling and characterization, Blind Side is virtually indistinguishable from a Disney Channel movie-of-the-week. Sandra Bullock, this year's Oscar winner, is fine as Leigh Anne, which is to say she fully embodies the very limited part; rather than attempt to stretch the boundaries of the by-the-numbers screenplay, she builds a cozy nest within those parameters and digs in.

And yet it's "based on a true story." Michael Oher was a real kid, homeless and quiet, taken in by a white family who gave him security, luxuries, and a path to play football in college and eventually the NFL. Perhaps the most illuminating take on what exactly the movie is trying to accomplish would be to compare book and film side by side, see where the changes were made, and deduce why this was so. Meanwhile, we can only reflect upon what's onscreen. Occasionally there are tremors, like glass vibrating hundreds of miles from an earthquake, to reflect some consciousness of the Tuohys'  human flaws (they must have had some, right?) or, more importantly, Michael's own point of view (the Village Voice observed that his dialogue, taken together, would probably constitute about two pages of the total script). There are uncomfortable moments when the family seems spoiled or smug in its nouveau-riche cocoon, but the film always errs on the side of accepting them as eccentrics and never questioning their attitudes or lifestyle. Whenever the film steps forward with an ambiguous action, there's a reciprocal gesture or reverse shot to help it go down easier (usually this softening of the blows comes from Michael, whose sheepish grin or warm obliviousness lets us know it's all ok).

Hearing about Blind Side's controversy before seeing it, I thought the claims about its "racism" must be overblown. In fact the movie combines two ways of dealing with race in America, to ill effect. On the one hand, it attempts to ignore color: Leigh Anne adopts, coddles, and teases Michael as if he's the same as the rest of her kids (while the dramatic difference in size and shade constantly reminds us otherwise). She's supposed to be allowed uncomfortable behavior - like when she threatens castration after he looks at two passing (white) girls - because, hey, she'd say that to her white son, so why treat the black one any differently? Yet at other times, race and class are front and center; when Leigh Anne meets with Michael's drug-addled birth mother or confronts his neighbors in that aforementioned scene, the film can't look the other way (or close its eyes, as Michael's mother once told him to do whenever she was doing something bad - an escape hatch the movie takes as its ethos). How the screenplay deals with these confrontations is telling; the situation always redounds to Leigh Anne's benefit, either by exhibiting her compassion or displaying her resolve (even if this involves an  unapologetic resort to white supremacy).

The narrative comes closest to treating the family and their aims ambivalently at its climax: an NCAA spokeswoman raises the possibility that the Tuohys were acting out of self-interest, rather than benevolence, when they took Michael in, and the young man is heartbroken. Indeed, his new parents are ardent Ole Miss boosters and they aren't shown pushing him hard about his grades until he needs that football scholarship. The movie finally raises the intriguing possibility that there's more in it for Leigh Anne than just being a good Christian but it quickly shoots down this ambiguity and returns to its "Seventh Heaven" vision of familial harmony. Did the thought really never occur to Michael before? Indeed, what was he thinking all this time? The movie never lets us know. How compelling it would have been if we could have experienced both his hope and fear, sympathized with the family's good-hearted naivitee even as we were allowed to cringe at their insensitivity. If we ourselves could have wondered what ulterior motives lurked in the background - not just of the Tuohys, but of Michael, who is always allowed to be so inhumanly goodhearted that he never seems tempted to take advantage of the situation. And didn't he ever, maybe only once, want to punch his twerpy little brother/trainer "S.J." in the face, just to shut him up? I know I did.

None of this would have mitigated the possibility of a "feel-good" film or one which embraced the Tuohy's gesture. Indeed, it would have strengthened these qualities, because they would have been earned, instead of handed to us like one of the family's ubiquitous fast food meals, pre-wrapped and paid for (Mr. Tuohy owns eighty-five franchises in the area). But then the movie isn't really keen on "earning" (the Tuohys are Republicans but more Kennedyesque than Reaganite in their social vision): Michael is handed his opportunities wrapped in a big bow and expected to behave himself in return, displaying gratitude by toeing the line. His final essay for school, the one which wins him a B+, an acceptable GPA, and admittance to Ole Miss, is on Alfred Lord Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade." And what is his interpretation, one fully endorsed by his dad (who takes a break from sitting on the couch, watching basketball, to extol the virtues of stoic self-sacrifice and dignified duty)? That sometimes one can't ask questions and must do as one's told. Under the voiceover, we see images of Michael's worlds - the sequestered Christian private school he attends, the luxurious Tuohy home, the cluttered streets of the projects (pictured under the intonation of the "Valley of Death").

The film's message seems to be that if we keep our heads down, if we do as we're told without asking why, maybe good things will happen. It's a passive moral, and one peculiarly un-American (though not un-Christian). Roughly speaking, the same exact story could have been slightly fleshed out, shot and performed in a more ambiguous way, and allowed in a few more perspectives (namely Michael's) and it would have been ten times more effective - both as drama and as a promotion of good deeds, if the movie still wanted to draw that conclusion. However, the movie has its own "blind side" and it's not just race (towards which it's intermittently nearsighted), or even class (to which it is functionally blind, recognizing disparity but having absolutely no interest in addressing its very human origins or perpetuation). No, The Blind Side is primarily blind to humanity, to the complex shades of human nature, which it inadvertently suggests from time to time before running scared in the other direction. Where's the recognition that good and bad can go hand-in-hand, that security brings its own discomforts, that regret and ambivalence accompany ascendency? The light is always accompanied by the dark. Tennyson may have promoted order, celebrated submission, and subordinated individual judgement and conscience, but at least he recognized that much.

5 comments:

Daniel Getahun said...

Phenomenal review here - one of the best I've read. My issue with this film (aside from what I felt were average or below average production values, and of course a complete missed opportunity about race relations in America) was that I thought it just would have worked much better as a documentary. One in which, for example, we might have truly seen the emotional depth of the characters that you discuss here. It should say something that the only piece of this movie I appreciated was the montage of photos of the real-life family during the end credits - it was the first time real people had been on screen the entire film!

MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks, David. I agree - and that's not the first time I've felt this way. Coming out of a fictionalized "based on a true story" mainstream movie, one also hungers for the sharp taste of reality. Even in those little snapshots we could see more humanity and depth than the movie allowed.

MovieMan0283 said...

Er, Daniel. Hey, I only caught it 14 months after the fact!

MovieMan0283 said...

(To the day, oddly enough...)

Brasil said...

I blinked back the tears along with the cheers and laughter all the way through. A virtuoso performance by an astounding actress. Ms. Bullock - you are the best! This movie inspires hope and heart.