The Blind Side: Elitist? Racist? Or Just Feel-Good?

March 8, 2010

Congratulations to Sandra Bullock, who last night received an Academy Award for her role in The Blind Side

I’ll admit that I was skeptical when I went to see it several months ago.  I hoped not to see a sappy, overused rags-to-riches story.  What I saw was indeed a holiday-style feel-good film, but with a twist.  It’s a true story of an under-educated high school kid from a bad part of town who is taken in by a family when the family mom sees the boy walking on the street on a cold night in shorts and a short-sleeved shirt.  The boy is given a place to stay, and eventually tutoring, educational opportunity, and an opportunity to capitalize on his natural athletic ability (but he can’t play football unless he improves his grades so that he can be academically eligible).  This Hollywood story might be unremarkable, except that it’s true, and the mother, Leigh Anne Tuohy, happens to be a white, wealthy suburban Christian woman in Memphis, Tennessee, and the boy, Michael Oher, is a black kid from the projects who didn’t know his father and whose mother’s life had been ruined by habitual drug use.

A rich white Christian helping a poor black boy reach success, just out of the goodness of her heart?  Not exactly the stuff Hollywood scripts are made of.  But it’s a true story, and the people who played out this drama are alive and well, because the movie ends with the 23rd overall pick of the 2009 NFL Draft.  Hard to dispute the facts. 

Even so, the movie is not without its critics.  In fact, I remarked to a family member shortly after the movie, “I bet this movie gets criticized for being racist, for suggesting that black people can succeed if they become like white people, even though that obviously was not the message of the movie.”  I described a law professor I had in law school years ago—he was a Jewish neo-Marxist that had been a member of the Black Panthers in college (no, I’m not kidding)—who decried that kind of “paternalism,” arguing that such integration erodes the valuable black culture. 

Indeed, the Dallas Observer published a piece entitled The Blind Side: What Would Black People Do Without Nice White Folks?, in which the writer argued that “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.”  A commenter on Yahoo added, before even seeing the movie, “It’ll still probably be racist, though, because it’ll probably portray the young black boy Sandra Bullock adopts as being ‘better’ than other black people in the film in some disgustingly charming way, with all the other black people treating him badly and Sandra Bullock having to come running to his rescue.”  The same commenter argued, “This is a movie about white people, for white people, that lets white people feel good about themselves.”  (This movie did not make me feel good about myself, it humbled me because I find Ms. Tuohy’s actions to be so much more compassionate and loving than anything I’ve ever done.)

Turns out that such criticisms reached the ears of the movie’s director and prominent star Sandra Bullock.  They had some rather positive things to say.  Director John Lee Hancock remarked:

“There will always be a certain camp that will say, ‘Oh it’s paternalism; its white guilt; its another one of those stories that says an African-American can’t make it on his own.’ I think its all balderdash,” said Hancock. “Even though there is a racial component, I looked at this story as more of a discussion of haves and have-nots and nature versus nurture. This is a kid who been discarded by society, especially from an educational standpoint. And his story goes to prove what having a safe bed to sleep in, having a family unit, having loving, interested parents can do. Lo and behold, this kid who was falling through the cracks is on the dean’s list at college. It’s like a miracle, and I think that’s a far more interesting element than any racial aspect of it. Leigh Anne Tuohy didn’t stop that car to pick up that kid because he was African-American. She stopped that car to pick up that kid because he was cold.”

Sandra Bullock added:

“One of my biggest issues has always been people who use their faith and their religion as a banner but don’t do the right things, yet still go, ‘I’m a good Christian and I go to church and this is the way you should live your life,'” said Bullock. “And I’m like, you know, do not give me a lecture about how to live my life when you go to church every week but I know you are still sneaking around on your wife. And I told Leigh Anne in a live interview, one of my largest concerns getting involved with this project was that whole banner-waving thing because it scares me, and I’ve had experiences that haven’t been great with people like that. I don’t buy a lot of people who use that banner as their shield. But she was so open and honest and forthright with me I thought, wow, I’ve finally met someone who practices but doesn’t preach.”
 
Bullock’s next comment suggested that the Tuohy’s newfound fame has provided them fresh opportunities to impact others with the hope that they have. “I now have faith in those who say they represent a faith,” Bullock commented. “I finally met people who walk the walk.”

The kerfluffle does raise an interesting question.  Let’s say that the Tuohy’s “white culture,” whatever that is, actually did have more wealthy yet responsible and philanthropic individuals than Oher’s “black culture,” whatever that is.  And let’s say that the “black culture” had more child abandonment, drug use, crime, and poverty.  If that were true, would it be wrong to encourage the “black culture” to be more like the “white culture” in that respect?  Is the “black culture” equally valuable as the “white culture” if the “black culture” turns a blind eye to such atrocities?  Not to say American “white culture” doesn’t have plenty to work on itself, or that it is the standard against which other cultures must be measured.  But, as I wish I had asked my law professor, can one culture be more valuable—more right—than another?  I’m inclined to say yes, and it only takes pointing a lazy finger toward Nazi and Stalinist “cultures” to demonstrate that some cultures must be erradicated, or at least radically broken and rebuilt, to rise to the level of other more valuable cultures. 

But in any event, The Blind Side really attempts no such cultural commentary.  It’s just a true story of a rich white Christian woman coming to the aid of a homeless black kid, and the resulting interracial family.  Had that kid been white, the critics would have no basis for labeling the movie “racist.”  So in an odd way, the critics would apparently prefer either that (a) rich white Christian ladies not help black kids, but to stick to their own kind, or (b) the stories of rich white Christian ladies helping black kids not be told, because they might foster (perhaps accurate) stereotypes about blacks, or (c) that stories that challenge (perhaps inaccurate) stereotypes about rich white Christians not be told.  None of the critics make any effort to demonstrate that a large segment (but not all) of the black community is not afflicted with the problems depicted in the film.  But the critics would rather rest comfortably in willful blindness of the truth than be forced to admit the less-than-politically-correct problem.

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