First to state the obvious: Gabourey Sidibe, the young actor from Precious: Based on the Novel Pushby Sapphire, would have been a better choice for Best Actress at the 2010 Academy Awards. Her transformative performance in a role that showed both toughness and tenderness, that took her character on a journey from abjection to determination, required the young actor to plumb the depths of an experience far from her own.

Sidibe’s performance, directed by Lee Daniels—the openly gay, African American who was only the second man of color ever to be nominated in the Oscars’ Best Director category—is powerful and impressive, as she modulates Precious’s tentative but dogged growth from a girl cocooned in layers of self-protective mistrust to a young woman open to learning, to love, and to survival. Sidibe captures the spark of fortitude and life that fuels a physically and emotionally abused teenager to make her own way, to strive to be more than her circumstances dictate.

As my partner in movie-going and in life Stacy Wolf pointed out, how ironic that Sandra Bullock won Best Actress for a role in an idealized story about white people “saving” an African American teenager, instead of Sidibe, who plays an African American teenager who manages to save herself.

Although Sidibe deserved the award, I’m glad that Sandra Bullock won instead of, say, Meryl Streep, whose vivacious turn as Julia Childs in Julie and Julia was great fun but not as impressive in this competition. Bullock’s achievement comes from the understatement she pulls off in a film whose moral is writ so large she practically bumps her head on it in every scene. In the ham-fisted and formulaic movie The Blind Side, Bullock performs with thoughtfulness and depth last evident when she played a racist housewife in Crash (2005).

Bullock plays Leigh Anne Tuohy, the wealthy Memphis woman who adopts a homeless African American teenager and encourages him to become a football star. Bullock performs Tuohy with an ethical clarity and straightforward, no-nonsense, ameliorating love that wins over even the toughest of toughs (who, in this film, are African American men in the housing projects from which Leigh Anne helps teenager “Big Mike” “escape”).

Michael “Big Mike” Oher, the Baltimore Ravens football player on whose life story the film is based, is played by Quinton Aaron as a taciturn, gentle giant dumbfounded but heartened by Leigh Anne’s insistent substitute mothering. Oher’s own mother, in the story the film chooses to deliver, is an inattentive addict who can’t pay her rent. When Tuohy goes to their apartment to see the woman, wanting her tacit approval for becoming Michael’s guardian, Denise Oher (Adriane Lenox) happens to be home.

Both women are inarticulate with grief that Michael’s mother hasn’t the wherewithal to hold on to her son. Leigh Anne’s Christian sympathy (her cross is insistently apparent around Bullock’s neck throughout the scene) is meant to somehow mask the fact that the Tuohys intend to take control of this poor woman’s flesh and blood. Lenox plays Denise Oher as angry but too befuddled to be proactive about Michael’s future or her own. Her sensitive performance and Bullock’s restraint make the scene halfway bearable.

Given very little to work with, the skillful Lenox ennobles Denise Oher with her own sympathetic dignity (Lenox played another African American kid’s mother in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt on Broadway in 2005). And because she doesn’t give in to the condescension or moral superiority that could easily overpower the scene, Bullock’s self-possession tempers what might have been a stark showdown between would-be mothers with very different entitlements to and investments in Michael Oher. Instead, Bullock takes Lenox’s hand and sits beside her, the two characters wordless as the scene ends.

Tim McGraw plays Sean, Leigh Anne’s rich husband, who never once objects to his wife’s altruism, and only shakes his head affectionately over her forceful personality and bullying, get-it-done style. Their young son Sean Tuohy, Jr., or “SJ” (Jae Head), appoints himself Michael’s manager and front-man; he’s a talkative little tow-headed guy of perhaps eight or nine.

Much of the film’s calculated humor comes from the Laurel and Hardy, Mutt and Jeff shtick of Michael and SJ’s scenes together, but inevitably, Michael plays the straight man to SJ’s comedy. Director John Lee Hancock allows young Head to so overplay his scenes with Aaron, they become much more about SJ than they are about Michael. Head is used throughout to showcase how young white children are “color-blind”; the fact that he’s befriended Michael (before his family drives by the teenager one night, seeing him alone and cold, walking on empty Memphis streets in the rain) sets in motion SJ’s parents’ decision to become Michael’s guardians.

That’s the film’s point and its problem. The Blind Side isn’t about Michael Oher’s rise from poverty to a notable career as a professional football player. In fact, we rarely get to hear what Michael thinks about any of the decisions his new white family make for him. Even his interior monologue on the football field, replayed in voiceover as he struggles to win a big game for his team, is supplied by Leigh Anne, as Michael simply echoes her instructions to protect his teammates as he does his (new, white) family.

The film uses Oher as an excuse to extol the virtues of the rich white folks who take him into their home and their lives. Michael provides the vehicle for their redemption, the vessel through which they demonstrate their unique ability to rise above racial divisions.

Bullock somehow manages a dignified performance in the middle of this bull, resisting the angelic heroism the script thrusts at her character. Bullock’s Leigh Anne just does what she thinks is right. Her catty, rich, white women friends ask during lunch at a fancy restaurant if Leigh Anne isn’t worried about bringing such a “big strapping black Buck” (not their words, but their implicit meaning) into her house to live under the same roof with her teenage (white white white) daughter. In response, Bullock as Leigh Anne narrows her eyes and says softly, “Shame on you.” She lifts the check from the table, says quietly, “I’ll get this,” and walks out with her spine straight and her head high, as her friends look by turns guilty and defiant.

The film continues in this vein. Bullock keeps her posture firm and the schmaltz in check, acting with subtle, emotional and physical nuances that avoid self-righteous, morally haughty display. No slapstick pratfalls show off her comic timing; no goofy scenes end by revealing the lonely tears of her clown. Hancock’s film objectifies her, including too many shots of boys and men staring approvingly at her lithe, appealing figure as she walks away from them.

These voyeuristic shots imply that Leigh Anne advocates effectively for Michael because she’s a physical knock-out. That’s just sexist. And not at all true-to-life, if the photographs of Leigh Anne Tuohy that ran in various media outlets when the film premiered are any indication of her actual appearance. But Bullock resists her director’s misogyny. She plays Leigh Anne as a woman following her own moral compass, determined to do right by a young man who through no fault of his own, has nothing but the chance she gives him.

That is, at least in this version of Oher’s story. From what I understand of the much more complicated, true story of Michael Oher and Leigh Anne Tuohy, the African American community in Memphis did a lot more to help out than The Blind Side lets on. The film needs Leigh Anne to be its sole heroine, so that white middle-class spectators just like her, to whom the movie is so blatantly pitched, can identify with her pure selflessness.

Mark Harris wrote an incisive column in Entertainment Weekly (February 19, 2010, http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20347725,00.html) about how The Blind Side distorts its source material, the book by Michael Lewis on which it’s based. According to Harris, Lewis’s book offers a more realistic, truthful rendering of the community effort it actually took to move the teenager from homelessness to a football scholarship, detailing how a series of African American and white families rotated caring for Michael. Harris ends his editorial saying,

Too much substance gets swept aside by The Blind Side’s feel-good agenda. Lewis’ book remains clear-eyed in its view of the kid he calls ”my main character,” a young man with the one-in-a-million luck to ”swap one life for another” because he has a pair of multimillionaire benefactors and a skill that can make a lot of money for a lot of people. In the movie, the ”main character” isn’t Michael, but the nice white lady who plucks a winner out of the otherwise apparently worthless population of the projects. What does this alteration accomplish, other than to tell audiences that all you need to change someone’s life is a heart (and wallet) of gold, innate bossiness, and a pistol in your purse? It’s sad that many of the people moved by The Blind Side haven’t seen Precious, a much more challenging story of a poor black teen who also survives shocking adversity to find the road to an identity. The Blind Side is a fable of exceptionalism about a kid who’s worth saving because he might become a superstar. Precious is about a kid who’s worth saving simply because she’s a human being. That’s a case that The Blind Side forgets it should be making. But it’s in Lewis’ book, ripe for discovery by anyone who suspects that this movie has a problematically large blind side of its own.

The Blind Side’s film doesn’t escape the racism of its sanctimoniousness message about “tolerance and acceptance” (which is only ever about white people). But if Bullock had to win—as thin, pretty white women are wont to do in these competitions—I’m inclined to celebrate her selection because at least she also demonstrates that a woman can pull in the biggest box office of the year and still be very good at what she does.

Harris reports that the film is now the highest grossing non-fiction adaptation in the history of the industry. The Blind Side is also apparently the first female-lead movie to make over $200 million. Given that women over 40 (Bullock is 45) are rarely cast in active, strong leading roles, and are never expected to make money, Bullock’s coup is worth an Oscar, even as I rue the racist slant of her material.

An epilogue: Days after the Academy Awards aired, the tabloid press revealed that Bullock’s husband of five years, the motorcycle aficionado and reality TV star Jesse James, had an affair with a woman of ill-repute (her name is linked on various internet sites with Nazi paraphernalia, porn, and prostitution). While I’m the last to invest in “happily ever after” narratives, or what Jennifer Armstrong, in her Entertainment Weekly “PopWatch” piece, “Sandra Bullock’s Marriage Woes: The End of a Fairy Tale?” (March 18, 2010, http://popwatch.ew.com/2010/03/18/sandra-bullocks-marriage-woes-the-end-of-the-fairy-tale/), sentimentally calls the mythic story of the woman with a successful career and a good marriage.

But I do think it’s a shame that so soon after her professional victory, Bullock has to contend with paparazzi needling her about her unfaithful man. Even though this story underlines that some men remain threatened by strong, successful women, Bullock is the one who’ll bear the brunt of the press’s intrusions. She’ll be tarred the “ball-buster,” the powerful broad who “forced” her man to seek out the comforts of what some bloggers have harshly called a “bimbo” with a life much more quotidian than Bullock’s.

Why is it that even successful women rarely have a chance to enjoy their deserved accomplishments before they’re taken down, put back where American popular culture continues to think they belong?

Bullock stays thin to conform to conventional notions of sexiness for white women; she works very hard to create a career for herself with films other than screwball comedies; and she succeeds as she stretches her craft. But when the day is done, she’s still judged according to whether or not she can hold on to a man who by all accounts hasn’t a fraction of Bullock’s talent.

That’s just wrong.

The Feminist Spectator

Link to original post on Blogspot.

 

10 Responses to The Blind Side

  1. Laura says:

    How do I disagree with thee, let me count the ways. I won’t though because it will take too bloody long.

    For once, I’m ECSTATIC that the Oscar didn’t go to the politically-correct choice. I’m also ecstatic that it was more about performance than message. Precious may have had the right message, but that doesn’t negate the work that Sandra put into this part. The story was played out beautifully by all of the actors, exquisitely directed, and the humor–something the Academy routinely dismisses as “no talent required”–was right there for most of them to play out. If it’s not on the page, it sure as heck won’t be on the stage.

    I greatly resent the “stretches her craft” comment because a movie like a romantic comedy is very difficult to do well. It’s why not even a dozen current actresses under 60 could do one halfway decently, and why there are so few that are truly remembered. The success of a romantic comedy lies at the feet of the writer, and the performance of the leading lady. You can insert most any male, and it would still work because it really IS about the woman. Sleepless in Seattle is a great example, and when you think of the truly great comediennes, there aren’t a lot of names that pop up. Discuss drama, and I could mention 100 or more off the top of my head.

    As most experienced actors have found out, drama is easy, it’s the comedy that’s difficult. Michael Caine is one of the premier living actors, and he’s said that numerous times over the years.

  2. Jill Dolan says:

    Laura, thanks for your comment. You’re right about “stretched her craft”–I probably should have said avoided, for a change, being typecast in the kind of work for which she’s most known. Too often, it seems to me, actresses are constrained by box office from doing anything other than what they’ve done before, especially if it’s successful.

    And yes, too, romantic comedies are indeed typically about the women. But without their pursuit of the men (whichever, wherever), there would be no plot. I actually thought Bullock was wonderful in THE PROPOSAL, in a film that slightly stretched the genre.

    Re political correctness and voting for Sidibe in PRECIOUS, well, I disagree. The young woman did a terrific job in a very difficult part. I was glad she was nominated.

    Thanks for engaging. Best, jd

  3. Ellen G says:

    I would like to rebut your blog, point by point. You open with, “First to state the obvious: Gabourey Sidibe…would have been a better choice for Best Actress…” I cannot agree with this statement; why is it obvious and why would she have been a better choice? Precious is on my list of movies to see (actually, I do have it; I just haven’t gotten to it yet) and although I haven’t seen the whole film yet I have seen previews, and based on those I can agree that Ms. Sidibe has done a phenomenal job. However, I can understand why the Oscar went to Sandra Bullock. Ms. Bullock has been in many movies and has been called upon to portray a variety of different characters, mostly comedic/romantic. In your own words, however (“Bullock…acting with subtle, emotional, and physical nuances that avoid self-righteous, morally haughty display.”) Bullock has stretched herself and shown that she can be successful and convincing in diverse roles. As wonderful as Sidibe was, this is her first film and she has yet to prove herself as an all-around actress.

    Your next point is to share what you perceive as irony that Bullock won “for a role in an idealized story about white people ‘saving’ an African American teenager, instead of Sidibe, who plays an African American teenager who manages to save herself.” I believe that in this point you are betraying a bias, rather than reviewing each story objectively, as well as ascribing motives to the Tuohy family that you are supposing to be true, rather than knowing to be true. From my point of view, the Tuohys saw a human being who was in need; I don’t recall them ever saying, in essence, “There goes an African American boy – let’s save him.” They saw someone who was cold, not dressed properly, and clearly homeless. If that boy had been white and they had treated him the same way, would that change your opinion of them? What makes one person needier than another – the color of his skin? Furthermore, your point of view discounts the fact that Michael Oher saved himself. He made the choice to resist drug and gang activity. He chose not to turn to crime to support himself. He made these positive choices before the Tuohy family ever entered his life; in this regard he is no different than Precious. The Tuohys just gave him the chance to expand on his choices, and also gave him opportunities that he never could have gotten on his own. And may I add, Michael’s story is true, whereas Precious, although there are certainly people like her, is still a character of fiction.

    The next point I would like to address is, “Oher’s own mother, in the story the film chooses to deliver, is an inattentive addict who can’t pay her rent.” Again, I believe you are falling victim to your own personal bias and not being objective or even open to the facts of the case. You make it sound like Oher’s mother is something other than what is shown in the film, when in fact she is a crack addict who has given birth to more than a dozen children and can’t keep straight which father sired which child. This goes beyond being “inattentive.” (Some of the synonyms for inattentive are: distracted; careless; remiss; unmindful – certainly her behavior goes beyond these descriptions.) Oher himself has chosen not to have contact with his biological mother; may I suggest that you consider why that might be.

    (I have to post this as multiple comments – too long for one.)

  4. Ellen G says:

    PART 2 OF POST:

    I don’t understand why, as evident in your next paragraph, it bothers you that Leigh Anne Tuohy’s cross is “insistently apparent” in the scene between her and Oher’s biological mother. I have seen Leigh Anne in photos and in live interviews in which her cross is present. She is a Christian and as such, wears a cross (a plain one, at that, when she could easily wear one that’s gaudy with diamonds). This is not a device of the movie or a conceit of the character: it is a genuine portrayal of who Leigh Anne is. I don’t understand why this would be a problem for you. You go on to say that the Tuohys “intend to take control of this poor woman’s flesh and blood.” It seems to me that this “poor” woman gave up control of her children – not just Michael – long before the Tuohys appeared on the scene. Her children didn’t live with her, she didn’t support them – she couldn’t even remember which man was Michael’s father! The Tuohys didn’t wrest Michael from her, they saved him from possibly the same fate.

    Further along in your blog you write that. “The film uses Oher as an excuse to extol the virtues of the rich white folks…provides the vehicle for their redemption, the vessel through which they demonstrate their unique ability to rise above racial divisions.” Oh my goodness – white folks can be virtuous? What is this world coming to? I just don’t understand why people – who happen to be white – can perform acts of kindness and be ridiculed or denigrated! I agree about Leigh Anne’s “redemption” however, just not in the way that you perhaps intend. As the movie progresses and the relationship between Michael and the Tuohys deepens, Leigh Anne comes to realize just how privileged she and her family are. She sees life through a different set of eyes and, I think, tries to imagine what Michael must see when he looks at her family and how they relate to each other, and also when he looks at their home and how nicely they live. And to her credit, Leigh Anne doesn’t sit back on her gilded laurels and just enjoy her wealth; she works as well as takes care of her family in a much more involved way then many women do. For example, Collins Tuohy, Leigh Anne’s daughter, is a level nine gymnast and an award winning pole vaulter, was an exceptional student at Ole Miss (earning a bachelor’s degree and holding many offices), and is an accomplished pianist. I suggest that, although Collins must be a bright and energetic woman, her mother set a good example and encouraged her in her endeavors.

    I applaud Leigh Anne for her willingness to compromise her relationships with her “friends.” How many women in Leigh Anne’s position would be willing to risk her position in society for the sake of a veritable stranger? Hmm…would it have something to do with the cross around her neck?

  5. Ellen G says:

    PART 3 OF POST:

    In your attempt to demean the white people’s actions you insert a paragraph about the black African American community in Memphis helping Michael. I have done a bit of research myself, and have not come across any evidence of this. Perhaps you can share with your readers the particulars of this help? You suggest that Leigh Anne helped Michael because she stood to gain something (“plucked a winner out of the otherwise apparently worthless population of the projects” and “…a kid who’s worth saving because he might become a superstar.”). The Tuohys saw a child (admittedly a BIG child!) in need and that’s who they helped. Michael was not the NFL star that he is today; for all they knew he could have had two left feet, bad eyesight, and absolutely no coordination or athletic ability.

    Oh, and yes, “tolerance and acceptance” automatically lead to sanctimony, right? Sanctimony is defined as “Feigned piety or righteousness; hypocritical
    devoutness or high-mindedness.” (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/sanctimony) By all accounts, of those who know or who have met the real Leigh Anne Tuohy, she is anything but fake or hypocritical. Again, I suggest that your slant is more a product of your own prejudice than anything grounded in fact. I recommend that you examine your own question, not as it pertains to Sandra Bullock, but as it does to Leigh Anne Tuohy: “Why is it that even successful women rarely have a chance to enjoy their deserved accomplishments before they’re taken down, put back where American popular culture continues to think they belong?” Why can you not acknowledge that Leigh Anne accomplished something amazing and selfless? Why do you need to categorize her as hypocritical, shallow, and self-serving?

    That’s just wrong.

  6. Anonymous says:

    youre too kind to the blind side (and sandra bullock). it’s a bad movie with offensive patronizing politics masquerading as kindness and charity.

  7. Jill Dolan says:

    To Ellen G and Anonymous:

    Thanks for your comments.

    Ellen, I appreciate your long and thoughtful response to my post.

    Here’s the thing: I AM “biased.” I don’t pretend to be objective in these posts. I’m not trying to villainize white people in general or Leigh Anne Tuohy in particular. But I am trying to point out that THE BLIND SIDE trades in stereotypical, limiting cultural narratives.

    Put it this way: If THE BLIND SIDE were about an African American family who takes in a poor white teenager, would the film ever have been made?

    The arts and media encourage us to imagine some things and not others, by emphasizing again and again what kinds of relationships are possible within a very limited scope.

    I’m interested in expanding the realm of the possible, in trying to make visible new kinds of social relationships that might let us retire these shopworn stereotypes.

    Thanks for engaging. My best, jd

  8. Ellen,

    While I enjoyed “The Blind Side” a great deal, I found it somewhat problematic as well. My issue is not with the virtues portrayed by the Tuohy family and Leigh Anne in particlar (although the scene where she confronts the drug dealers stretches credibility), but rather with the fact that we learned so little about what was going on inside of Michael.

    You mentioned the fact that Michael had chosen to avoid drugs and gangs on his own, before the Tuohys ever meet him. The only scene where we learn anything about why is when, in response to a question Leigh Anne asks him, he answers that his mother used to tell him to close his eyes and imagine himself in another place when she was either lighting up or entertaining men. That’s a partial explanation, but doesn’t fully help us understand the incredible strength of character and kindness Michael had. I would like to have seen the story portray more of what made him the young man he was.

  9. Another thought about Michael’s explanation being insufficient. His closing his eyes and wishing he were somewhere else is comparable to Precious’ fantasizing: a coping mechanism to maintain one’s sanity in moments of trauma. But it doesn’t explain why or how that individual goes on to make good choices.

    Also, you could compare this movie to one about a black family taking in a neglected, abused white child: The Secret Life of Bees. Yet that movie doesn’t feel like a “savior tale” in the same way that “The Blind Side” does. I think this is because Lily, the young white girl played by Dakota Fanning, is given a real voice in “Secret Life”, so you come to understand how she is struggling and making her way in the world.

    This type of understanding of Michael is never provided. Remember the poem he wrote about feeling alien as a black kid in a white school? It’s presented only to show that he’s not stupid, but the content of the poem is never addressed.

  10. Susu says:

    I’ve been reading lot of horrible comments that are based solely on the issues surrounding the movie rather than the movie itself. I wasn’t excited to see this movie, I’m not interested in sports at all. The movie kept my attention though and well. It moved along quickly and pulled me into the story and left me feeling inspired. I wasn’t excited to see a blonde sandy bullock in a sports movie, I think that’s what might have turned me off the most, but she did really good job! It’s rare to see a movie where there’s a really strong lead female character. Whether you like Leigh Anne Touhy or not in the end, she is certainly entertaining and Sandra Bullock does a great job of bringing her onto the screen. The youngest son did an amazing job! So much talent in him. The character of Mike I think could have used a few more lines, even if he’s supposed to be shy and reserved. All the actors really did a great job though for the most part. No it’s not an epic Oscar winning film, although I wouldn’t be surprised if Bullock got nominated for something for her acting. It is NOT loaded with propaganda as the other reviews might suggest. It’s a light entertaining pick me up film that would be an excellent choice to bring the family to, most likely the reason why they released it over the Holidays.

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