The White Savior Strikes Again!
Sandra Bullock stars as Leigh Anne Touhy in John Lee Hancock's The Blind Side. She plays a no-nonsense good Christian Southern woman of substantial means who brings in an inner-city Memphis kid into her home, tutors and coaches him, and converts him into a star high-school football player. Along the way, she learns a valuable lesson about how awesome she is; about how welcoming and non-judgmental her loving family is; and about how huge 300-pound black teenagers with violent pasts are really just golden-hearted teddy bears in oversized polo shirts. They make great friends for precocious grad-school sons and fantastic study partners for blandly attractive teenage daughters. In the end, this movie expects all us white folks to leave the theater with our swolled-up hearts aching to find our own African-American orphan to turn into the next weak-side linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens.
I wish I were being more sarcastic, but that's the mostly earnest truth about The Blind Side, the sanitized true story of Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron). It really is uplifting and inspirational, infinitely watchable, and pleasantly entertaining. It's well-constructed, decently plotted, and though the performances aren't going to garner any Oscar attention (no matter what the movie critic at WXAP, the Charlotte NBC affiliate, says), they were more than adequate (notwithstanding Bullock's poor impersonation of Connie Britton). There's barely a character in The Blind Side who isn't well-intentioned and endearing. Even Oher's crack-head mom is just a poor soul who lost her way, and could really use some comforting from a benevolent white woman.
Indeed, The Blind Side is a sweet, spirit-raising, life-affirming touchy-feely film that doesn't get bogged down in too many sports-movie cliches (it's barely even a sports movie). And though there are plenty of platitudes throughout, they're Southern in nature, and you can get away with saying a lot if you do so in a honeyed Southern accent, even one as affected as Sandra Bullock's. Quinton Aaron is almost perfect in his role, too -- he's non-menacing, quiet and gregarious, the better not to unsettle any white folk in the audience. Moreover, The Blind Side manages to deliver an emotional wallop with almost no conflict, save for a brief investigation into whether the Touhy family brought Oher into their home with the intention of recruiting him for their alma mater, running afoul of NCAA rules.
But what nags at me about The Blind Side is that -- beneath the molasses-coated, Disneyfied storyline -- there's a true story here that's far more worth telling. Hancock could've stripped out the manufactured drama and used the real-life drama in its place with much better results. In real life, Oher's father was murdered, his mother was on crack, and Michael was bounced around foster homes for years before the Touhys brought him in. He had a spectacularly hard life, and I'm guessing the transition into an upper-class white family wasn't as seamless as it appears on film. Indeed, the real story of Michael Oher (which you can read here) is pretty awesome. Unfortunately, as is typical of big-budget studio efforts, it gets literally white-washed in favor of another take from the "Dangerous Minds" playbook, here with a wealthy gun-toting Southern Belle willing to help out a homeless black kid, going so far as to embrace him, as though interracial hugging, in and of itself, is cause for celebration in a post-Obama world.
Unfortunately, The Blind Side minimizes Michael Oher's actual struggle, by turning his story into a vehicle for celebrating the great white family who "saved" him. Whatever efforts the Touhys may have contributed to bringing Oher out from his impoverished upbringing are commendable, obviously. But The Blind Side is less a movie about Michael Oher, as it is about Lee Ann Touhy, who is never characterized as anything other than an altruistic lady doing her Christian duty. Everything in The Blind Side is so seamless and upbeat that it seems way too good to be true, which is a shame, since the real story of Michael Oher is even better.