Film Review: Bullock’s Blind Side is well-meaning but misses mark

Film: The Blind Side

Release: 2010

Director: John Lee Hancock

Starring: Sandra Bullock, Quinton Aaron, Kathy Bates

Reviewer: John Butler

Anyone with an interest in the USA – and largely thanks to Hollywood, that would be many of us – would probably agree that part of the fascination lies in the many paradoxes and contradictions inherent in this sprawling, dynamic nation. Not the least of these is the existence within the world’s largest economy of such evident disparity of wealth and circumstance. In so many American cities, there is literally a right and wrong side of the tracks; where affluence rudely abuts poverty, in ways that we don’t generally experience in good old Oz, despite our own widening income gaps.

So what’s this got to do with a feel good fable about a rich white family saving an underprivileged black youth? Especially one starring Sandra Bullock? I hope you’ll stay with me as I attempt to work my way through a film I feel raises many more questions than it attempts to answer.

Based on the Michael Lewis book, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, this film focuses on the real life story of Michael Oher (played by Quinton Aaron). Memphis -born, to a crack-addicted mother, “Big Mike” is one of twelve offspring scattered throughout the welfare system in presumably dire situations. At the urgings of the football coach, who sees the athletic potential of the enormous teenager, Mike gains a scholarship to Briarcrest Christian College.

He comes to the attention of Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock), a wealthy mother of two other Briarcrest pupils, SJ and Collins. From here, the film deals with Michael’s acceptance into the Tuohy family, his attempts to raise his academic standards, his development on the football field and his eventual pursuit by various college football programs. Also touched upon is the effect exposure to someone from such a different background has on the Tuohy family.

Director John Lee Hancock is attempting to tell a very humanist story here, concentrating on how the generous actions of the Tuohy family help Michael to rise above his traumatic upbringing and make a success of his life. The Michael Lewis book apparently contained a parallel story thread concerning the elevation in importance of the left tackle position in American football, but the film largely dispenses with this in its opening scene. I find as much interest in what this film leaves out, as what it does address.

The opening phase of this film is markedly different in tone and mood to what follows. As an introverted, largely uncommunicative Michael battles to adjust to an unfamiliar, all white environment, you could be mistaken for thinking you were viewing a dramatic story of one young man’s passage. Quinton Aaron has little dialogue in this early phase, but his expressive face quite eloquently conveys his character’s struggle for acceptance.

Once Leigh Anne (Sandra) enters the picture fully, she increasingly drives the story, and the film’s mood progressively lightens, with humour and sentiment ruling the day. Even if you were unaware of the real life Oher’s story, you will soon be left in little doubt things will work out for the best.

Racial themes are a regular part of the Hollywood palette, particularly in dealing with stories set in the South. Given the region’s history, this is predictable. But if I were a southerner, I might be a little tired of the emphasis racial issues get from the film industry. Is everything in the South really about race?

I would suggest the issues raised here are essentially those of economic class. How did the teenage Michael become subject to state responsibility, shuffle from one foster home to another, yet remain basically unschooled? Why are his siblings seemingly cast to the four winds? The Tuohys are generous in their intent and deed, but their ability to help Michael is a function of their economic advantage.

Mainstream American films rarely wander too deeply into analysis of economic or class division. Many Americans still hold dear the notion that anyone can make it, given the right attitude and character. It seems intrinsic to their view of the country. Hollywood does little to counter this belief.

Even if only implied, this has the effect of suggesting one’s personal station is in some way connected to character. If only all problems could be so easily categorised. Almost all the black characters in this film are drug dealers, users, or poorly motivated public servants. Without the benefit of white patronage, no black has an apparent out clause in this story. Is this really just a question of character? Education is obviously held up as the key to a better life, but access to better schooling is also related to income, at least in this film’s world.

The dramatic tension in the film’s sporting elements essentially revolve around how the protective, but basically passive, Michael adapts to the aggressive environment on the football field. You might think this raises some interesting ethical questions, but this really ain’t that sorta film honey! Instead, this is played for laughs.

Even the mercenary process by which prime recruits are pursued by hungry college programs is treated largely as a joke. Youngest son SJ fits firmly in the tradition of precocious child wheeler-dealers dating back to, at least, Danny from the Partridge Family, and we are meant to believe that keeping him happy could be a deal breaker. Only late in the story are any elements which may point to other possible agendas given some air.

OK, OK, I could well be accused of not buying into the spirit of this film. I certainly wouldn’t accuse it of not having its heart in the right place, and it’s obviously designed to appeal to a wide audience, so playing it safe is the name of that game. And hey, when was the last time a Sandra Bullock movie provoked much analysis? I’m just intrigued by some of the underlying assumptions.

Aside from being a surprise commercial hit, much of the buzz factor with this film has concerned la Bullock’s Oscar nomination for Best Actress. She does maintain a balance in portraying a character who could easily seem overbearing. But I’m not really convinced this performance is that much of an extension on other Bullock screen personas. However, it is definitely intended to appeal, and given the many and various considerations that come into play at Oscar time, it will be instructive to see how she fares.

The real life tale of Michael Oher and the Tuohy family is undoubtedly heart warming, and this film intends it no harm. There’s definitely a tear to be shed here, if that suits your inclination. But personally, the film left me thinking I might want to track down the book.

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Livable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has been a Carlton member for more than 30 years.

Comments

  1. Richard Naco says:

    Race really is a big deal in the South. There are large numbers of people, from both sides of the political divide, who are quite adamant that the Civil War is still being fought, especially in regards to equality.

    I was friends once with one of the greatest American imports in NBL history, and in a naive (and probably, alcohol induced) moment of whimsy, I put to him the proposition that it will be a great day when the stain of racism was finally expunged from the South. He laughed softly & shook his head. “It’ll never happen, man”, he said.

    “Your poor white trash living in the deep South: inbred, uneducated, living in shacks made of corragated iron & whatever they can stick together or in the worst sort of city slums, and doing the most degrading menial jobs (if any): that sort of person can still face up to life by thinking ‘At least I ain’t no nigga’. It doesn’t matter how intelligent, educated or accomplished an African American may be, those po’ white folks in their utter degradation still see themselves as being superior, if only be dint of their skin colour.”

    “So they will cling to their racism forever because regardless of how illogical it may be, it is the only shred of self respect that they’ve got.”

    My mate was African American.

  2. John Butler says:

    Richard

    My time in the South was fairly limited, and only the wilfully blind would deny race is a factor there, but I still think it’s overplayed. Hollywood loves a cliché, and when it comes to a Southern theme, race is the easy one to dial up.

    If you scratch the surface on many supposedly race-based issues, wherever they may be, I reckon you find a core of economic insecurity.

  3. I can highly recommend the book. As you mention, there are a couple of parallel stories including the explanation about the left tackle position and how the players in that position went from the lowest to the highest paid in the team – in some cases more than the quarterbacks. This was fascinating as I had no idea about the dynamics of American football. Another thread was about the US College sport system which again I found interesting because its so different to what’s done in Australia.
    So the book was as much about the US sports system as it was about the feel-good story of Michael Oher.

    Another of Michael Lewis’ books, Moneyball was a similar behind the scenes look at recruiting in baseball.

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