Contemptible people often mean well. I thought this while watching The Blind Side—not just about the film’s characters, but about both the filmmakers and the film’s target audience. The movie tells the true story of Michael “Big Mike” Oher (Quinton Aron), an overweight black teen plucked from the Mississippi projects into a Catholic prep school to become a football star. An early scene of the coach watching Oher on a basketball court, mouth agog, is followed by the coach telling the school’s admissions board that it’s their duty to give downtrodden kids like Oher a chance (otherwise, he says, they might as well take the word “Christian” right out of the school’s name). Yet the youth eventually excels as a left tackle, and at film’s end he’s going on to star at Ole Miss; indeed, a major reason for the movie’s existence is that Oher now plays for the Baltimore Ravens. For all the huff and guff about escaping the projects and getting his grades up, the movie’s most invested in the kid when he literally kicks ass.
Blind Side presents Michael as a sad-eyed suckling dove off the field, and for the first hour or so he barely speaks at all. The movie isn’t even his story, really, but rather that of his wealthy eventual adopted mother’s, Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock). Her decision to take him home kicks the plot into motion; her choices to buy him clothes and a bed fuel the first act; her teaching him how to play football creates the second act; and first her legally adopting him, then her convincing him to attend her alma mater, propel the third. “Is this some sort of white guilt thing?” one of Leigh Anne’s lunch friends asks, the woman’s vapidity emphasized with an $18 salad. Leigh Anne flatly says no. “Honey, you’re changing that boy’s life,” another friend tells her. “No,” Leigh Anne responds, “He’s changing mine.”
Even more amazing than the fact that we never see Michael talk to any schoolmates besides the Tuohy children is his seemingly total lack of agency. There’s no scene of him choosing to go to the prep school, nor to play football. White adults continually choose for him, he smiling happily, and the film celebrates each step forward with the languid strings and one-note-at-a-time piano progression of one of Carter Burwell’s most insipid scores. In the last half-hour, characters start realizing they never asked Michael what he wanted, but the movie’s also been blind to it; and when they finally do ask him what he wants, he says that he wants what his new family wants for him.
The movie’s manipulation is loathsome, but the whole thing is so skillful—the schematic structure, its calculatedly competent performances and appealing visuals, the commitment to overcoming adversity—that you may just weep. Then again, as a privileged (guilty) white person, the movie speaks directly to me. Blind Side contrasts the snowflake suburbanites pushing Michael to succeed with the black drug addicts and gun-toters trying to derail him; one could say that this is a class divide rather than a race divide, until the black NCAA witch rides in toward the end. Like Precious, a film in which the nicer black characters have lighter skin tones, Blind Side argues that black people have to rise above their skin color to succeed. By focusing on ignorant, obese, near-mutes, both movies also suggest that good black people are helpless, and need the white world to speak for them. The ultimate NFL destination renders the whole thing benevolently sadistic: A white community first removes Michael from other black people, then trains him to beat them up on the field. The mostly white crowd with which I saw Blind Side, though, applauded this result. The movie’s title refers to the area of a football field that the left tackle protects, but it could easily refer to an audience unaware of its prejudices.