The Blind Side
Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, Kathy Bates, Quinton Aaron
US theatrical: 20 Nov 2009 (General release)
Michael’s gift is his ability to forget.
—Sean (Tim McGraw)
The Blind Side, the movie, opens much like The Blind Side, the book—with that excruciating and infamous moment when Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann’s leg snapped on TV. Both remember the event as transformational—for Theismann, whose career ended then, and for football, which had to accommodate new possibilities. The sacking of Theismann by Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor, Michael Lewis writes, “led to a queasy tilting of finances on the NFL’s line of scrimmage.” That is, blind side tackles were suddenly valuable investments. It’s predictable that the play’s most lasting effect has to do with money: everything in the NFL has to do with money. It’s a little less predictable that the play has also yielded the latest Sandra Bullock movie.
How this story about a football player named Michael Oher (currently with the Ravens) turned into a story about a white lady also has to do with money, the NFL’s, again, as well as movie money. While Lewis’ book uses Oher’s remarkable story (a homeless black kid/gifted athlete adopted by a white family) to look at how football works—as a sport and business—the movie is overtly focused on the uplift angle. It’s an ingenious (if cynical) calculation, combining white largesse and black abjection so that everyone can seem educated and improved by the interaction.
To this end, the movie uses all manner of clichés. These include the inevitable “chance” meeting on a cold night between Leigh Anne Tuohy (Bullock) and Michael (Quinton Aaron), at which point she brings him home, as well as her display of sympathy for Michael’s fidgety drug addict mom Denise (Adriane Lenox). The film also resorts to an excruciating montage in which Leigh Anne’s adorable son SJ (Jae Head) trains Michael (running up stairs, doing push-ups), and the Big Game when the high school’s Coach Cotton (Ray McKinnon) sees at last Michael’s brilliance. (So you don’t feel too badly about the opponent who is based again and again, he goads Michael with all manner of racist and bullying taunts.) The pile-on of these soaring emotional moments, accompanied by soaring music, is overwhelming. This is a movie demanding to be loved.
Michael’s integration happens quickly, which is not to say it’s painless. For a few minutes before he meets Leigh Anne, the boy is enrolled at a Christian academy in Memphis (essentially at the behest of Cotton, who wants him for the team). He appears in a sea of small Caucasians, the camera pointed up to emphasize his humungousness. In class, he’s silent and polite, and his teachers worry. What’s he thinking, anyway? They get a gander when Mrs. Boswell (Kim Dickens) reads his essay for a group in the teachers’ lounge: “I see white everywhere. The teachers do not know that I have no idea of anything they’re talking about. I go to the bathroom, I look in the mirror and say, ‘This is not me.’” She pauses pregnantly, then concludes, “He entitled it, ‘White Walls.’” Yes, the teachers all look sheepish. And yes, they all participate in a montage of “helping Michael learn,” in hallways and classrooms, their red grades marked on his papers in close-ups.
Still, he needs a place to sleep. Enter Leigh Anne, a local interior designer married to a Taco Bell franchise owner, Sean (Tim McGraw). Though her lady friends at the club disapprove, she brings Michael into her home, gives him a bedroom and takes him shopping for clothes (“If you don’t love it in the store, you won’t wear it”), and takes a brief moment to worry that her cheerleader daughter might feel uncomfortable with a large black boy under the same roof. Sean mostly observes all this, affirming his wife’s decisions: “I’ve seen that look many times,” he says. “She’s about to get her way.”
When Coach Cotton complains that Michael isn’t aggressive enough playing football, Leigh Anne takes charge of that too. On hearing that he’s scored 98% on some test for “protective instincts,” she walks out on the practice field—the watching-her-walk shot emphasizing her high heels and tight skirt—and instructs him to protect his scrawny quarterback like he’s “family.” Voila! A star offensive left tackle is born.
The film does note a wrinkle en route to the happy ending, when the Tuohys’ enthusiasm for Ole Miss (and Leigh Anne’s special detestation for Tennessee) seem to lead Michael to make a college choice based on money, namely their donations over the years and his scholarship. When the NCAA investigator suggests as much to Michael, he’s horrified and suddenly doubts his adoptive parents, thinking they might have planned to pick him up off the street and train him up for their team, in order to fulfill their own selfish needs. It’s quite a spin-around, and he acts it out as only a confused black boy can, by heading back to the project and re-affiliating with the drug dealers and gang-bangers who live there.
This shadowy and hectic scene takes even less screen time than the SJ-training montage, but it’s an awfully tedious bit of narrative and thematic punctuation: look where this black boy would have been if he hadn’t met the white lady on the road that night! As much as Leigh Anne so sincerely insists that she’s the one whose life has been changed by their relationship, the movie underlines the more banal point. She’s rescued him. Don’t forget it.