On Thanksgiving evening I went with members of my extended family to see the recently released movie “The Blind Side” starring Sandra Bullock. Based on the book by the same title, “The Blind Side tells the story of Baltimore Ravens left tackle, Michael Oher. Oher was a nearly illiterate 16 year old who was allowed to enroll in Wingate Christian Academy outside of Memphis, TN through the advocacy of a friend despite having very low test scores and a nearly non-existent grade point average.
The son of an absent father and a drug addict mother, Michael is a virtual orphan trying to make it on is own. Then one evening he is picked up by wealthy socialite Leigh Ann Tuohy (played by Bullock) who brings him into her family, provides him a home, gets him a tutor, advocates for him with his teachers and against his former gang banger friends, and even shows him how to play left tackle on his high school football team. Michael who is 6’4”, 390 pounds is physically a natural football player; he just needs to learn how to block, which Leigh Ann shows him. Michael ends up graduating from high school, getting a scholarship to Ole Miss, graduates from college on the Dean’s list, and gets picked up in the first round of the NFL draft by the Baltimore Ravens, where he now is a starting left tackle. And, oh did I say that Michael was black, and Leigh Ann is white.
On the surface of it, assuming that the movie was essentially true, it is a wonderful, tear-inducing, good feel story of how well meaning people can make a difference in someone else’s life, and how even someone from a broken home can go on to success.
Yet I came out of the movie feeling uneasy about the larger message this movie was sending. Without necessarily meaning to, “The Blind Side” reinforces all the stereotypes that obfuscate the issues of race and class in our culture. All the good and well meaning people in the story(Michael’s teachers, the Tuohy family, & the football coach) are white, and all the negative influences and people in need (Michael, his drug addicted mother, & his good-for-nothing friends back in the projects) are black. The only stereotype that the movie does not reinforce is the Southern racist stereotype; Leigh Ann Tuohy and her family are open, committed, caring and helpful to the end.
Now for all I know the facts support the story being told the way it was: Wealthy white woman saves poor black kid from certain destruction. I just got wondering about the other sides of the story that were not only overlooked, but for the most part did not even get an honorable mention.
For instance, what if the story was told from Michael’s point of view, rather than Leigh Ann’s? What did it take for a 16 year old boy to keep trying despite the negative influences all around him? How did a kid with a drug addicted mother get such strong values of caring for one’s own (maybe his mother was an addict, but she had values too.)? What was it like to walk into an all white school and have folks look at you, whisper behind your back, but not talk to your face? What was it like to know that people look at you either in fear or disgust, and yet pursue your goal? What was it like to be taken in by this strong willed, white woman and her family and certainly be loved, but also be seen as a charity project?
Or what about telling the fuller story of the change that had to overtake the Tuohy family? What was it like to be the beneficiaries of the plantation mentality of the South and yet take a black young man into your home? What were the fears and the questions they had? What was it like to have your white friends question your sanity and call you “nigger lover”, as they certainly were? How did the kids manage the ambivalence of wanting to be accepted by their peers, but listening to the values lived out by their Christian mother? What was it like to go against the grain of the Southern aristocratic worldview that had been handed down for generations and contend with the feelings of confusion, fear and doubt?
Or what about raising a question as to how the all white, upper class Christian school got its start? Did it start in the 1950’s and 1960’s when throughout the South public schools were ordered to de-segregate, and so private schools, many of them “Christian,” were started so that wealthier white kids did not have to go to schools with Black kids? In the years since, had Wingate Christian school sought to shed its elitist, separatist image or had it continued to be a vehicle for keeping the Christian haves from the poorer, darker have-nots? How could Wingate be a Christian school and yet still be such an essential contributor to the separatist, elitist fabric of Memphis society?
Or, what about asking the question, why were the white folks living in the mansion (just like the “big house” on the plantation) and all the black folks were living in the projects? Why despite desegregation, affirmative action, and various efforts at bringing equity, is there a greater economic disparity between blacks and whites today than in the 1970’s? Why do public schools that teach poor children tend to be underfunded, thus under-resourced and under staffed, and so a kid like Michael Oher is promoted from grade to grade even though he can barely read? Why not ask how Michael learned how to learn by listening rather than by reading and writing, and thus was not uneducated, but just able to take a written test? Why not ask how public education seems to reinforce the disparate status quo rather than really help students succeed when thy come from schools in poor neighborhoods?
Or perhaps we might ask why this story was made into a movie in the first place, instead of a movie where black folks help each other? Why not tell the story of John Lucas, a basketball star who got caught in drugs, got himself together and now helps athletes who struggle with similar problems? Why not tell the story of Tony Dungy, former NFL player and coach, who routinely mentors young men? What about telling countless stories of families, white and black, who are poor and yet sacrifice so their kids can succeed and go to college? What is it about the “market” of the movie business that needs to tell this story, a story that essentially reinforces the inequities and disparities in our society as long as there a few Leigh Ann Tuohy’s to keep us honest and remind us to be charitable?
Now perhaps I am making too much of a simple movie. As one person said to me, “Can’t you just take for being a good story?” Nope, I can’t because there are too many other messages a movie like “The Blind Side” sends, which make working for social and racial justice that much more difficult. It reinforces the personal attitudes and the social policies that make Michael Oher’s situation all too common, and the outcome of this story all too rare. It’s not that the story that “The Blind Side” tells is wrong; it is just that there other sides to the story that are not even acknowledged, and which also must be recognized and must be heard.