Another poor, massive, uneducated African-American teenager lumbers onto screens this month, two weeks after Precious and obviously timed as a pre–Thanksgiving dinner lesson in the Golden Rule. But unlike the howling rage of Claireece Precious Jones, The Blind Side’s Michael “Big Mike” Oher (Quinton Aaron) is mute, docile and ever-grateful to the white folks who took him in. Directed by John Lee Hancock and based on a true story recounted in Michael Lewis’ 2006 book of the same name, The Blind Side peddles the most insidious kind of racism, one in which whiteys are virtuous saviors, coming to the rescue of African-Americans who become superfluous in narratives that are supposed to be about them.
The steel Magnolia who takes pity on homeless Big Mike after she sees him walking in the freezing rain in just a polo shirt and XXX-large denim shorts is Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock), a frosted interior decorator, wife of Taco Bell franchise owner Sean (Tim McGraw), and mother of teenage cheerleader Collins (Lily Collins) and hyper half-pint S.J. (Jae Head, giving the year’s most excruciatingly muggy performance by a child actor), who attend the same Christian academy that recently accepted the mountainous youth. An officious caretaker, Leigh Anne clears out the guest bedroom for Michael, earning the nervous praise of the Tennessee doyennes with whom she regularly lunches. Though they applaud their friend’s altruism, they’re convinced Leigh Anne’s new charge will either rob her Memphis McMansion or violate her daughter: “You’re changing that boy’s life,” one applauds. Her response, of course: “No. He’s changing mine.”
In a way, Oher’s story does change Bullock’s life, giving her an awards-bait role filled with preachiness and thickly accented speech — “seriousness,” after this year’s romcom humiliations The Proposal and All About Steve. But for all the supposed uplift, Bullock’s facile Good Christian Materialist Southern Woman is part of The Blind Side’s desperate cynicism, succinctly expressed in Sean’s comment to his wife: “Michael’s gift is his ability to forget.”
Viewers, however, are constantly reminded of the pathologies the black gentle giant has escaped: the crack-addicted mother (“I can’t even remember who the boy’s father is,” she weeps to Leigh Anne), the thugs of the country-ghetto housing project who offer him a 40-ouncer. Life with benevolent white people gives Michael the golden opportunity to partake in one of the most patronizing, we-are-the-world scenes imaginable: dueting with S.J. on “Bust a Move.” S.J. becomes an unbearable martinet, bossing Michael around during drills for football practice, where the large lad shines as a left tackle at the Christian academy, eventually drafted to Ole Miss (and, as real-life footage of the actual Oher shows during the closing credits, later to the Baltimore Ravens). But Michael is unable to figure out what he actually needs to do on the field — until his white momma explains it to him: “This team is your family. You protect them.”
In every scene, Oher is instructed, lectured, comforted, or petted like a big puppy; he is merely a cipher (Aaron has, at most, two pages of dialogue), the vehicle through which the kindhearted but imperfect whites surrounding him are made saintlier. “Am I a good person?” Leigh Anne asks Sean nonrhetorically — as if every second in this film weren’t devoted to canonizing her.
Michael is aggressively courted by SEC football coaches (many playing themselves, an unintentionally grotesque parade of bad orthodonture and worse-fitting suits), and, after an unpleasant run-in with an NCAA official toward the film’s end, Leigh Anne soothes Michael by assuring him that “the past is gone, the world’s a good place, and it’s all gonna be okay.” The filmmakers would like to lull you to sleep with this milk of amnesia, hiding behind the fact that this bewilderingly condescending movie is based on an actual person — one whom you end up knowing almost nothing about.
THE BLIND SIDE | Directed by JOHN LEE HANCOCK | Written by HANCOCK, based on the book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by MICHAEL LEWIS | Produced by GIL NETTER, ANDREW A. KOSOVE and BRODERICK JOHNSON | Warner Bros. | Citywide