On The Blind Side, and White Paternalism

“Courage is a hard thing to figure. You can have courage based on a dumb idea or mistake, but you’re not supposed to question adults, or your coach or your teacher, because they make the rules. Maybe they know best, but maybe they don’t. It all depends on who you are, where you come from. Didn’t at least one of the six hundred guys think about giving up, and joining with the other side? I mean, valley of death that’s pretty salty stuff. That’s why courage it’s tricky. Should you always do what others tell you to do? Sometimes you might not even know why you’re doing something. I mean any fool can have courage. But honor, that’s the real reason for you either do something or you don’t. It’s who you are and maybe who you want to be. If you die trying for something important, then you have both honor and courage, and that’s pretty good. I think that’s what the writer was saying, that you should hope for courage and try for honor. And maybe even pray that the people telling you what to do have some, too.”

I have to be honest, I remember the first time my family saw The Blind Side. My mother got all teared up, which was not unusual for her with these types of movies, and talked about how such a “sweet” film it was. It’s really about how great white people [think they] are, by teaching a misguided black man how to live his own life. It’s a tired Hollywood type of film. According to Spectrum Magazine‘s article, “Hollywood’s White Savior Complex“:

In his “The Progressive Corner’s Blog” African American History Professor Ibram H. Rogers blasts the new Hollywood release The Blind Side – a true story of Michael Oher, a homeless African-American who is taken in by a well-to-do white family that helps him fulfill his potential: “the plot is old, just like many of the other White Savior Flicks. A Black person is doing nothing with his life, virtually homeless, with no past and no future, and then all of a sudden, a perfect, prosperous and humane White family appears… and they change his life. Whiteness saving Blackness—vividly depicted in this film.”

Rogers’ problem isn’t with the portrayal of an isolated case of generosity but more with Hollywood’s history of being “a major purveyor of White paternalism in this country. The vast majority of the stories about racial situations always have to be some central White character saving Black people…”

And it’s not just Rogers who is upset. Complex.com finds enough inspiration from The Blind Side to chronicle The Great White Hope: A History of Subtly Racist Sports Movies. It turns out this infraction is the latest in a whole slew of testosterone-flavored prejudice ranging from Keanu Reeve’s coaching troubled black children in Hardball, to Ed Harris helping a mentally handicapped black boy find his inner greatness in Radio, to Cool Runnings where a rotund John Candy saves the day by coaching the Jamaican bobsled team to Olympic fame.

And the white man does not only save the day in sports. Regrettablesincerity.com’s The White Man’s Here. Who Needs Some Assimilation? attacks Clint Eastwood’s record of being a “condescending dolt”. Gran Torino is very much about saving immigrants from their own behavior, under the aegis of a pure (white), stern (strong-willed) heterosexual (masculine).” To Kill a Mockingbird, The Constant Gardner, Mississippi Burning, Ghosts of Mississippi are all listed as other examples of Hollywood’s white man or woman coming to the rescue.

That is just no good, but there is worse, such as The A.V. Club review:

Sports movies have a long, troubled history of well-meaning white paternalism, with poor black athletes finding success through white charity. But The Blind Side, based on Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book, finds a new low. In the character of “Big Mike” (real life success story Michael Oher, played by Quinton Aaron), a poor, undereducated teenager later groomed into a top-tier offensive lineman, the film suggests a gentle, oversized puppy in need of adoption. (The family that takes him in literally picks him up from the streets during a rainstorm, like a stray. All that’s missing are the children pleading, “Mom, can we keep him?”) Given his background and 0.6 GPA, there’s no question that Oher was well behind his peers, but casting him as a big-hearted simpleton makes him seem subhuman, more mascot than man.

Lewis’ book heads down two narrative tracks. One concerns the increased importance of the left tackle position in football to protect the “blind side” of right-handed quarterbacks; the other follows Oher, a former all-American Ole Miss left tackle and current Baltimore Ravens rookie, who was rescued from terrible poverty and put through a private Christian high school in Tennessee. Save for a prologue that forces viewers to relive the gruesome Joe Theismann injury from multiple angles, the film understandably discards the former thread in favor of the personal story. Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw star as the Tuohys, a wealthy couple who offer Oher a nice home, a tutor (Kathy Bates) to raise his grades, and a controversial pipeline to their alma mater, should his success on the field match his immense potential.

The Blind Side paints Bullock’s Leigh Anne Tuohy as a tough-as-nails Southern belle who acts as Oher’s left tackle in life, shielding him from the racist whisperings of the country-club set and a dim high-school coach who doesn’t know how to communicate with him. (Aaron’s Oher looks lost on the field until she asks him to imagine the quarterback and running back as family members to protect from harm. As if anyone’s that dim.) There’s real ambiguity in the Oher case, but writer-director John Lee Hancock papers over it; it’s possible to see the Tuohys as generous, caring people without brushing off their less-altruistic reasons for sponsoring Oher. But true to a movie with a regrettably old-fashioned view of race relations, it’s all much simpler than common sense dictates.

According to the Racism Review blog:

As Mark Blankenship notes, the movie is based on a true story. A rich white family really did adopt Michael Oher, a homeless black teenager, and eventually, he became an NFL star. In the real world, that’s very moving. In parts, I found the story compelling. It is sometimes the reality that white families adopt and raise, even “save,” black children from sometimes dire conditions. While I’m well-aware of the vehement critique of this practice by the National Association of Black Social Workers (and others), that’s still a story that I’m interested in knowing more about in its particulars, as Coates would have it, “getting at all those beautiful and ugly elements.” For example, how does a white mother raising a black son teach her son to deal with racism?  How does she confront her own racism in that copmlex mother-son relationship? And, given that this story is set in an affluent, Southern, Christian, all-white community, I wanted to know the particulars of how this boy became a man in this world.

There was one scene in the movie that almost tapped this rich potential for storytelling, and it was when Sandra Bullock’s character, Leigh Anne Touhy, confronts her ladies-who-lunch friends about their own racism in their comments about her newly-adopted son. She stops them cold and says to them, “Shame on you.”  It’s a remarkable filmic moment in many ways. First, it clearly depicts whites  – in this case, white women – engaging in the kind of back stage behavior we’ve talked about so often here on the blog. It’s rare to see the whites talking about race in explicit ways portrayed in a film.  Bullock’s confrontation of them is refreshing, too, but it’s underplayed and comes out of nowhere for her character. We know nothing about how her character has dealt with her own internalized racism – or, even if she has – to get to the point of confronting her lunch-friends. Is she conflicted? Has she always wanted to confront them about their racism? Or, does she secretly agree with them, but just prefer them to engage in the “polite silence” around matters of race that has come to prevail in many social settings? Does she continue to be friends with these women? Does she lose their friendship because of this confrontation? If so, is that painful? And how does that pain factor into her feelings about her son?

We will never know. This is not a film with much nuance (the predominant metaphor is about football). While it’s a moment worth noting in the film, (I can even see using the clip of that lunch-table confrontation to foster discussion in a class or workshop), the moment is a lost opportunity for anything more multifaceted, or artful even, about transracial adoption, about race, or about the journey away from individual racism. All of which is too bad, because that’s a film I’d really like to see.

And finally, the Bitch Flicks review indicates, (thankfully) taking this film to task (purposely included pictures, folks):

The movie chronicles the major events in the life of a black NFL player named Michael Oher from the time he meets the rich white family who adopts him to the time that white family sees him drafted into the NFL, a series of events that apparently proves that racism is either over or OK (I’m not sure which), with a ton of southern football bullshit along the way. Bullock plays Leigh Anne Tuohy, the wife of a dude named Sean Tuohy, played by — no shit — Tim McGraw, who is a fairly minor character in the movie despite the fact that he is said to own, like, 90 Taco Bell franchises. The story is that Oher, played by Quinton Aaron, is admitted into a fancy-pants private Christian school despite his lack of legitimate academic records due to the insistence of the school’s football coach and the altruism of the school’s teachers (as if, dude), where he comes into contact with the Tuohy family, who begin to notice that he is sleeping in the school gym and subsisting on popcorn. Ms. Tuohy then invites him to live in the zillion-dollar Memphis Tuophy family compound, encourages him to become the best defensive linebacker he can be by means of cornball familial love metaphors, and teaches him about the nuclear family and the SEC before beaming proudly as he’s drafted by the Baltimore Ravens.

The Tuohy family prays over mounds of food

I’m sure that the Tuohy family are lovely people and that they deserve some kind of medal for their good deeds, but if I were a judge, I wouldn’t toss them out of my courtroom should they arrive there bringing a libel suit against whoever wrote, produced, and directed The Blind Side, because it’s handily the dumbest, most racist, most intellectually and politically insulting movie I’ve ever seen, and it makes the Tuohy family — especially their young son S.J. — look like unfathomable assholes. Well, really, it makes all of the white people in the South look like unfathomable assholes. Like these people need any more bad publicity.

Quentin Aaron puts in a pretty awesome performance, if what the director asked him to do was look as pitiful as possible at every moment in order not to scare anyone by being black. Whether that was the goal or not, he certainly did elicit pity from me when Sandra Bullock showed him his new bed and he knitted his brows and, looking at the bed in awe, said, “I’ve never had one of these before.” I mean, the poor bastard had been duped into participating in the creation of a movie that attempts to make bigoted southerners feel good about themselves by telling them that they needn’t worry about poverty or racism because any black person who deserves help will be adopted by a rich family that will provide them with the means to a lucrative NFL contract. Every interaction Aaron and Bullock (or Aaron and anyone else, for that matter) have in the movie is characterized by Aaron’s wretched obsequiousness and the feeling that you’re being bludgeoned over the head with the message that you needn’t fear this black guy. It’s the least dignified role for a black actor since Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s portrayal of James Robert Kennedy in Radio (a movie Davetavius claims ought to have the subtitle “It’s OK to be black in the South as long as you’re retarded.”). The producers, writers, and director of this movie have managed to tell a story about class, race, and the failures of capitalism and “democratic” politics to ameliorate the conditions poor people of color have to deal with by any means other than sports while scrupulously avoiding analyzing any of those issues and while making it possible for the audience to walk out of the theater with their selfish, privileged, entitled worldviews intact, unscathed, and soundly reconfirmed.

Kathy Bates wants to fist bump Michael Oher in The Blind Side

Then there’s all of the southern bullshit, foremost of which is the football element. The producers of the movie purposely made time for cameos by about fifteen SEC football coaches in order to ensure that everyone south of the Mason-Dixon line would drop their $9 in the pot, and the positive representation of football culture in the film is second in phoniness only to the TV version of Friday Night Lights. Actually, fuck that. It’s worse. Let’s be serious. If this kid had showed no aptitude for football, is there any way in hell he’d have been admitted to a private school without the preparation he’d need to succeed there or any money? In the film, the teachers at the school generously give of their private time to tutor Oher and help prepare him to attend classes with the other students. I’ll bet you $12 that shit did not occur in real life. In fact, I know it didn’t. The Tuohy family may or may not have cared whether the kid could play football, but the school certainly did. It is, after all, a southern school, and high school football is a bigger deal in the South than weed is at Bonnaroo.

But what would have happened to Oher outside of school had he sucked at football and hence been useless to white southerners? What’s the remedy for poverty if you’re a black woman? A dude with no pigskin skills? Where are the nacho magnates to adopt those black people? I mean, that’s the solution for everything, right? For all black people to be adopted by rich, paternalistic white people? I know this may come as a shock to some white people out there, but the NFL cannot accommodate every black dude in America, and hence is an imperfect solution to social inequality. I know we have the NBA too, but I still see a problem. But the Blind Side fan already has an answer for me. You see, there is a scene in the movie which illustrates that only some black people deserve to be adopted by wealthy white women. Bullock, when out looking for Oher, finds herself confronted with a black guy who not only isn’t very good at appearing pitiful in order to make her comfortable, but who has an attitude and threatens to shoot Oher if he sees him. What ensues is quite possibly the most loathsome scene in movie history in which Sandra Bullock gets in the guy’s face, rattles off the specs of the gun she carries in her purse, and announces that she’s a member of the NRA and will shoot his ass if he comes anywhere near her family, “bitch.” Best Actress Oscar.

Sandra Bullock braves the Black Neighborhood

Well, there it is. Now you see why this movie made 19 kajillion dollars and won an Oscar: it tells a heartwarming tale of white benevolence, assures the red state dweller that his theory that “there’s black people, and then there’s niggers” is right on, and affords him the chance to vicariously remind a black guy who’s boss through the person of America’s sweetheart. Just fucking revolting.

There are several other cringe-inducing elements in the film. The precocious, cutesy antics of the family’s little son, S.J., for example. He’s constantly making dumb-ass smart-ass comments, cloyingly hip-hopping out with Oher to the tune of  Young M.C.’s “Bust a Move” (a song that has been overplayed and passe for ten years but has now joined “Ice Ice Baby” at the top of the list of songs from junior high that I never want to hear again), and generally trying to be a much more asshole-ish version of Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone. At what point will screenwriters realize that everyone wants to punch pint-sized snarky movie characters in the throat? And when will I feel safe watching a movie in the knowledge that I won’t have to endure a scene in which a white dork or cartoon character “raises the roof” and affects a buffalo stance while mouthing a sanitized rap song that even John Ashcroft knows the words to?

Sandra Bullock reads a story to her child son and Michael Oher

And then there’s the scene in which Tim McGraw, upon meeting his adopted son’s tutor (played by Kathy Bates) and finding out she’s a Democrat, says, “Who would’ve thought I’d have a black son before I met a Democrat?” Who would have thought I’d ever hear a “joke” that was less funny and more retch-inducing than Bill Engvall’s material?

What was the intended message of this film? It won an Oscar, so I know it had to have a message, but what could it have been? I’ve got it (a suggestion from Davetavius)! The message is this: don’t buy more than one Taco Bell franchise or you’ll have to adopt a black guy. I’ll accept that that’s the intended message of the film, because if  the actual message that came across in the movie was intentional, I may have to hide in the house for the rest of my life.

I just don’t even know what to say about this movie. Watching it may well have been one of the most demoralizing, discouraging experiences of my life, and it removed at least 35% of the hope I’d previously had that this country had any hope of ever being anything but a cultural and social embarrassment. Do yourself a favor. Skip it and watch Welcome to the Dollhouse again.

So, why are white people in film often depicted like saviors, like in this movie? I would say, Jesus. According to The Atlantic article, “Insisting Jesus Was White Is Bad History and Bad Theology“:

Fox News television host Megyn Kelly told viewers on her December 11 broadcast that Jesus and Santa are both white men.

“Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change,” Kelly said. “Jesus was a white man, too. It’s like we have, he’s a historical figure that’s a verifiable fact, as is Santa, I just want kids to know that. How do you revise it in the middle of the legacy in the story and change Santa from white to black?”

Setting aside the ridiculousness of creating rigidly racial depictions of a fictitious character that does not actually exist—sorry, kids—like Santa, Kelly has made a more serious error about Jesus. The scholarly consensus is actually that Jesus was, like most first-century Jews, probably a dark-skinned man. If he were taking the red-eye flight from San Francisco to New York today, Jesus might be profiled for additional security screening by TSA.

The myth of a white Jesus is one with deep roots throughout Christian history. As early as the Middle Ages and particularly during the Renaissance, popular Western artists depicted Jesus as a white man, often with blue eyes and blondish hair. Perhaps fueled by some Biblical verses correlating lightness with purity and righteousness and darkness with sin and evil, these images sought to craft a sterile Son of God.

The only problem was that the representations were historically inaccurate.

Modern Western Christians have carried these images over into their own depictions of Jesus. Pick up a one of those bright blue “Bible Story” books in a Sunday School classroom and you’ll find white Jesus waiting for you, rosy cheeks and all. Or you could survey the light-skinned Jesus in any number of modern TV or film portrayals, including History Channel’s hit series The Bible.

Well, maybe, this Scientific American article, “The Color of Sin–Why the Good Guys Wear White” can explain better:

Why would this intrinsic association exist? One possibility is that the metaphor is more complex, embodying not just right and wrong but purity and contagion, too. Think of the metaphor new-fallen snow. It is not only white, it is also virginal and unadulterated, like a wedding dress. And blackness not only discolors it, it stains it, taints its purity. With this in mind, the psychologists ran another experiment, adding this dimension of contagion, of feeling morally dirty. They deliberately primed some volunteers immoral thoughts by having them read a story about a self-serving, immoral lawyer and then compared them with volunteers primed for ethical thinking.

The idea was that people who were feeling morally dirty would be quicker to make the connection between immorality and blackness on the moral Stroop test, which is exactly what the researchers found. And whats more, they found the link using much looser definitions of morality and immoralityincluding words such as dieting, gossip, duty, partying, helping, and so forth. In other words, those primed for misbehavior linked blackness not only with crime and cheating but with being irresponsible, unreliable, self-centered slackers.

This result offers pretty convincing evidence in itself that the connection between black and bad is not just a metaphor we all have learned over the years, but rather it is deeply associated with our ancient fear of filth and contagion. But Sherman and Clore wanted to look at the question yet another way. If the association between sin and blackness really does reflect a concern about dirt and impurity, then this association should be stronger for people who are preoccupied with purity and pollution. Such fastidiousness often manifests as personal cleanliness, and a proxy for personal cleansing might be the desire for cleaning products. The researchers tested this string of psychological connections in a final study, again ending with the Stroop test.

The results were unambiguous. As reported in the August issue of Psychological Science, those who expressed the strongest desire for an array of cleaning products were also those most likely to link morality with white and immorality with black. But here is the really interesting part: The only products to show such an association were Dove soap and Crest toothpaste, products for personal cleanliness. Items such as Lysol and Windex did not activate the sin-blackness connection. In short, concerns about filth and personal hygiene appear central to seeing the moral universe in black and white.

These findings have obvious implications for our understanding of racial prejudice. Although scientists have not yet investigated whether people of different races perform the same way on the moral Stroop test, research on other types of unconscious associations has shown racial differences [see Buried Prejudice, by Siri Carpenter; Scientific American Mind, April/May 2008]. As Sherman and Clore note, this country once had a one drop of blood rule, which meant that even a trace of African lineage tainted an otherwise white lineage. These official practices may be gone, but this new study may help explain why black is linked to immorality and impurity on a fundamental level in many peoples minds.

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3 thoughts on “On The Blind Side, and White Paternalism

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