There was an upset in Hollywood this March when the Academy anointed Sandra Bullock best actress for her role in “The Blind Side.” The controversy hinged on the fact that she, an historic B-level comedienne, bested Meryl Streep, a far more Serious Actor who has a standing relationship with Oscar.
But after seeing “The Blind Side,” it’s clear that any outrage would have been more appropriately directed at the insidious racist and classist narrative that Bullock’s character delivers, albeit cloaked in fitted, matching coordinates of Southern charm and irresistible pluck.
The film is about a young African American man who is propelled from his humble roots to NFL stardom by a wealthy white family. It’s based on the true story of Michael Oher, a lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, who, as a teenager was invited to attend Briarcrest Christian School — an institution that was both physically and culturally far away from his impoverished Memphis neighborhood. The invitation came from benevolent, white, middle-class members of the faculty and staff who, after taking one look at Michael’s imposing frame, saw dollar signs and championship titles in their eyes.
While struggling to fit in at Briarcrest, Michael meets the Tuohys — a kindly white family that has built its fortunes by running a string of Taco Bell franchises. They love Jesus a lot, but they love college football even more. They encourage Michael to play and later, after he’s made himself a star on the high school circuit, they encourage him to play for their alma mater, Ole Miss, where they happen to be generous boosters.
Yes, these events did in fact unfold in the real world: The “privilege knows best” moral implicit in Michael Oher’s story was indeed imposed upon him, and a group of Memphis elites actually manipulated his circumstances to further their interests. However, that’s doesn’t give Hollywood license to portray his life through a series of overwrought and oversimplified vignettes that make Bullock’s character (the Tuohy matriarch, Leigh Anne) look saintly and heroic — and really fabulous while she’s doing it. She even teaches him how to play football! Meanwhile, Michael is portrayed as a black kid who managed to “get away” from a drug-addicted mother, the dangerous neighborhood and the thug life because he’s gentle and sweet, and because some wealthy white folks took mercy on his soul.
Unfortunately, audiences aren’t meant to leave “The Blind Side” apprised of power dynamics and the prejudices that were the subtext of Michael Oher’s trajectory, or incensed that this kind of racism and classism still persists. Nor are audiences able to get a picture of who Oher really is — a complex person, to be sure, who has experienced life on different sides of the privilege spectrum.
Instead, they get to walk away feeling moved by a paternalistic tale that acknowledges white, middle-class values as the only kind of values worth having, and celebrates the poor and the people of color who aspire to them.
Kristi Ceccarossi is from a working class, Italian-American family north of Boston. She works as the communications coordinator of the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies.