What 'The Blind Side' Says, and Doesn't Say, About Race

Critics debate the depiction of the African-American hero in Sandra Bullock's new #1 hit

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In a shocking cinematic coup, Sandra Bullock's three-week old sports drama "The Blind Side" defeated bloodsucking blockbuster "New Moon" to secure the top spot at this weekend's box office. Sandra Bullock plays the surrogate guardian of Michael Oher, a real-life African American pro-football player for the Baltimore Ravens who escaped homelessness and found success playing in college thanks to the help of a white, well-to-do Southern family. While "The Blind Side" has obvious mass appeal, critics are more torn about its depiction of race. Many critics are drawing comparisons to "Precious," a controversial recent film that explores the struggle of an obese, abused African-American girl. Opinions on "The Blind Side" are similarly mixed:

  • 'Is Sandra Bullock's New Movie Racist?' asks Thaddeus Russell at the Daily Beast. He accuses the film of pacifying Oher, molding him into an unrealistically noble and non-threatening "black saint." As such, Russell argues, Oher takes on the trappings of a stereotype that emerged in the 1950s, as white, liberal filmmakers sought to change negative perceptions of African Americans. Ultimately, he says, the take is a patronizing one:
His table manners are impeccable. He exhibits virtually no sexual desire. He is never angry and shuns violence except when necessary to protect the white family that adopted him or the white quarterback he was taught to think of as his brother. In other words, Michael Oher is the perfect black man.
  • Says More About America's Love of Artistic "Extremism," argues the Atlantic's own Ta-Nehisi Coates. Admitting that he hasn't yet seen "The Blind Side," he responds to Russell's charges that Oher's character has been unduly sanitized for the benefit of family audiences: "This sounds, not so just like a magic Negro or a perfect black man, as it does a eunuch. I guess the categories aren't mutually exclusive." Coates advises that we "take race out" of the equation, whereupon we'll discover a broader statement about American consumers: We prefer exaggeration to realism; we "love extremes" in our entertainment, no matter what the color. As he writes:
Our news-media features strategists who are "for" or "against" the issue of the moment. Our memoirs (as I quickly discovered) are either overwrought, sentimentalist fairy tales or shocking tales of perversion and abuse (the child molestation memoir should be its own genre.) Our films are loud, overbearing and ultra-violent or they are uncomplicated, heart-wrenchers, which jerk at tears in a manner which they have not earned. And then in the middle, or somewhere below, there are stories that do something else, stories that offer something more, that reject the idea of man as porn-star. But there are so few black people in that middle, in that more human world below...yet to discuss this as a race problem almost distorts things.
  • Actually, It's An Excellent Depiction of Human Decency African American film critic and notable contrarian Armond White is one of the most prominent voices favorably comparing "The Blind Side" to "Precious." His contention? "Sandra Bullock brings sanity to the madness currently infecting the movie scene. Her intelligent, affecting new movie The Blind Side uses a double metaphor (alluding to both a football player's vulnerability and racial color blindness) to dramatize how people can overcome race and class barriers to achieve their fuller humanity. Bullock's film is upfront about the attitudes mangled and suppressed in media hype for Precious."
  • Unspoken Approval? At ABC news, Luchina Fisher presents a round-up of opinions on both films in her article "Why Some Blacks Prefer 'Blind Side' to 'Precious.'" Her analysis leads her to the following claim:
"'Precious,' the critically acclaimed drama about an illiterate black teenage girl abused by her mother and pregnant with a second child by her father, has come under fire by a number of blacks, including Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy and former Time magazine columnist Jack White.

Meanwhile, blacks, for the most part, have been noticeably silent about 'The Blind Side,' the Sandra Bullock-helmed movie based on the true story of a Memphis family, the Tuohys, who take in a poor homeless black boy, Michael Oher, who becomes an NFL star."
  • Forget 'The Blind Side,' See Ten9Eight Blogging for the Huffington Post, Seth Bauer says that a documentary about "lost inner-city kids" currently in wide release is "a feel-much-better story," that he thinks could have a greater impact on improving African American self-actualizing than Bullock's film. That's because Ten9Eight tracks the inner-city high-school participants of a national competition set up by the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship. As he puts it: "The movie calls for entrepreneurship on the part of all of us, because the economics of the film industry means that millions of high school kids--and their parents--whose personal prospects could be radically changed simply by viewing the film may never get to see it. Take a look for yourself, and, if you see a way to get Ten9Eight shown in the communities where it may make the most difference, think like the students in the movie: don't let the opportunity pass."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.