By Joseph Viney
Improbability and racial guilt are two very powerful elements and both of them are ladled into the mix heavily in this surprising addition to the pantheon of recent Oscar winning films.
The Blind Side is based on a true story but there is such a suspension of disbelief in some scenes you have to wonder whether Hollywood has weaved its perverse brand of revisionism into the film’s fabric, or if the producers were duped by those upon whom the story is based.
Centred around the late upbringing of NFL and Baltimore Ravens star Michael Oher, we briefly follow his impoverished childhood, his improbable (there’s that word again) placement at an all-white strict Christian school and the beginnings of his career as a bone-crunching offensive lineman. Albeit a silent one. The problem is, he doesn’t say a single word for the first 20 minutes, nor has he grasped the concept of full sentences by the final act. He skirts between idiot savant and a mute Idi Amin as played by Forrest Whittaker.
The film is eager to seize upon the racial tension and guilt that are permanent fixtures. Oher is initially shunned by the W.A.S.P. filled suburbs and schools of Memphis, Tennessee. Here we are introduced to some rather patronising edicts on Oher’s person; he’s black and therefore lumbering, stupid and seemingly in the throes of tumour growth on his pituitary gland. Black people on the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ are portrayed as feral beasts, hunting in packs.
Sandra Bullock is in fine fettle as the Aryan housewife, Leigh Ann Tuohy; blonde, doe-eyed and rich. The no swearing and church on Sunday type. Her first scene has her name-dropping La-Z-Boy Recliners, Martha Stewart and MTV. No doubt the white housewife’s topics of choice in the USA.
Hers is a strong performance certainly, and the strongest in the entire film by a long shot but this is in no way memorable enough to grant her the Oscar she has already picked up. Imagine if Clarisse Starling had spent her University years with her ankles behind her head as opposed to studying forensics and here is Leigh Ann Tuohy, stereotypical Southern belle; a “Do whatcha Mama says…” here and a “ya’ll” there, fairly docile stuff.
The United States’ social and educational classes, so often seen as strict, unforgiving and somewhat exclusive are conveniently tossed aside when letting Oher decamp in Wingate Christian School. All other characters are bending over backwards as if to assuage some deep-seated problem they have. In fact it’s even referenced directly when Leigh Ann is asked “Is this some white-guilt thing?”
If you weren’t aware that it was a true story already you would have cried foul and ended it right there. Oher struggles with his subjects and social convention and faces derision from all corners, teachers and peers alike… and yet he is given chance after chance.
This is because Oher possesses a special talent; he can hurt people in the field of American Football better than others can. This grants him fast-track access to the hearts and minds of the people of Memphis. This is a bit of kick in the crotch for us academics who can barely make the net bulge with a 12 yard penalty kick (“Speak for yourself”, I hear you cry!)
From here on in convention grips you by the throat with icy talons; family and community pull together for the little lost boy as he tries to find his path in the big bad world and so on and so on.
One of the major problems facing The Blind Side is its lack of international compatibility. Barring perhaps the people of Israel and Palestine there are no two races more at each other’s throats than the white and black people of the USA. For any of its inherent problems it may bring, multi-culturalism in the UK ticks along better than can be expected and so this purposeful distinction between the two races and their lifestyles can seem like something from the heyday of Love Thy Neighbour to us Brits.
Another element of the movie that gets lost in translation is American Football, perhaps the only sport that celebrates a dead ball situation like a winning goal. It’s a very niche market outside of the US and whilst it is in some way central to the story a lesser emphasis on game play and terminology would have been welcomed by international audiences.
The two poorest aspects of the film are thus; Kathy Bates’ turn as Oher’s private tutor in which she makes the same embarrassingly poor quasi-political joke twice in the space of thirty seconds just in case you didn’t laugh the first time (which I guarantee you won’t).
Secondly, it’s the way in which we as the audience are fed this patronising stuff. Instead of the Tuohy family treating Michael Oher like a, you know, human being, the film turns into some bizarro world presentation of Harry & The Hendersons in which the ‘clean’ humans try to teach the wild, dirty monster some manners; Leigh Ann taking great pride in teaching him how to sit for dinner and how to purchase smart clothes. Ebony and ivory… at last living together in some sort of harmony, no matter how fractured.
Oh, and a positive aspect? Well, I wouldn’t kick Sandra Bullock out of bed…
3 OUT OF 10