I’ll admit it: I was in a weird place when I watched “The Blind Side,” starring Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw. Not the physical place, though I’d never watched a movie on a lawn on Commonwealth Ave, serenaded by the T and motorcycle gangs, before. No, this was a weird mental place. On the one hand, my cynical side hated the premise of the film (or at least its stereotype): a blond, southern, Christian woman adopts a big homeless Black kid from the projects and redeems him through football. Talk about feel-good, made-in-America crap. But on the other hand, the source material for the film was The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, by Michael Lewis, writer of Moneyball and all-around sports journalism god. So I figured anything ostensibly based on his writing would have to be at least o.k. And the truth is: “The Blind Side” is actually pretty decent. Trust me, I’m as surprised as anyone.
The story is about Michael Oher, a boy who became a ward of the state of Tennessee at the age of 7 after being taken from a home predominated by illegitimate siblings and a crack-addicted mother. He spent his formative childhood years jostling between foster homes and homelessness. At age 16 he is accepted into a private Memphis high school at the insistence of the man he was staying with at the time. The boy is accepted because the head coach of the football program sees him practicing outdoors and notices he has surprising quickness for a boy his size (which is somewhere in the vicinity of 6’4″, 300 lbs). The boy struggles in class despite showing the ability to absorb what is told to him orally. Eventually, he is found wandering the streets by Leigh Anne Tuohy (Bullock), who takes him into her home ostensibly for the night, then allows him to stay with her family for an extended period. Along the way he raises his grades enough for athletic eligibility, and eventually he learns the left tackle position (it is taught to him as essentially “protecting his family,” something that his test scores shows he has a high aptitude for). Physically dwarfing the other high school athletes, once he learns the position well the team takes off, dominating opponents and easily winning the state championship. Through a tutor he is able to raise his grades high enough to be eligible for a Division 1 NCAA athletic scholarship (in real life he took online courses that allowed him to substitute those grades for the lower ones earned in similar classes he took earlier in high school). All of this culminates in him accepting a full scholarship to his adopted family’s alma mater Ole Miss, then proceeding to convince the NCAA investigator that his family did not collude with Ole Miss in recruiting him. The movie ends with a shot of the real Michael Oher being drafted in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft by the Baltimore Ravens (who had traded for the pick from the New England Patriots).
The movie essentially follows Oher’s profile in Michael Lewis’s book without discussing its historical examination of the change in offensive strategy in the NFL over the last 20-odd years. The movie pays lip-service to this research with a quick introduction by Sandra Bullock over Lawrence Taylor’s impact in the 1980s. Taylor, a linebacker of tremendous size and speed (especially when compared with offensive linesmen of the 1980s), was most infamous for a 1986 hit on quarterback Joe Theismann, wherein he fractured the QB’s right leg and ended his career. Since that time, the importance of the left tackle and his role in protecting the quarterback’s “blind side” (the side he turns his back to when getting into a throwing motion, assuming he’s right-handed) has grown to the point that it is often one of the highest-paid positions on the team. The movie quickly deals with the historical side of Lewis’s book without delving too much into it, instead choosing to focus on the story of one player’s ascension from a broken childhood to being the #5 lineman prospect in the country. I have no particular problem with this choice, as this movie is a drama, not a documentary. No need to delve into what I’m sure was exhaustive research by Michael Lewis. I also can’t say the movie was particularly inaccurate to Oher’s true story. Without reading The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, I can say that the movie’s plot seems pretty accurate to at least the Michael Oher wikipedia entry, which cites most of its entry to “The Ballad of Big Mike,” a portion of Lewis’s book that was published by The New York Times and its magazine. The movie gets the facts straight, though I’m sure it embellishes and makes up certain scenes.
This is not to say the movie isn’t without problem. The scene where Leigh Anne confronts a group of thugs whom Oher has recently visited and threatens, essentially, to shoot them if they come after her son, is borderline ridiculous. Armed or not, no white woman would walk by herself into such a situation. And each member of the Tuohy family has an almost obligatory “I accept and love you as a member of this family” moment that feels like it’s as much for our benefit as anyone in the movie’s. Lastly, it’s never clearly explained why Leigh Anne Tuohy does any of this. The NCAA investigator had every right to be suspicious, but the fact is, it’s highly unlikely that this woman saw a big Black kid walking down the street and thought “that’s the next left tackle for Ole Miss.” And remember, it was actually Oher’s African-American friend with whom he was staying who initially got him into the private high school. My best guess is that Tuohy falls under the standard “type A” personality type: a problem-solving multi-tasker. She probably saw Oher as “a problem” to be solved, then eventually grew to care a great deal for him (had she had purely exploitative instincts, she likely wouldn’t have adopted him, for instance). Nobody knows what makes someone an A-type, nor how their motivations work. But Tim McGraw’s character probably gets it right when he says that she gets some “sick satisfaction” out of solving problems and helping others. And while all of the coaches fawn over Oher, it’s not because they feel the need to recruit an ex-homeless African-American, but because they see a physically dominant player who can benefit their teams. That’s not exploitation, that’s evaluation.
It seems to me that this movie is undone more by outside stereotyping of its premise than any actual sanctimony. There are very few moments where Bullock actually acts high-and-mighty or holier-than-thou. The real-life Tuohy family probably had moments of discomfort with Oher, then probably grew to accept him as a mainstay of their family, just as most people when constantly exposed to something become gradually acclimatized to it. The fact that there was such a criticism of the movie’s premise probably has more to do with the state of racial discourse in this country than it does anything else. I WILL say that I don’t think this movie would have been as well-received or critically-acclaimed if, for instance, the Tuohy family had been an African-American family and the school he had gone to was, say, Tuskegee University. So the particular racial “alignment” of this movie is definitely important. But that may be only because Americans respond to it (maybe it’s a guilt thing, which is proposed as a rationale from one of Leigh Anne Tuohy’s prejudiced friends in the film). The film deserves most of the acclaim it received. It’s a well-written sports film, with a decent performance by Sandra Bullock. I don’t know if it deserved the Oscar, having only seen one of the other movies that was nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role. The one I saw, “Precious,” I enjoyed far less, and I think that Bullock’s performance is at least superior to Gabourey Sidibe’s. And the fact that Oher went on to have a phenomenal rookie season (finished second in NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year voting, did not allow a sack in Baltimore’s first-round playoff defeat of the Patriots, probably played a role in their success running the ball) backs up the idea that this is a story worth telling. Oher is about to start his second year in the NFL. Who knows where he’ll wind up. But after one season he’s at least proven that he belongs in the NFL, that he’s learned to play a position well enough to justify a large salary ($13.8 million over 5 years), and that all of the help he’s had growing up has been used properly to enable to succeed in life far beyond his upbringing would allow for. I give “The Blind Side” an 8.5 out of 10. It’s not a spectacular story, and it has no point at all, but it never pretends to be something more, avoids preaching, and is historically accurate, which is more than I can say for “Remember the Titans.” But that’s a rant for another day.