by Matt J. Popham
[Originally published in conjunction with St. David’s Jubilee Center summer film series.]
George Lucas once sardonically observed that if you want your audience to feel something, you need only strangle a kitten. That John Lee Hancock’s The Blind Side egregiously indulges in the worst kind of feline throttling goes a long way towards explaining its Academy Award nominations and popular appeal.
A smug Republican fantasy cloaked in white liberal guilt, the film ostensibly presents the true story of Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), a gentle giant from the Memphis projects, whose adoption by a wealthy white family paves the way for him to become a football star. At best, a cynical exercise in audience manipulation, The Blind Side wrings every last lucrative tear from its story with all the subtlety and profundity of a Hallmark card, often at the expense of dramatic logic. But a closer read of the film’s strategies reveals the repugnant propaganda lurking beneath the surface.
Much has already been made of the film’s “White Savior” narrative, and there’s no arguing that The Blind Side is less a dramatization of Michael Oher’s struggle than an ode to the supposed moral benevolence of Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock), the matriarch of his aforementioned adoptive family. The film makes no attempt to address the entrenched systemic problems that necessitate Michael’s “rescue,” and, in fact, vilifies those characters that do. There’s even the implicit suggestion that Michael’s less innocent, but equally impoverished kith and kin are somehow less deserving of a better life due to their moral failings (Michael is good-hearted and therefore belongs among white people…).
But where The Blind Side really crosses from irresponsible to irredeemable is in its celebration of the commodification of a human being, both in theory and in practice. Barely a character, either on the page or on screen, Hancock uses Michael as a dramatic device, a blunt instrument, and a socio-political tool, mirroring the behavior of his adoptive family, to whom he is, at various times, a project, a badge, a pet, and a toy (a scene in which Michael is manipulated by Kathy Bates into choosing Ole Miss over Tennessee is made all the more nauseating by the fact that it’s played for laughs). Ultimately, if the film seems less interested in Michael than it is interested in the people interested in Michael, it’s because it treats him much the same way they do: as a means. But while Hancock’s a canny enough filmmaker to anticipate these objections, rather than answering them in any probing or meaningful way, he simply buries them in heaps of saccharine.
“How did you get out of there?” Bullock’s Tuohy asks Michael, at one point, regarding his impoverished background. “When I was little,” he replies, “if something awful was happening, my momma would tell me to close my eyes.” It’s a strategy that effectively reflects the film’s. Because whatever it might make you feel, one of art’s primary functions is to ask difficult questions. And for all its predatory pathos, The Blind Side offers only the most hollow and complacent reassurances.