Leigh Anne Touhy (Sandra Bullock) is white, wealthy, Southern, and unapologetically sassy. Her Christianity is so aggressive that she thinks nothing of honoring a poor, ragged, humble Savior with an assortment of diamond-encrusted crucifixes so bright they challenge the sun for celestial supremacy. She’s also bossy, quirky, hard-nosed, and cocky, though not above letting a tear sneak out for the requisite Oscar clip. There’s no other woman quite like her, so it stands to reason that she’s just the person to don the Henry Higgins attire and single-handedly save black America. Again. Rich white folks are always putting aside their daily concerns for the benefit of the African American community, it seems, though one had thought that the past fifty or so years would have put an end to such obvious cinematic condescension. Shockingly, and as if on cue, we have The Blind Side; a film that brushes aside the Civil Rights movement, decades of struggle and sacrifice, as well as the election of the nation’s first non-white president with such casual abandon that we can’t believe no one bothered to stop production. With so many of Hollywood’s liberals and do-gooder element scanning every conceivable horizon for the slightest hint of insensitivity, it boggles the mind to consider how this one got away. It’s perhaps the most casually racist movie released since Appomattox.
Oh, that Leigh Anne. She runs her 8,000 square-foot mansion in the football-field-for-a-backyard section of Memphis with all the efficiency of a plantation overseer, though her domineering ways are not so cold that they can’t wrap their tentacles around a plucky, overbearingly precocious lad named S.J., the come-hither teenage daughter Collins (!), and an aw-shucks husband, Sean (Tim McGraw), who just happens to own 800 or so Taco Bell franchises in the state of Tennessee. She appears to be an interior decorator of some kind, though she’s hardly ever at work, instead spending her days and nights wagging her finger, gossiping with other Southern-fried hens, and, when the mood strikes, picking up 300-pound black youths who don’t have anywhere to sleep for the night. Believing it to be her Christian duty to feed, clothe, and house poor blacks too lumbering and oafish to handle it themselves, Leigh Anne refuses to take no for an answer and all but commands Michael (Quinton Aaron) to sleep on her couch. Now, as generous as she is with the love of the Lord, she still turns to her ever-patient husband to ask if he too shares the suspicion that he might steal them blind during the night. Not this black man! Not on Leigh Anne’s watch!
Before we go further, let it be said that Michael, as a character, is among the least developed I’ve ever had the misfortune of seeing. By turn, he is silent, quiet, sad-eyed, and invisible. He has fewer lines of dialogue than Charles Bronson in your pick of Death Wish installments. He’s more than a cipher, he’s the blankest canvas in a film not exactly rushing to embrace shading and depth. It’s necessary, however, for how else to flatter the pale skins among us who still think the only road to success, especially in the brown and black sections of town, is to do as we do? Think as we think? It would seem that dopey black people just sit around on assorted stoops for a curious form of drive-by; the car, a BMW, and the perpetrator a millionaire cracker with a martyr complex. It would have been far more interesting had Michael (don’t call him “Big Mike”) been drafted for the cause out of Mr. Touhy’s guilt at having helped spread obesity to every inner city neighborhood in the South and beyond. Make it a Biggest Loser episode and send him, svelte and suited, on his merry way. Instead, Michael is the good deed made flesh; the easiest manner possible for Leigh Anne to prove that her sentimental attachment to Ole Miss has nothing at all to do with its rebel flags and bullets fired at James Meredith. As usual, the person who makes it her goal to prove how not racist she is always ends up the most conspicuous bigot in the room.
The deck is eye-rollingly stacked in the most obvious way: Michael must be a saint, so he’s not allowed to curse, smoke, drink, or even raise his voice. He’s as polite as Mr. Rogers, and at one point, the football coach says he’s doomed to failure because he doesn’t want to be aggressive. He’s a lamb among lions, and though burdened with a low I.Q., a few pats on the head bring out that impossible-to-resist smile; the grin of a “good Negro” who knows one should never look a gift makeover in the mouth. Michael simply must be a gentle bear of a man because the audience must also believe that “we too” would take him in given the chance. Moreover, Michael becomes the stand-in for America’s blacks we can all believe in, if only they’d stop killing each other and ruining once proud communities. Now and forever, white America loves their black people docile, apologetic, and mindlessly kind; more mascots than actual human beings. Stray from this acceptable range and it takes but an instant for the usual charges to be filed: they’re “too angry”, demanding, coarse, or worse, “not like us.” Blacks who push get pushed away; those who drop their guard and plead get to sit at our kitchen tables, heads bowed in prayer. Yep, Michael prays with the Touhy family, his mighty hands grabbed well before he can protest. Well before he’s allowed a simple fucking say in the matter.
But since we all know how the story turns out (Michael becomes an All-American at Ole Miss and is eventually drafted by the Baltimore Ravens), isn’t it enough that he made it? The closing shots, complete with Leigh Anne’s honey-dripped voiceover, try to head off any potential criticism. See, those black people, the ones in the newspaper photos, were shot, stabbed, and killed because they never had a chance; they didn’t have anyone who cared enough to move mountains. Who really cares about motives when the end result was that a young man got out and made something of himself. Ah yes, but consider: America’s blacks, by and large, do not have luxury automobiles combing the ghetto looking for science fair projects or stuffed animals to show off to their clucking friends. Maybe in Cleveland. And while white America would like to think that person by person, woman by woman, they can rescue every lost soul, such “can-do” spirit ignores the institutional barriers that make most dreams impossible delusions. Hell, if this movie is to be our guide, we ought to eliminate every source of funding for the poor and disadvantaged and send buses full of Christians to every shack and housing project alike. It’s the Republican alternative: where the law fails, send in a well-dressed Jesus freak. It helps if she’s a member of the NRA (and so she is).
Insidious message aside, the film fails on any number of levels. First, did we need yet another training montage, complete with Michael using the young brat as a barbell? Michael’s turnaround from a hopeless incompetent to star left tackle takes about three minutes of screen time, with the expected Leigh Anne pep talk as the clincher. And then there’s Michael’s first game, which starts badly and ends up with the young man looking better than Anthony Munoz in his prime. And yes, the first game also features a fixture of evil; the racist player from the opposing team who mocks Michael mercilessly throughout the first few series of downs. The bad guy’s father is, needless to say, sitting in the stands, screaming like George Wallace in a schoolhouse door, which conveniently gives Leigh Anne an opportunity to turn around, call him “Deliverance”, and threaten to kick his ass from here to Nashville. I’m pretty sure the screenplay also included the handy instruction, “Cue applause.” But that’s just how she is, whether it means standing up to a bully, or walking out on a luncheon after a friend suggests that Michael is bound to rape her daughter some dark and stormy night. A film like this needs obvious villains to further diminish the actual motivations of our heroine, since we know that Michael is only considered in terms of how he changes her life. And you’d better believe that before all is said and done, she asks her husband the key question for white people everywhere: “Am I a good person?” The best, sweetheart. Nothing but the best. You’re America.