“The Blind Side” : Sandra Bullock, White Women & Racism

Several weeks ago, I saw “The Blind Side” which is, as lots of people have already pointed out, yet another addition to that long list of white savior movies.  If you’re not familiar with this particular movie trope, you should read Hernan and Gordon’s Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness.   The film also trades in the “magical Negro” meme, in which black people perform various miracles for white people (see also, “The Green Mile”).  This particular theme is deeply embedded in American culture and for more about this you can read the classic Langston Hughes’ Black Magic: A Pictorial History of the Negro in American Entertainment or the more recent Brannon Costello’s Plantation Airs.

This is all well-trod ground for examining race in this, and other, films. I agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates that the sort of one-note discussion of this film that asks “is it racist or is it not racist?” suggests that:

“if you’re not a racist, if a movie isn’t racist, then presumably it’s all good. Arguing over the contents of people’s hearts, or the admittedly myriad interpretations of modern movie, prevent us from getting at all those beautiful and ugly elements which we have yet to name.”

In that spirit, I want to take a slightly less well-worn path to discussing this film and talk a little about some of those ‘beautiful and ugly’ elements we have yet to name.

As Mark Blankenship notes, the movie is based on a true story. A rich white family really did adopt Michael Oher, a homeless black teenager, and eventually, he became an NFL star. In the real world, that’s very moving.  In parts, I found the story compelling.  It is sometimes the reality that white families adopt and raise, even “save,” black children from sometimes dire conditions.  While I’m well-aware of the vehement critique of this practice by the National Association of Black Social Workers (and others), that’s still a story that I’m interested in knowing more about in its particulars, as Coates would have it, “getting at all those beautiful and ugly elements.”   For example, how does a white mother raising a black son teach her son to deal with racism?   How does she confront her own racism in that copmlex mother-son relationship?   And, given that this story is set in an affluent, Southern, Christian, all-white community, I wanted to know the particulars of how this boy became a man in this world.

There was one scene in the movie that almost tapped this rich potential for storytelling, and it was when Sandra Bullock’s character, Leigh Anne Touhy, confronts her ladies-who-lunch friends about their own racism in their comments about her newly-adopted son.   She stops them cold and says to them, “Shame on you.”   It’s a remarkable filmic moment in many ways.  First, it clearly depicts whites  – in this case, white women – engaging in the kind of back stage behavior we’ve talked about so often here on the blog.  It’s rare to see the whites talking about race in explicit ways portrayed in a film.   Bullock’s confrontation of them is refreshing, too, but it’s underplayed and comes out of nowhere for her character.   We know nothing about how her character has dealt with her own internalized racism – or, even if she has – to get to the point of confronting her lunch-friends.  Is she conflicted? Has she always wanted to confront them about their racism?  Or, does she secretly agree with them, but just prefer them to engage in the “polite silence” around matters of race that has come to prevail in many social settings?   Does she continue to be friends with these women?  Does she lose their friendship because of this confrontation?  If so, is that painful? And how does that pain factor into her feelings about her son?

We will never know.  This is not a film with much nuance (the predominant metaphor is about football).    While it’s a moment worth noting in the film, (I can even see using the clip of that lunch-table confrontation to foster discussion in a class or workshop), the moment is a lost opportunity for anything more multifaceted, or artful even, about transracial adoption, about race, or about the journey away from individual racism.  All of which is too bad, because that’s a film I’d really like to see.

Ultimately,  the film’s screenplay and Sandra Bullock’s performance (one many are saying is the best of her career) misses the opportunity to connect with the tradition of the few white women who have stood against racism like Mary White Ovington, Lillian Smith, or Viola Gregg Luizzo, and instead draws on the much broader tradition of white women perpetrating paternalistic racism, set in stark contrast to portrayals of black women as unfit mothers.   This kind of storytelling, repeated again and again throughout the culture, is just not that interesting and it certainly doesn’t rise to the level of ‘art’ in my view.   It does, however, seem to draw a crowd.  “The Blind Side”is this season’s “surprise hit” at the box office.