Movies

'The Blind Side': When A True Story Is Hard To Tell

the poster for 'The Blind Side'.
Warner Brothers Pictures

The Blind Side: Evolution Of A Game, by Michael Lewis, is a book I really loved. It was one that I told everyone about, couldn't shut up about, wouldn't stop recommending.

The centerpiece of The Blind Side — though not the whole thing — is the truly incredible story of Michael Oher, who now plays for the Baltimore Ravens. Oher had a very, very hard childhood and was eventually adopted by a family that had a daughter at the school he wound up attending, and ... it's a very involved, very involving story about this kid who just had every possible thing operating against him, who had to start from scratch in the sense of "practically no identifying documents, school records, or anything that would demonstrate on paper that he existed," whose life changed completely because a whole pack of people, particularly his adoptive mom, voluntarily assumed responsibility for him.

Of course, one of the challenges they faced is the centerpiece of that poster: his adoptive mom, Leigh Anne Tuohy, is a fairly small white lady, and Michael was, even as a ninth-grader when they met, a very big African-American kid (the combination of speed and size is how he became a great offensive tackle).

And no matter how much I loved the book and love the story, I have to admit that I look at that poster with a twinge, because when you see the tiny noble white lady and the enormous black kid who doesn't talk, you are suddenly in the realm of a whole lot of potentially grotesque movie dynamics that were very well explained in this piece by Mark Blankenship (who has contributed here from time to time).

After the jump, let's watch the trailer and talk a little more.

I don't think you have to be pathologically oversensitive to find that trailer a little bit unsettling. Michael barely talks, which makes it appear that he might be sort of mystical or something — from the book, you'd know that he's just very, very quiet because, frankly, it's been better to keep his head down. It also sort of adds to the nobility and angelic quality of the mother that she's being played here by Sandra Bullock — my perception of her on the page was more "stubborn southern firecracker mom" than "hand-holding head-patting hugger," which is what you're getting here. Leigh Anne in the book is ... pushy and difficult, in the good way, and not in the way everyone always finds adorable, and you get the sense that Michael might not have made it so far if she weren't (many people, of course, have parents like that).

It's tough to get aggravated by the cliches in scenes that really happened. That bit at the top of the trailer at what looks like the DMV is, I suspect, from the sequence where she's working on the bureaucratic process of establishing Michael's legal existence, which was indeed a riveting section of the book — imagine a child who can't prove on paper that he was ever born. Where do you even begin? That is a nightmare far closer to being Kafka-esque than most things that are described as Kafka-esque. And that corny line about how he's never had a bed? Straight out of the book. She really did think he meant his own room. He really did mean he'd never had a bed. It's one of the things I always quoted in talking about how incredible the story was.

It's profoundly interesting and difficult, because if this weren't a true story, it would probably be considered such a pandering set of cliches that you might have had trouble making it. But Michael being very big and very quiet is part of a story that really happened and you can't leave it out; this is not The Green Mile.

It's also interesting that the trailer doesn't deal very openly with the racism that confronted the entire family. When the Tuohys first moved him into their house, they listened to a lot of talk from neighbors and friends along the lines of, "You shouldn't move that kid into your house, because he cannot be trusted around your daughter." Leigh Anne Tuohy talks in extremely fiery tones in the book about the level of offense she took at this kid who was, first emotionally and eventually legally, her son, being treated as preemptively a threat to her daughter. I would certainly hope the movie doesn't gloss over those points, but it's interesting that the racial dynamics that would obviously be present and obviously were present don't make it into the trailer.

Out of the context of all the movies that have created the dynamics Mark's piece talks about, Oher's story is a great, great story. He worked extremely hard to get himself into college, and other people worked hard for him, too. The lesson comes off as essentially, "Every kid needs somebody to take care of him and advocate for him, and sometimes, somebody just has to see the kid and decide, 'I guess it's going to be me.'" But when you see it, with the visuals and the movie trappings and the structure of a story, it does have a tone of creepy paternalism, as Mark said, that's hard not to stare at.

One way to look at this is that the true story is the true story, and telling a true story can't inherently be paternalistic — especially if it's easily interesting enough to justify a movie, which this one is. But the other way is that a movie based on a true story is still a movie, and can just as easily get its foot caught in storytelling conventions and all the baggage they bring.

I'm sure I'll see it; I tend to be fairly pro-Sandra-Bullock, and as I said, it's one of my favorite nonfiction books of the last several years. But I have to admit that every time I see the trailer, I cringe a little.

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