MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Now we want to turn to another film that has people talking. It's "The Blind Side." It has earned over $130 million since opening November 20. The film is based on the true story of NFL star Michael Oher, an African-American teenager from a broken home who was taken in by the Tuohys, a well-to-do white family in Memphis. The film stars Sandra Bullock as Leigh Anne Tuohy, who takes Oher in off the streets and into her home.
(Soundbite of film, "The Blind Side")
Mr. QUINTON AARON (Actor): (As Michael Oher) It's mine?
Ms. SANDRA BULLOCK (Actor): (As Leigh Anne Tuohy) Yes, sir. What?
Mr. AARON: (As Oher) I never had one before.
Ms. BULLOCK: (As Leigh Anne) What, a room to yourself?
Mr. AARON: (As Oher) A bed.
MARTIN: Now, many critics and fans are raving about the feel-good film, but some are asking if this film, and the 2006 book it was based on, is just another version of a too-frequent narrative in American film and culture, where African-Americans don't really exist in their own right but rather, as foils for white virtue or redemption.
Here to talk more about this is Wesley Morris, a film critic for the Boston Globe. He wrote about this, and he joins us from Boston. Welcome - welcome back, I should say.
Mr. WESLEY MORRIS (Film Critic, Boston Globe): Thanks, Michel.
MARTIN: Now, you write that, quote - I'm just going to quote from your piece: Commercial American movies seem interested in stories about young, black men saved from God knows what by nice, white people or sports. Here, it's both. That double-jackpot happens occasionally in life, but it's a staple in Hollywood, where large, kind, black men are sometimes both a blessing and a threat.
Many movies are formulaic, but this story is based on a true story. Does that...
Mr. MORRIS: Yes.
MARTIN: ...redeem it in a way or not?
Mr. MORRIS: To the degree that the movie is based on a true story, I think there's a certain level of agency that it denies Michael Oher's character and the actor who plays him. You know, he seems like a very nice guy, but he also doesn't seem to be particularly involved or emphatic about playing football or being successful. And I just can't imagine that he could have gotten as far as he's gotten - Michael Oher now plays for the Baltimore Ravens - I can't imagine that he would have gotten as far as he had gotten were he not - were he just sort of a passive bystander to his success.
MARTIN: Does it bother you that people like the film so much?
Mr. MORRIS: As an African-American watching movies, particularly as a professional moviegoer, there comes a moment in a film where you kind of cringe a little bit, not so much because what you're seeing is problematic or inherently wrong, but you feel like it basically�
MARTIN: This is yet another black child who needs white people to save him or her.
Mr. MORRIS: Yeah, I mean, it's "Diff'rent Strokes," it's "Webster." I mean, you know, I just feel, like - you know, I was not raised by white people.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: You're fine.
Mr. MORRIS: And I'm OK. And like I said, this sort of thing does happen, but I think the movies sort of embrace it because, you know, for obvious reasons. I mean, there aren't a lot of black executives in Hollywood. You know, there's a very liberal bent in Hollywood. It's also interesting, too, that this family is - they're Republicans. They're a red-state family. I won't say they're self-impressed by having taken Michael Oher in, but the Leigh Anne Tuohy in this film does have a little bit of a chip on her shoulder about doing a good thing.
MARTIN: You know, what's interesting is the book itself is tougher on white people than the film is...
Mr. MORRIS: Absolutely, yes.
MARTIN: ...in the sense that the book makes clear that part of why Leigh Anne has a chip on her shoulder is that her father is a racist. He's a thoroughgoing bigot.
Mr. MORRIS: Yes.
MARTIN: Now, they tell a story in the book about how, when she was walking down the aisle at her wedding, and her husband's side has a number of African-American friends at the wedding, and he uses the N-word. I'll just say it. He leans to her and says: Why are all these niggers here?
And so you see, you know, for her, why part of the reason she has a chip on her shoulder is that she's used to this very racist context. And having to sort of push against it has made her kind of tough. But that is absent in the movie.
Mr. MORRIS: Yeah, I don't know if the movie would have been as successful in terms of making you feel good if it had actually hewed to the specifics of the story.
MARTIN: But what I'm hearing you say is it didn't make you feel good.
Mr. MORRIS: No, it didn't.
MARTIN: It makes some people feel good. It's not going to make everybody feel good.
Mr. MORRIS: No, but I mean, I think its success points to a certain degree. We want these kinds of stories, you know, and it was released in Boston and a number of other cities the same week that "Precious" came out, which is a much harder-hitting movie, about an overweight black teenager with an ostensibly horrible life.
But the interesting thing about this movie, and the fact that it's not doing nearly as well as "The Blind Side" - at the box office anyway - is that, you know, she's a woman who's taken her life in her own hands, and the story's much grimmer, and it's harder to sit through in a lot of parts. But I was much more moved by that movie than I was by "The Blind Side" because it does own up to a degree of reality that is true for a lot of black people.
MARTIN: Well, it also does put black parents in another scathing light. I mean...
Mr. MORRIS: Yes.
MARTIN: ...her parents are horrible.
Mr. MORRIS: Yes.
MARTIN: ...and we just talked about "Precious" with Barbara Bush, who sees it as a story about literacy and how important literacy is in changing your life.
But finally, to just throw a wrinkle into this thing, what about "The Secret Life of Bees," where the black people are the agents of redemption for the little white girl? What about that?
Mr. MORRIS: I like that movie. And I will say that part of the reason it works is because you see these archetypes, these black movie archetypes, that you've been seeing in movies since the 1920s. And what Gina Prince-Bythewood does is, she invests them with so much humanity that in many ways, you feel like the movie is really, ultimately less about the Dakota Fanning character and much more about these four women in her life.
And it just makes the women much more interesting, and I think there's a lot of interesting things in that movie that I wish more people had gone to see. But I mean, I do think that was one of the movies that got away last year, and I hope people sort of rediscover it on video.
MARTIN: Wesley Morris is a film critic for the Boston Globe. If you want to read his piece about "The Blind Side," we'll have a link to it on our Web site. Go to npr.org. Click on programs, then on TELL ME MORE. Wesley, thank you.
Mr. MORRIS: Thank you, Michel.
(Soundbite of music)
MARTIN: Coming up, the Barbershop talk about - what else would they be talking about in barbershops? Tiger Woods, of course. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
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