There’s a tendency to always look askance at any film in which the story focuses on an African-American who is given a helping hand by a white person.
Not that there haven’t been egregious examples of films in which the beneficent white person plays savior to the beleaguered black person. But not all films with that set-up are condescending, as some would have it.
Still, the politics of race are so muddled that it’s automatically read in some quarters as paternalistic and arrogant, as though this is Hollywood’s perpetual message: that the only possible way that a black person could get out from under is with help from someone white.
But what if a story is true? Sure, it’s easy to dismiss “The Blind Side” as another of these films, based on the commercials – “Sandra Bullocks saves a Negro.” It’s only when you actually watch the whole film and see her spitfire performance – and the heartfelt one by newcomer Quinton Aaron as Michael Oher, the teen whose live she changes – that you see how unfair that kind of generalization can be.
Based on Oher’s true story, “The Blind Side” is adapted from the book by Michael Lewis, about the sudden change in Oher’s life when Leigh Ann Tuohy (Bullock) became part of it, almost by accident.
A homeless teen who is accepted into a Christian private school, Oher is lost in that world, with no study habits, poor reading skills and no home. But the gentle giant becomes a figure of fascination for Tuohy’s son, S.J. (Jae Head), a much younger student at the same school. He chats Big Mike up one day before his mother picks up him up – and later, on a chilly evening as they’re leaving the high school after a volleyball game of her daughter’s, Leigh Anne spots Big Mike walking in the dark and cold, in shorts and with no place to go. So she takes him in.
Leigh Anne is a designer and socialite in Memphis, conservative wife of a well-off businessman who owns dozens of Taco Bell franchises. She welcomes Oher into her home out of a motherly sense of concern for a person in trouble – and is so moved by his story that she offers to let him live with her family, which he does.
Before long, he has his own room; she helps him learn to study and buys him clothes (he favors striped rugby shirts). He improves his grades, pleased at his ability to achieve – and gets them to a level where he’s eligible to go out for football (though he’s never really played before).
Leigh Anne also gradually unearths Michael’s history: child of a crack-addicted mother, his life spent shuttling between uncaring foster homes. He has always known want and seldom received kindness, until the Tuohys adopt him.
There are few big melodramatic scenes – a key football game, an encounter with his old neighborhood crew – but plenty of small and affecting dramatic ones. This moving film is about the little moments of emotional discovery – for both Leigh Anne and Michael.
It’s nice to see Bullock play a character who isn’t ditzy or dithering. She imbues this good-hearted woman with a hard, shiny exterior that doesn’t disguise the protective instincts of a mother bear. She’s a snippy know-it-all – but an endearing one, who isn’t afraid to speak her mind, even in the most harrowing of circumstances.
Aaron has the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen and uses them to good effect as a massive teen who has never learned his own strength. Aaron captures the incongruity of someone who is able disguise his fear because his size intimidates others. He also shows us a different Michael, when the Tuohys’ care brings him out of himself.
The real Michael Oher is now a rookie lineman in the NFL, a first-round draft choice of the Baltimore Ravens after an all-American college career at Ole Miss. But he wouldn’t be there without the care and love of a pistol-packing Republican socialite from an affluent Southern suburb, who took an interest at a point when no one else would.
Her spirit and generosity for a stranger are the heart of “The Blind Side.” Ultimately, race has nothing to do with the truth of the emotions this film elicits from an audience. It’s a solid movie, whether you’re color blind or not.