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Looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane.

Movie

The Blind Side
(2009)

 

I’ve found my way to seeing most Best Picture Oscar nominees of the last four decades or so, but failing to get round to The Blind Side never seemed like a particularly glaring blind spot. Nominated during the first year of the Academy’s (re-)expanded slate, this aspirational sports drama was commonly seen as filler to make up numbers for the ten slots (and commonly cited a couple of years later as a reason ten was thenpegged as a maximum rather than a quota). If I say it’s a John Lee Hancock film, that should tell you all you need to know about how essential it is, provided you even know who John Lee Hancock is.

Which isn’t entirely fair, as I really liked The Founder. But you know, it kind of is too. Hancock actually scripted one of Clint’s most underrated movies (A Perfect World) when he was starting out, but his directorial career has been characterised – if that’s the right word, since it suggests some degree of stylistic design – by a discernible lack of narrative drive, tension, pace and urgency. Stolid, might sum him up, and The Blind Side is exactly that.

It’s competent, dependable and formulaic in its telling of a true-life tale, assembling a collection of readily identifiable Hollywood clichés to accompany its good Southern values. It’s thus unsurprising that the biggest charge to be levelled against it – aside from it not being up to the standards of a Best Picture contender, but what’s new there – was that it represented yet another White-Saviour narrative.

Sandra Bullock initially turned down the Leigh Anne Tuohy role three times on the principle that so many Christians were hypocrites, she didn’t want to play one (very high-minded of her; it’s a wonder she ever takes any parts!) She should probably have been more concerned over the image the film as a whole seemed to be projecting, rather than just her part. But it’s easy to see why Leigh Anne secured Bullock an Oscar, since it’s an appealingly aspirational part promoting decent, caring values. And, like Julia Roberts in Erin Brokovich – Roberts also turned the Tuohy role down, but in her case, it stayed turned down – it’s just showy, plucky and forthright enough. Plus, it’s possessed of proper actorly business like an attention-grabbing accent.

Tennessee-based Tuohy and her family – including an insipid Tim McGraw, a precocious Jae Head and Lily Collins’ eyebrows – opt to adopt Big Mike Oher (Quinton Aaron), a seventeen-year-old African American in the Wingate Christian School football team, sympathetic towards his learning difficulties and uncertain emotional issues (he keeps running away from foster homes).

This eventually leads to a NCAA investigator assessing whether their eagerness to help was based on the ulterior motive of keeping him at their old school (they even bring in Kathy Bates as his tutor). But we, of course, know better. The film might not, however, since it shows a fairly cynical hand. Mike, being dumb, innocent and with a strong protective instinct (98 percentile!) is ideal for a good, white Christian family to come off looking better, even more so when Leigh Anne stands her ground with a nasty gang leader from Mike’s old neighbourhood (isn’t she spunky?)

Inevitably, this purity of motive is reinforced by Carter Burwell’s impossibly syrupy score. I don’t necessarily have a problem with such classical – or stereotypical, if you like – stories if they’re well told. Which is why Green Book, beset by accusations of regressiveness at every turn on its path to Oscar success, largely worked for me. However, Hancock’s directorial approach invites the least sympathetic reading, every element laid unflatteringly bare for all to see.

The defence in these circumstances, that the makers are simply telling a true story, can only be a part of the conversation, since as significant if not more so is how responsible it is or isn’t to tell that story at that point. After all, Hollywood is there to make money, and if that comes by reinforcing stereotypes, they aren’t going to opt out, provided they can claim they aren’t offensive stereotypes. So there’s an entirely different set of criteria also at play, besides emblazoning the good deeds, honest intent and positive impact the Tuohys had on Michael Oher’s life.

Hancock, who professes to be a Christian – I don’t know how much that was selling the movie, but his pictures do have a running foregrounding of noticeably conservative values – is also very much the maker of intrinsic Americana. In a period where Hollywood has an expectation to make most of its money internationally, his biggest successes have been markedly homegrown. The Blind Side’s 83% US gross only eclipsed by The Rookie’s 94%, although, since they’re both sports movies, that shouldn’t be so surprising (Saving Mr Banks, meanwhile, was 71% US). He’s since made The Highwaymen for Netflix, a Bonnie and Clyde picture told from the point of view of the lawmen. Well, he wouldn’t exactly be celebrating the outlaws, now would he? I ought to give it a look at some point, but by most accounts it’s victim to a discernible lack of narrative drive, tension, pace and urgency.

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