The Blind Side Setting Essay

It is not only that family’s cultural and political allegiances that make “The Blind Side” something like a red state version of “Precious.” The Tuohys are wealthy white Southerners who send their children to a Christian private school and who treat college football (in particular when Ole Miss is involved) as a second religion. When Michael’s tutor, played by Kathy Bates, confesses her party affiliation to the Tuohys, Leigh Anne’s husband, Sean (played by Tim McGraw, who lends the movie further regional bona fides) wonders, “Who would have thought we’d have a black son before we met a Democrat?”

Who indeed? Or, for that matter, at least when audiences hear this line, a black president (who is also a Democrat). This movie’s generally warm, honest portrayal of Southern whites — a group that tends to be either sentimentalized or sneered at in movies and on television — is one of its striking features. Another is its thorough if somewhat understated conservatism. To the extent that Michael represents a social problem (or maybe a whole bunch of them, including poverty, drug addiction and family dysfunction), the solution depicted is individual, charitable and, at least implicitly, faith based.

Some of Leigh Anne’s friends wonder if she is helping Michael out of a sense of “white guilt,” a notion she laughs off without entirely dispelling. Whatever her deeper motives, her actions are fairly radical. After figuring out that Michael, who attends school with her children, is homeless, Leigh Anne offers him a bed for the night. Eventually she and Sean become his legal guardians and the leaders of a group — including their children, Michael’s football coach, tutor and teachers — committed to helping the young man succeed.

Precious (Gabourey Sidibe), for her part, benefits from a similar support network. She finds her way into an alternative school program for at-risk girls, and blossoms in the friendship of her peers and the patient encouragement of her teacher, Ms. Rain (Paula Patton). The school secretary (played by the comedian and talk show host Sherri Shepherd) and a kindly male nurse (Lenny Kravitz) also help Precious, as does Ms. Weiss, the social worker played by Mariah Carey. Unlike the private charity of the Tuohys, the kindness of the nurses and teachers who help Precious is sanctioned and supported by the state.

It may be something of an inside joke that Precious claims to be unable to determine Ms. Weiss’s ethnicity, given the similar enigma surrounding Ms. Carey’s background. But one notable difference between Precious’s benefactors and Michael Oher’s is that Michael’s are virtually all white.

There is an older male relative who engineers Michael’s admission to the school where Leigh Anne discovers him, but he disappears almost entirely from the movie, resurfacing briefly at graduation. There are brief scenes with Michael’s mother and one of his brothers, but the world he knew before the Tuohys is rendered in a flurry of broad strokes and is represented by a leering, violent drug dealer who offers himself as an alternative to Leigh Anne. The only nonunderclass black person is the N.C.A.A. official who shows up near the end to threaten the football scholarship that the Tuohys have done so much to help Michael earn.

“Precious” has been lauded for its honesty, and also faulted for its extreme, pathologizing depiction of black family life. African-American writers have been on both sides of this argument, and also in the middle. Armond White, the great contrarian of American film criticism (and the chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle) accused “Precious” of trafficking in “racist hysteria disguised as social sensitivity,” and compared what he saw as its misrepresentations of African-American life to those in D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation.”

Raina Kelley, in an essay in Newsweek, took a more ambivalent, less incendiary view, noting that the movie’s intense focus on an individual’s terrible story blunted its potential to make a larger statement. “I wish I could agree with those who say ‘Precious’ is just one more movie that feeds our vision of ourselves as victims,” she wrote. “Even that would have been better than what lies underneath: the fact that black people have begun to accept as unchangeable the lot of those stuck in the ghetto.”

And this is a critique that might extend to “The Blind Side” as well. Both movies tell stories that suggest a way out of poverty, brutality and domestic calamity for certain lucky individuals while saying very little about how those conditions might be changed. For all their differences, they ultimately occupy a common ground that is both optimistic and, at the same time, curiously defeatist. Both locate the problems facing their main characters in the failure of families — of mothers in particular — and find solutions in better families, substitute mothers (Ms. Rain and Leigh Anne), whose selflessness and loyalty exorcise the biological monsters who have been left behind. The fact that “The Blind Side” is based on a true story lends credibility to this sentimental idea.

Left or right, black or white, Americans love happy endings. Overcoming adversity is our national pastime, especially when it can also be a spectator sport. And we love stories of heroic educators, coaches and moms — Michelle Pfeiffer in “Dangerous Minds,” Edward James Olmos in “Stand and Deliver” — who change the lives of poor, marginalized children by teaching them hard work and self esteem. Let me be clear: I’m not disparaging either “Precious” or “The Blind Side,” even though I think “Precious” is a much better movie. They are both sincere and serious, and if they serendipitously share a premise, they also share a blind spot, which is hardly theirs alone.

At the end of “Precious” the heroine shoulders her burden and sets off to make her way in the world, a conclusion that may be objectively bleak — Precious is an H.I.V.-positive teenage mother who has only recently learned to read and write — but that fills the audience with a sense of hard-won redemption. We believe she will be all right because we would rather believe that than confront the failures of institutions, programs and collective will that leave so many other Preciouses unrescued.

Michael Oher, at the end of “The Blind Side,” fares rather better, but the film concludes with a reminder of what might have been, as Leigh Anne peruses newspaper accounts of young men from his part of Memphis killed by gang violence. She wonders why he was so much more fortunate, modestly declining to mention her own role and thereby deflecting attention from the movie’s curious moral, which is that the best hope for a poor black child in America is to have rich white parents.

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Correction: November 29, 2009

A film column last Sunday about the different stories of poverty in two new films misstated, at one point, the title of one of the movies. As the article noted elsewhere, it is “The Blind Side,” not “The Blind Spot.” (The other film that examines issues of poverty is “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.”)

  • Based on the true story of Leigh Anne Tuohy and Sean Tuohy who take in a homeless teenage African-American, Michael Oher. Michael has no idea who his father is and his mother is a drug addict. Michael has had little formal education and few skills to help him learn. Leigh Anne soon takes charge however, as is her nature, ensuring that the young man has every opportunity to succeed. When he expresses an interest in football, she goes all out to help him, including giving the coach a few ideas on how best to use Michael's skills. They not only provide him with a loving home, but hire a tutor to help him improve his grades to the point where he would qualify for an NCAA Division I athletic scholarship. Michael Oher was the first-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens in the 2009 NFL draft.

    —garykmcd

  • Seventeen year old Michael Oher, an extremely large, physically imposing black youth, grew up in the projects in Memphis. He no longer lives with his drug addicted mother, but is in foster care when he isn't running away to sleep wherever else he can find. Out of circumstances including Coach Burt Cotton's belief that he would be an asset to the school's football program based solely on his size and seeing him move, Michael is accepted into Wingate Christian School - an exclusive private school - despite his abysmal 0.6 GPA. After Michael starts attending classes at Wingate, most of his teachers believe he is unteachable, except his science teacher, Mrs. Boswell, who begins to understand that he learns in a different way. Believing he is indeed homeless, Caucasian and staunch Republican Leigh Anne Tuohy - mother of Wingate students, teen Collins Tuohy and adolescent S.J. Tuohy, and wife to Sean Tuohy, franchise owner of several Taco Bell's - invites Michael to stay in the Tuohy's upscale home for the night. But that one night slowly extends itself both in terms of time and emotion as the Tuohys begin to treat Michael like one of the family and vice versa. Part of that emotional investment for Leigh Anne is fully understanding Michael as a person so that he can fulfill his potential as a human being, which includes giving him opportunities such as what Coach Cotton initially saw in Michael as a potential left tackle. Potential problems include Michael's poor academic standing which may prohibit him from participating in extracurricular activities at the school, his learning disability which may extend to other aspects of his life beyond his schooling, whether he actually can play football, and authorities questioning Leigh Anne and all the Tuohy's motivations in inviting Michael into their home and family.

    —Huggo

  • Michael Oher, a homeless black teen, has drifted in and out of the school system for years.Then Leigh Anne Tuohy and her husband, Sean Tuohy, take him in. The Tuohys eventually become Michael's legal guardians, transforming both his life and theirs. Michael's tremendous size and protective instincts make him a formidable force on the gridiron, and with help from his new family and devoted tutor, he realizes his potential as a student and football player.

    —Jwelch5742

  • A poor, oversized and under-educated teenager is recruited by a major college football program where he is groomed into an athletically and academically successful NFL prospect.

    —IMDb editor

  • "The Blind Side" depicts the story of Michael Oher, a homeless African-American youngster from a broken home, taken in by the Touhys, a well-to-do white family who help him fulfill his potential. At the same time, Oher's presence in the Touhys' lives leads them to some insightful self-discoveries of their own. Living in his new environment, the teen faces a completely different set of challenges to overcome. As a football player and student, Oher works hard and, with the help of his coaches and adopted family, becomes an All-American offensive left tackle.

    —Anonymous

  • The story of Michael Oher, a homeless and traumatized boy who became an All American football player and first round NFL draft pick with the help of a caring woman and her family.

    —Kenneth Chisholm

  • The synopsis below may give away important plot points.

    Synopsis

    • The Blind Side is based on the remarkable true story of Baltimore Ravens' offensive left tackle Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron). Michael grew up in the inner city housing projects with his mother in Memphis, Tennessee aptly named "Hurt Village." Michael's story begins with his being homeless and coming from a broken home with a drug-addicted mother, and an absentee father. Because of his family circumstances, Family Services took control of his life as he was growing up. Unfortunately, he was being bounced around in and out of foster homes, and now as a teenager he finds himself discarded by the people he has been living with. By a stroke of luck, and the coach's wish for a player the size of Michael, he ends up being enrolled in a private Christian school where the Tuohy kids go. Michael is a quiet person. He is shown to have a kind of childlike personality, because he tries to play with kindergarten children (Rachel St. Gelais) who reject or ignore him. Michael is befriended by S.J. Tuohy (Jae Head), the youngest Tuohy, whose connection to Michael starts the ball rolling.

      Mike, having no money for food, lives by scrounging half-empty containers of snacks after school games, which Mr. Tuohy notices, after which he pays for a meal ticket for the boy. One icy winter night, as Michael is walking down the road to the school gym, where he has been sleeping; Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) with her husband Sean (Tim McGraw) and children JS.J. and Collins (Lily Collins), pick Michael up and take him home for the night. However, when he tries to leave in the morning, Leigh Anne insists that he stay for dinner, and the children accept Michael matter-of-factly. Soon, Leigh Anne offers him a room and bed. As she starts offering him greater and greater favours, she begins to research Michael's records, including his career aptitude test results, where the only positive score was on protective instincts. Leigh Anne will use that to explain him how to play in the field. Up to that moment, he wasn't able to get the hang of the game and its rules, and he wasn't able to understand what his role on the field was.

      From that moment, Michael starts to play well and be useful to his team. At the traditional Christmas card photograph of that year, Leigh Anne invites him to appear in the family photo. Leigh Anne's friends Beth (Rhoda Griffs), Elaine (Eaddy Mays) and Sherry (Ashley LeConte Campbell) meet regularly at a local expensive restaurant. The friends laugh about Leigh Anne's "project in the projects," but she cuts them off, saying that if they don't respect what she does, she will stop seeing them.

      An opportunity arises for Michael to play at university level. However, he needs his grades to improve, so the Tuohys hire a private tuition teacher, outspoken and kind Miss Sue (Kathy Bates), who is determined to succeed, because she, like Mrs. Tuohy, wants him to play for Ole Miss. During their Geography lesson, she makes a remark about University of Tennessee burying the body parts of dead people under their football field, which Michael seems to believe blindly. While he had been leaning toward Tennessee, this event decides him ultimately to sign on with Old Miss.

      There comes a moment when Leigh Anne wants to have a face-to-face conversation with Michael's mother (Adriane Lenox) to enable her to adopt Michael. Although she seems unresponsive in the beginning, the mother finally wishes Michael the best. She says that social services had branded Michael "a runner," and she forecasts that Leigh Anne will find one day that he has run away for good without giving any previous notice. Leigh Anne also faces some tough guys from the projects who had made ugly insinuations about her before. They are left speechless when she threatens them and is not afraid of them at all.

      Many universities want Michael to play on their teams. S.J. talks to the coaches, and leads the negotiations on Michael's behalf-- and his own. When Michael gets his grades high enough, he must make a decision, and he does. He chooses the university where Sean had played for, and where Leigh Anne had been a cheerleader. That causes Investigator Granger (Sharon Morris) to move onto the matter before Michael arrives there. She questions him as though they were holding interrogatory preceding at a police station. She thinks that the Tuohys and Miss Sue are using Michael to benefit Ole Miss, their alma mater.

      Michael runs away before the interview is over, and goes to find his birth mother. The leader of the tough guys welcomes him back to Hurt Village, offers him a beer, and insinuates that Michael has had sexual relations with Leigh Anne or her daughter. This rouses Michael's protective instincts, as the gang leader threatens to go after the two ladies himself. Michael shoves him into a wall, knocking his gun aside. After thinking and questioning Leigh Ann on the matter, Michael realizes that the Tuohys are now his family, and tells Granger that that's the reason for him to choose that Ole Miss.

      The film ends saying that he'll succeed and become a professional player later on. S.J in seen leading the players onto the gamefield with Michael before all local games.

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