The Blind Side: What's All the Cheering About?

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Alcon Film Fund / Warner Bros. Pictures

Sandra Bullock as Leigh Anne Tuohy in The Blind Side

Movie phenomena are supposed to occur once in a blue moon, or a new one. Yet for the past couple of weeks, two films, released the same day, targeting similar demographics, have had folks cheering and sobbing and clogging the plexes. Everyone expected The Twilight Saga: New Moon to be a smash, and it has not disappointed, piling up nearly half a billion dollars in less than a fortnight. But few were prepared for The Blind Side. The movie, made for just $29 million, has flummoxed Hollywood by earning about $105 million. On Thursday and Sunday, it sold more tickets than the vampire movie. The Blind Side is an old-fashioned, out-of-nowhere hit.

John Lee Hancock's movie, based on the Michael Lewis nonfiction best seller, is about Michael Oher, a homeless black teenager who was adopted by a white couple and, after many a challenge, became a star tackle at the University of Mississippi. (Today, Oher is an acclaimed rookie for the Baltimore Ravens.) A true story that sounds like it's the most improbable type of uplifting fiction, The Blind Side could have been one of the dozens of sports inspirationals that reach their core audiences, moisten many eyes and retire quickly to the DVD shelves. Yet it's obviously connecting on a grand scale and at a high intensity. So I decided to grab the tail of this comet and, back from vacation, see the movie. At two-plus hours, it feels longer than all six Rockys, but I could see why the mixed-race crowd with me at a midtown Manhattan theater loved it. I could also see why critics — those soulless skeptics — were troubled by the film and its success.

In hindsight, The Blind Side's combination of dewy do-gooderism and combat sports seems perfectly calculated to reach the widest demographic. Boys love violence; girls love love. Boys love football; girls love stories of strong women bucking the odds. The picture cagily begins with a dose of football mayhem: Lawrence Taylor's crippling 1985 takedown of Joe Theismann, later voted the NFL's Most Shocking Moment in History in an ESPN poll. That gets the guys' attention. And for the gals, there's Sandra Bullock, at age 45 the No. 1 movie heroine (after her summer smash The Proposal), as Leigh Anne Tuohy, the Memphis matron who spots young Michael Oher at the Christian school her children attend — hard not to, since he's a gigantic African American among the Caucasian cherubs — and brings him home so she can nourish the boy and give him purpose.

As a cheerleader at Ole Miss, Leigh Anne met her future husband, Sean Tuohy, a basketball star (and now a commentator for the Memphis Grizzlies) who inherited his father's chain of fast-food restaurants. The movie's Sean, nicely played by Tim McGraw, is a smart, amiable fellow who knows to keep out of the way of the family's driving force. Leigh Anne has made herself an interior decorator of the, shall we say, gaudier persuasion; her home, which is bigger than Tara, boasts bedroom pillows that are a riot of checks, stripes and leopard-skin patterns. Her personality is no less colorful. She struts through life with a scary assurance; she's a blond tornado, looking for people to put down, causes to champion. Finding Michael gives her a mission that unites home, school and her driving ambition. It's as if Erin Brockovich had been given charge of E.T.

That's how alien Michael (Quinton Aaron) appears to most of the students and faculty at Wingate Christian School. The abandoned son of a crack-addict mom (his father vanished and was murdered years later), he's the kind of kid for whom a written test looks like a scrawl in hieroglyphics, as foreign to him as a quick pass to the wideout might be to a more studious child. It asks him to strain muscles he has never been encouraged to use. His teachers dismiss him as stupid, illiterate, unteachable; his classmates shy away from him; and the ladies who lunch with Leigh Anne question her sanity. We in the audience are more enlightened, of course, and thank heaven that there's always some member of the Tuohy family around to tell the others off, freeze their superior smiles and turn their smirks to grimaces.

What Leigh Anne sees in Michael is a gentle stillness — he's like a Buddha statue transplanted to Tennessee — and she has just the energy to push this soft boulder up the hill of achievement. Checking his school records, she sees he got a 98 in "protective instincts." Why not have him protect the quarterback on the school's lackluster football team? If he turns out to be good at it, maybe he'll go to Ole Miss. She invites him to move into Casa Tuohy, assigns her mouthy son S.J. (Jae Head) to monitor Michael's exercise regimen, hires a tutor (Kathy Bates) to help him raise his grade-point average and hectors the team's clueless coach (Ray McKinnon), instructing him in the finer points of athlete motivation. Michael's problem: he doesn't want to hurt people. Leigh Anne calls him Ferdinand the Bull, after the children's-book toro who'd rather sniff flowers.

All of Michael's enablers are white folks. Here are the film's main black characters: his crack-addicted mother (Adriane Lenox, who's very good, considering what she's got to work with); a drug lord and his posse who try to derail Michael from his destiny; and a buppie lawyer from the NCAA who investigates a charge that the Tuohys have unfairly steered Michael, who's finally a much-recruited high school star, into the Ole Miss football program. These characters are either lost, evil or suspicious. It's as if blackness were a plague and adoption by whites the only cure.

Reviewing the movie for Slant, Aaron Cutler goes further: "The ultimate NFL destination renders the whole thing benevolently sadistic: A white community first removes Michael from other black people, then trains him to beat them up on the field." Well, The Blind Side isn't exactly Gladiator. Oher is being paid well to do what hundreds of thousands of young men dream of. And if he had been left on the streets of Memphis, he might be dead now. But for all the closeups of black-white handshakes, the movie does have a Manichean view of the racial divide.

There are similarities between The Blind Side and Precious, the hit indie film about a pregnant, illiterate teenage girl whose teacher goads her toward self-worth. Both Michael and Precious begin as scholastic failures with awful moms and no hope who are reclaimed and saved by a caring adult woman. Except that, here, we see the awkward teen through the eyes of his white benefactor. Leigh Anne's first visit to Michael's old neighborhood is treated like Margaret Mead landing on Samoa. She delivers tough love to Michael's mother and tough lip to the local drug lords. At times, she can be caustic to her beloved charge. At the end, as Michael goes off to college, she tells him, "If you get a girl pregnant .... I will cut off your penis." Moviegoers, of whatever race, laugh affectionately at this line, so impressed are they by an adoptive mother's drive to make a dream come true. And it did.

On the set of the 1947 Gentleman's Agreement, an Oscar winner about a reporter who pretends to be Jewish while reporting a story on anti-Semitism, one of the film's crew was asked what the moral was. "Be nice to Jews," he said, "because they might turn out to be Gentiles." The Blind Side says to be nice to homeless black kids because they could become NFL stars. Whether they want to or not. Michael certainly gets a warm bed, lots of food and familial affection from the Tuohys; they gave him a purpose-driven life. But it's their purpose. They drove him there. Michael is like the docile son who pleases his parents by becoming a doctor or lawyer. Leigh Anne's dream, not Michael's, was that he play for Ole Miss. And no Miss Daisy was ever so driving.