Sports movies have a long, troubled history of well-meaning white paternalism, with poor black athletes finding success through white charity. But The Blind Side, based on Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book, finds a new low. In the character of “Big Mike” (real life success story Michael Oher, played by Quinton Aaron), a poor, undereducated teenager later groomed into a top-tier offensive lineman, the film suggests a gentle, oversized puppy in need of adoption. (The family that takes him in literally picks him up from the streets during a rainstorm, like a stray. All that’s missing are the children pleading, “Mom, can we keep him?”) Given his background and 0.6 GPA, there’s no question that Oher was well behind his peers, but casting him as a big-hearted simpleton makes him seem subhuman, more mascot than man.
Lewis’ book heads down two narrative tracks. One concerns the increased importance of the left tackle position in football to protect the “blind side” of right-handed quarterbacks; the other follows Oher, a former all-American Ole Miss left tackle and current Baltimore Ravens rookie, who was rescued from terrible poverty and put through a private Christian high school in Tennessee. Save for a prologue that forces viewers to relive the gruesome Joe Theismann injury from multiple angles, the film understandably discards the former thread in favor of the personal story. Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw star as the Tuohys, a wealthy couple who offer Oher a nice home, a tutor (Kathy Bates) to raise his grades, and a controversial pipeline to their alma mater, should his success on the field match his immense potential.
The Blind Side paints Bullock’s Leigh Anne Tuohy as a tough-as-nails Southern belle who acts as Oher’s left tackle in life, shielding him from the racist whisperings of the country-club set and a dim high-school coach who doesn’t know how to communicate with him. (Aaron’s Oher looks lost on the field until she asks him to imagine the quarterback and running back as family members to protect from harm. As if anyone’s that dim.) There’s real ambiguity in the Oher case, but writer-director John Lee Hancock papers over it; it’s possible to see the Tuohys as generous, caring people without brushing off their less-altruistic reasons for sponsoring Oher. But true to a movie with a regrettably old-fashioned view of race relations, it’s all much simpler than common sense dictates.