in Oscars Fortnight

The Blind Side (2009)

The 82nd Academy Awards (2010)
Nominations: 2
Wins: 1

I, like John, got very much into the Oscars around 2006 as well as the idea of seeing every Best Picture nominee each year. This culminated in one of my absolute wildest nights in college when I went all alone to go see the extremely forgettable Kate Winslet vehicle The Reader. However, 2009 was the year where that longterm plan came to a screeching halt, almost entirely because of The Blind Side. I saw every other Best Picture nominee in 2009, but I had so little interest in seeing this movie that I just couldn’t pay money to see it. This, of course, was a result of The Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences changing their cap of 5 Best Picture winners each year to a maximum of ten, ushering in a breadth of Best Picture nominees that hadn’t been seen since the early ’40s.

I still don’t think I’ve come down on whether expanding the number of Best Picture nominees was a good idea or not. However, if I had to choose, I think I’m against it, just because it slightly devalues the Oscars a bit, not that there weren’t unworthy Best Picture nominees before 2009. It’s just that now it seems even more likely that a second-rate film could get nominated, which then opens up the possibility that a film that shouldn’t even be nominated wins Best Picture, as we recently saw with Green Book. Still, the expanded nominees do make it so that interesting left-field choices are included in the nominations (I’m thinking Winter’s Bone, Nebraska, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Get Out to name a few). On the other hand, you’ve also got shit like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close or Bohemian Rhapsody mucking up the Best Picture race. So I don’t know, it’s kind of a wash.

Let’s get back to The Blind Side. Most people probably forget that this is an adaptation of a Michael Lewis book, though the opening of the film makes this pretty clear, as it features video of football plays as Sandra Bullock’s voiceover explains how Lawrence Taylor’s arrival in the NFL impacted the role of the offensive left tackle in football. It had me just for a brief second thinking this movie might be smarter than I’d assumed, since it instantly reminded me of subsequent Lewis adaptations Moneyball and The Big Short. However, this aspect of Lewis’ book seems to be completely absent from the rest of the film, as it (understandably) decides to focus solely on the true story of Michael Oher.

When we first meet Michael (played by Quinton Aaron), he’s going from foster home to foster home when his current caretaker asks the football coach of a local Christian school to take Michael onto their team. After convincing some of the teachers at the school, they decide to let him into the school and onto the football team. This is where he meets a younger student whose mom is Leigh Anne Tuohy, who starts to take an interest in Michael after it becomes apparent that he doesn’t really have a place to stay. So Leigh Anne takes it upon herself to have Michael stay with her and her family. In predictable fashion, Michael gets to know this family better while also grappling with childhood trauma but it’s all fine because he’s great at football and all the coaches from the top college football teams want him on their squad.

I guess the best question to ask about this movie now, which was probably asked plenty at the time is: is this movie racist? Though I don’t think this is ever going to be that simple of a question to answer for a movie that was widely released by a major studio, my short answer is “yeah, kinda”. I think the movie’s intentions are good, as it is in the end (eyeroll) a movie about a rich white family and a poor Black adolescent finding that there aren’t so many differences between them. Though it’s really hard to take the movie seriously on those shaky grounds when it succumbs to two of the biggest movie sins concerning movies about Black people — it’s both a “magic negro” movie and a “white savior” movie.

First, dealing with the “magic negro” aspect, Michael is barely a character. A lot of time early on in the movie is spent listening to his white teachers discuss how dumb he is, which of course is racist even if the movie somewhat paints this as being the product of a poor education. It’s just that they make this character barely able to speak, which I guess would be ok if they established that he had a mental disability, but that doesn’t seem to be the case, especially considering he’s able to raise his grades enough to get into college. I don’t even need to get into how Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, a movie 40 years older than this one, is able to make its Black main character both charmingly pure but also feel like a real human being. Even another movie that questionably handles race relations, Green Book, still manages to make Don Shirley feel like a fully fleshed-out character.

This all goes hand-in-hand with The Blind Side being a “white savior” story. While we see that Michael does possess both immense size as well as athletic potential, it’s not until through the help of his white coach and his white adopted mom (who knows about football) that we see him excel on the field. He also gets lost almost completely in the film’s second half as almost all of the characters driving any of the scenes forward are Leigh Anne or one of the many real-life college football coaches (including now-Senator/Trump sycophant Tommy Tuberville) trying to woo Michael toward a career of football excellence.

For all the unintentional racism in this movie, I think the thing that bothered me the most is that it’s boring. I know I’m not someone who’s innately interested in a movie about football, but as Moneyball demonstrated a couple years later, there is a way to make a movie about sports that can completely appeal to people who aren’t a fan of that particular sport. The Blind Side, however, does little to get me interested in any of Michael’s on-field accomplishments, one because it’s never really established how much he’s invested in football. But also the film doesn’t really set up tangible stakes for any of the games we see, though I suppose the ultimate goal is him getting into college. Even there, we don’t see a lot of huge obstacles over this happening, apart from a tense conversation with an NCAA investigator. Then on top of that, the movie has the thematic complexity of a Disney Channel movie while the complexity of the filmmaking is just slightly above that.

This might be the worst Best Picture nominee I’ve seen, though it seems like it got the nomination almost entirely as a way of justifying Sandra Bullock’s Best Actress win. After all, that was the only other category it was nominated for other than Best Picture. I will say that Sandy is pretty good in this movie and even embodies the only aspect I appreciated about The Blind Side. This is that the movie is never too condescending toward its very traditionally Southern characters, which Hollywood often has a hard time doing. I think it speaks to Bullock’s performance that she initially turned down this role since she struggled with having to play a devout Christian. However, she never turns Leigh Anne into a caricature of your typical Real Housewife when she easily could have slipped into that territory. But again, that’s pretty faint praise if I can say that the best thing about this movie is how respectful it is of its white characters. Good grief.