The Blind Side

Director:

J. L. Hancock

Producer:

J. B

Year:

2009

Distributor:

Warner Brothers

Country:

USA

Running time:

128 min

Genre:

Drama

Format:

Colour

Availability:

DVD; Blu-Ray

Keywords:

University athletics (football), Boosters, Recruitment, Class Differences, Based on book, Helicopter parents
Summary:

A recent resurrection of the anachronistic college football theme, ostensibly based on the book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, by Michael Lewis (New York, 2006). This is the only credible format a college football film today, i.e., a biographical drama based on true events, but which Hollywood has made palatable for audiences by turning it into a feel-good celebration of a rags-to-riches achievement of the American Dream. The result is a film not about college athletics or higher education, but rather a Dickensian trope with Leigh-Anne Touhy (Sandra Bullock) as the comely Benefactress, and Michael Oher as a gargantuan Pip.

Teaching Notes:
History and portrayal of university athletics:

Produced at the same time as the horrific details of the Sandusky scandal were front-page news, The Blind Side avoids raising the embarrassing spectre of the realities of American college football simply by eliding them; a neat cinematic sleight-of-hand considering that the film is a biopic of Michael Oher, whose abilities as an All-American offensive lineman for the University of Mississippi’s Ole Miss Rebels led to his 1st-round draft pick by the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens. The Blind Side takes its title from, and is — rather selectively — based on, Michael Lewis’s book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game (2009). For Lewis, “evolution” refers to the aftermath of Lawrence Taylor’s infamous sack of quarterback Joe Theisman, resulting in a career-ending compound fracture of Theisman’s leg. In order to protect quarterbacks from such catastrophic injuries from hits by 300-lb offensive linemen, Lewis recounts how pro football evolved, not by adopting new rules to lessen the violence (which some might think the obvious solution), but rather to ensure that their team’s defensive tackles (whose job it is to protect the quarterback from the Taylors) were even more huge that the opposing team’s linemen. In theatres of war, this is known as a nuclear arms race — a path to mass destruction that modern nations avoid for mutual self-interest — but the exact opposite occurs in professional football, resulting in behemoths like Michael Oher.

The film opens with a prologue directly adapted from the back story with which Lewis begins his book, which recounts the details of the Lawrence sack from the snap of the ball to that of Theisman’s leg. The film depicts this in even more gruesome detail by incorporating the footage from the Monday Night Football broadcast, replete with excruciating reverse-angle, slow-motion replays of what happens when a 240-lb man jumps on someone’s tibia (this includes being carried off the field on a stretcher writhing in agony). Or as Lewis recounts, quoting Redskins lineman Joe Jacoby (who had just been told by teammate Russ Grimm that Theisman’s bone was exposed with “his blood spurting straight up in the air”): “Russ was a hunter. He’d gutted deer. And he said, ‘That’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen’” (p.25-26). Fortunately, the remainder of The Blind Side spares us from any further footage of football violence — or any scenes of football games at all — other than a few vignettes of Oher playing high-school football.

Instead, The Blind Side presents a Dickensian take on how Michael Oher began life as one of twelve children born to a crack-addicted mother, how he was put into foster care, was bounced around various foster homes, ultimately ending up homeless on the streets of Memphis; but whose fortunes were suddenly changed when he was taken in — and eventually adopted — by Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy, an affluent white couple who embody the American Dream to the point of caricature. We pick up the tale when Michael Oher was sixteen, and had recently been enrolled in Briarcrest Christian School through the efforts of both Tony Henderson, a local mechanic with whom Oher had been living temporarily, and Hugh Freeze, the senior football coach at Briarcrest. The film recreates the meeting between Freeze and Henderson, who was aware of Oher’s athletic abilities and had brought “Big Mike” along to meet Freeze, knowing that the best path to admitting a student with an IQ of 80 is the prospect of a champion football team. Lewis provides this account of the meeting: “Then Michael Oher stepped around the corner and into his office. Good God! He’s a monster! ... How can I get their transcripts?" asked Hugh. (50-51)

Uh-Oh: The transcripts were rather less impressive than Michael Oher’s physical prowess: He was essentially illiterate, functioning academically at a grade three level. The Tuohy’s daughter Connor, and younger son Sean, also attended Briarcrest, and the film depicts how Leigh Anne Tuohy became aware of Oher’s predicament when, while driving her kids home from school, she saw him wandering aimlessly along the streets of Memphis. This prompted Leigh Anne to invite Michael home for Thanksgiving dinner, beginning the relationship which ultimately led to his being formally adopted by Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy. The remainder of The Blind Side is entirely devoted to Michael Oher’s high school days at Briarcrest, where as a football player he developed into a top college prospect, while constantly struggling to achieve the academic requirements needed to graduate, or more precisely, to be eligible for a college football scholarship. To accomplish the latter, the Tuohy’s hired a private full-time tutor, Sue Mitchell — or Miss Sue, portrayed by Kathy Bates as a genial cross between Maya Angelou and Anne Sullivan — whose job it was to provide Michael Oher with a high-school transcript sufficient to meet such exacting academic standards.

The film doesn’t tell us why Miss Sue was available, but Michael Lewis does: She had recently been refused a teaching job at Briarcrest for not being “Christian” enough; as Lewis relates: "Though Miss Sue said she believed in God she had trouble proving it. (‘The application did not have one question about education,’ Miss Sue said. ‘It was all about religion, and what I thought about homosexuality and drinking and smoking.’) She hadn’t been Born Again, and she didn’t often go to church. She also advertised herself as a liberal. When Sean heard that, he hooted at her, ‘We had a black son before we had a Democrat friend!’” (p208) Evidently Sean thought this was actually funny, not ironic. However, the film’s producers sensibly realized that many potential filmgoers might demur. In fact, the film – evidently keeping a mainstream target audience in mind -- dodges the implications of the Evangelical Christian nature of Oher’s new academic and familial environment as nimbly as an all-pro running back; including just one brief scene where Oher joins the Tuohy family in saying grace prior to Thanksgiving dinner.

In its depiction of Oher’s academic progress at Briarcrest, The Blind Side resorts to the hoary Hollywood myth of the heroic and compassionate teacher — Briarwood entire teaching staff is portrayed as such mdash; depicted in the film by a montage of the progression of red pencil-marks on Oher’s tests and essays from F’s to stratospheric C's, in no small part the result of Miss Sue’s transforming tutelage. A couple of factual details of Oher’s high-school academic career make it into the film, such as his intuitive grasp of the “meaning” behind Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade,” which results in a GPA-raising English essay. Oher’s essay did not reflect on such things as the futility and horror of war or the consequences of blind obedience to a suicidally irrational order, rather, the film offers this as an insight into why Oher had scored in the 99th percentile of something called “protective instincts.” Apparently, the American academic testing industry can now provide reliable statistical indicators of human instincts, as confirmed by Oher’s reflective essay on The Charge, where he notes that the poem teaches the importance of looking out for one’s own, rather than killing the other guys. Oher’s near-perfect score in protective instincts is touted throughout the film: In one of the handful of scenes which are biographically accurate, Oher is involved in a traffic accident while driving with the Tuohy’s youngest son; and severely injures his arm while protecting Sean Jr. from the impact of the airbag. Oblivious to the injury, his only concern is for Sean Jr. Unfortunately, the film distorts Oher’s innate altruism into a recurring motif, egregiously depicting it as the means by which Leigh-Anne and the Briarcrest football coach are able to overcome Oher’s initial reluctance to inflict bone-crunching hits on the football field; rather a liability in the gladiatorial combat known as American football.

The film depicts Oher’s debut as a member of the Briarcrest team, a gentle giant seemingly incapable of hitting or blocking, much to the frustration of Briarcrest coach Hugh Freeze, who’s ineffective berating of Oher causes Leigh-Anne to act as the sort of stage-mom we’ve become used to reality-TV dance contests and beauty-pageants for six-year olds: She marches onto the field, and takes big Mike aside for a bit of motherly advice. Of course, she could have told him that — given his near-genius-level protective instincts — perhaps a better line of work might for him to join the Peace Corps or become a social worker. Instead, she admonishes him to regard the opposing team as nasty guys out to harm her or his defenceless little brother. After this, all she, Coach Freeze, and the rest of us have to do is sit back and enjoy Oher throwing bodies into the bleachers. The film’s account of this eureka moment, however, is rather different than what actually happened: Oher’s instinctual transformation from protective to aggressive was simply his entirely understandable response to such line-of-scrimmage banter as “Hey fat ass! I’m a put your fat ass in the dirt!” (p.134). While this is a simple reflection of Oher’s humanity, the film’s fictionalized version of Leigh-Anne’s intervention would have been more appropriate in an instructional video for training a St. Bernard, an inference apparently overlooked by the director John Lee Hancock.

This points to an inherent contradiction in the narrative: while apparently quite content to depict that for Oher, the gridiron curriculum was best taught using Pavlovian conditioning, the film ignores one of the most crucial academic interventions cooked up by the Tuohy’s and Miss Sue: their tireless — and ultimately successful — efforts to have Michael Oher certified as Learning Disabled in order to buy more time to bring his grades up to the NCAA’s minimal academic standard. (p.214). Instead, the film completely misrepresents Oher's academic progress, condensing it into a do-or-die challenge: either Michael must write a good end-of-term essay, or else. Unfortunately for Tennyson, Michael chooses The Charge of the Light Brigade as his subject — although Tennyson didn't realize it, his poem was about American football and family values — and we are treated to Oher's crowd-pleasing voice-over of his essay, accompanied by a swelling orchestral accompaniment, during a montage of Oher's pensively furrowed brow, the impressed smiles of his teachers, and finally, Oher's high-school graduation. While Oher’s essay on The Charge of the Light Brigade was a convenient symbol of his academic improvement, the reality was far removed from the mythology of metiocracy and the American Dream, which in Oher’s case is described by Lewis as “the great Mormon grade-grab.” (p.214) Here, Lewis is referring to the fact that once the Tuohy’s managed to het Oher certified as learning-disabled, they were able to enroll him in online remedial courses offered by Brigham Young University, so-called “character education courses” designed for the academically-challenged. Through Miss Sue’s tutoring, Oher was able to successfully complete a series of these courses, allowing the Tuohy’s to replace Oher’s previous failing grades with a “BYU A.” (p.215)

The Blind Side’s reiteration of Hollywood’s little white schoolhouse myth is one of the more egregious aspects of the film, which ends with Oher’s successful “graduation” from Briarcrest, depicted with the obligatory gown and mortarboard ceremony, followed by a quiet stroll by Michael and the Tuohy’s across Briarcrest’s bucolic campus. This is followed by another family stroll across the equally-bucolic campus of Leigh-Anne’s alma mater ‘Ole Miss,` where Oher has accepted a football scholarship. The film`s brief depiction of Oher`s college career results in an unintentionally funny portrayal of the Tuhoys as the ultimate helicopter parents: here we see Leigh-Anne gently informing Michael that "things will be different at college," telling him where he will go for his meals, and fussing over him like a mother taking he child to his first all-day kindergarten class.

As the credits roll, we are told that Oher went on to graduate with a degree in criminal justice — with all loose ends neatly tied by a varsity ribbon — and was subsequently drafted by the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens. In fact, Michael Oher’s life at college wasn’t much different from his high school days. The Tuohy’s arranged to ship Miss Sue to ‘Ole Miss along with Michael, where he joined about forty other students with the oxymoronic categorization of “academically at risk scholarship recipients” (meaning that they had third-grade reading skills or less) in “the tedious charade of pretending to be ordinary college students (p.265). And so Miss Sue, along with Michael, “spent a great deal of time inside a redbrick building with dark windows on the fringes of the Ole Miss campus, being spoon-fed books by an army of tutors…A big part of the tutor’s job was to steer the players away from the professors and courses most likely to lead to lack of performance. The majority of the football team wound up majoring in “Criminal Justice” (p.265). This cinematic sleight-of-hand — focusing solely on the altruism of the Tuhoy’s and a highly fictionalized account of Oher’s days at Briarcrest — allows the film to escape what would have been a no-win situation (i.e., real life). On the one hand, any depiction of the sad realities of the ludicrous academic standards at Ole Miss, as well as the lingering racist elements on campus and in the attitude of Ole Miss Boosters, would have destroyed the mythic narrative structure essential to films like The Blind Side. It also would have deep-sixed any chance of filming on the Ole Miss campus, as well as the cameo appearances by NCAA coaches: In the Afterword to the paperback edition of The Blind Side, Michael Lewis comments on Ole Miss’s offended reaction to his book (p.331). On the other hand, the farcical reality of college athletics, academic standards and recent events like the Sandusky/Penn State scandal have now been so widely-documented that any attempt to resurrect the Gipper mythology would likely have been met with critical derision and popular disbelief. Consider, after all, how Forrest Gump — made in 1984 — so effortlessly satirized the reality of American college football in its depiction of how simple-minded Forrest literally ran his way into a football scholarship.

The film’s studious avoidance of the realities of US college football meant that the significant biographical episodes of Oher’s time at Ole Miss were instead both chronologically and contextually misrepresented. In one climactic scene, Oher, not long after his adoption by the Tuohy’s, encounters some acquaintances from his childhood ghetto at a house party in the run-down neighbourhood. The scene is so replete with racist stereotypes of African-Americans — promiscuous women, sneering neighbourhood toughs and shady drug dealers — that it resembles an episode from a 1970’s TV police procedural drama, or a parody of a Spike Lee film. When someone makes a lewd and insulting remark about sexual relationships between Michael and his white sister and mother, Oher responds predictably and mayhem ensues. That such a remark was indeed made is the only factual element in the film: However, it didn’t come from leering black gangsta in a crack-house, but rather from one of Oher’s own teammates at 'Ole Miss — freshman linebacker Antonio Turner. In addition, Oher’s violent response, far from being spontaneous and emotional, was both premeditated and rather strategically implemented. Upon Turner’s remark, Oher initially gave chase, but then paused to inform Turner that before proceeding he wanted to change his shirt so as not to get Turner’s blood on the nice one he was wearing. While Oher then strolled back to his dormitory, Turner sought refuge in the Ole Miss athlete’s study hall where, “Surrounded by teammates and white tutors, he figured he’d be safe. He figured wrong.”(p. 289). As football players and tutors took cover under desks, Oher pulverized Turner’s face and threw him about the room. Immediately following Turner’s bloody dispatch, people began screaming as they noticed the limp body of a small three-year old child — the son of one of the Ole Miss white tutors — lying in a pool of blood. At this point Oher must have been desperately hoping that his adoptive dad shared his "protective instincts," since his next action — when he realized the police were on their way — was to call him. Sean Tuhoy’s next steps were to engage a top criminal defense lawyer, and to enlist the support of his influential cronies at Ole Miss. In the film’s depiction of the event, Oher’s crack house fracas is presented a bit of good ole American frontier justice, and as such he is absolved. In reality, the consequences were more severe: Oher was required to apologise to all concerned, and given ten hours of community service. As a result, Lewis recounts, “Michael was restored to his former status as a model citizen — and the incident never even hit the campus newspaper. It just went away, the way it would have gone away for some well-to-do white kid" (p.316).

And, of course, it just went away in the movie, leaving the generic myths intact.