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The Blind Side vs. the New Morality
On how an old racial morality tale collided with the more cynical present
Our modern morality plays don’t happen organically, but instead are curated, usually on social media, according to the tastes of the fashionable. In the years before Elon Musk took over Twitter, you had entire news cycles built off a lady in Central Park and Catholic school teens visiting the Lincoln Memorial. These stories weren’t actually important, or even fully understood, but for many influential people the details mattered less than the symbolic importance. These incidents fit a need to depict real life villains vs. heroes, according to a popular moral framework. You were to watch to learn who to be, but more importantly who not to be.
In the not so distant past, we received a lot of our moral instruction from television and the movies. It was more common for these products to depict who you should be, rather than simply holding up a random sap as an example of who not to be. Why? Well because films are less a social form of entertainment than, obviously, social media. A movie is more reliant on your identification with a protagonist; A social media incident goes viral over a shared mob anger towards the offender.
And so we now have The Blind Side debacle, which is playing out over social media and everywhere else in the news. It’s an instance where the old moral instruction is colliding with the new moral instruction.
The Blind Side, as you might know, is the tale of a young Black athlete’s rise out of poverty that’s more so a vehicle for Sandra Bullock being the exemplar of who you should be as a wealthy White lady. That once popular story has been confounded this week by the real life Black athlete suing the White lady and the rest of her family over the financial aftermath of this movie. It’s an ugly epilogue perfectly suited to the new morality, one which is more about coming together to hate racial villains. Or it would be perfect, if Michael Oher’s current story wasn’t as dramatically overstated as the once popular version that’s led to his grievance.
From ESPN, on how this newscycle started:
Retired NFL star Michael Oher, whose supposed adoption out of grinding poverty by a wealthy, white family was immortalized in the 2009 movie "The Blind Side," petitioned a Tennessee court Monday with allegations that a central element of the story was a lie concocted by the family to enrich itself at his expense. The 14-page petition, filed in Shelby County, Tennessee, probate court, alleges that Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, who took Oher into their home as a high school student, never adopted him. Instead, less than three months after Oher turned 18 in 2004, the petition says, the couple tricked him into signing a document making them his conservators, which gave them legal authority to make business deals in his name.
Oher has publicly expressed misgivings about the movie for years, but this lawsuit and the accusations within it prompted calls for a reassessment of not just the story itself, but of its reception, and a range of other topics.
From an NPR article titled, “'The Blind Side' drama just proves the cheap, meaningless hope of white savior films”:
By now, the movie has been appropriately excoriated for being the sentimental trash it is, and these new allegations from Oher only buttress every critique made about it over the years. But even as ostensible truths come to light, the residue remains of that pesky little bugaboo of unrelenting post-racial idealism, a fixture of far too many old and new narratives.
There is something to this critique in the sense that a movie from 2009 is truly a film from a fading era. Post-racial idealism is for the boomers, and many would argue White boomers. I find The Blind Side to be an uncomfortably contrived movie, but even if it was a more nuanced product, and completely true, its broad-strokes plot points would be deemed impermissible by today’s critics. Why? They send the wrong message about heroes and villains. I can feel my internal censor alarm ringing as I read the start of this New York Times article titled, “‘Blind Side’ Lawsuit Shows Strains in Depiction of Black Athletes”:
There’s a scene in the film “The Blind Side” that intends to be an uplifting moment of triumph. Michael Oher, a talented offensive lineman who is Black, is struggling in a high school football practice, and in steps Leigh Anne Tuohy, a white woman who pulls him aside for a pep talk.
In 2009, back when it made 300 million dollars, The Blind Side must have succeeded in uplifting some people, whatever you thought of it. In 2023, after 300 million articles on the menace of Beckys and Karens, The Blind Side only intends to be uplifting. And in fairness to the modern NYT view, i.e. the modern prestige media view, The Blind Side is pretty bad. In retrospect, I’m almost coming around to calling it interesting art just because its mawkish scenes so shamelessly flout modern racial tropes:
Tuohy, who in the movie’s retelling took Oher into her home after spotting him walking on the side of a Memphis-area road on a cold, damp evening, recounts an earlier scene in which he had protected her from drug dealers in a “horrible part of town.” She instructs him to think of that when he is doing his duty — protecting the quarterback’s blind side — and to think of the quarterback and running back as herself and her biological son, Sean Jr.
“Protect the family, Michael,” Tuohy, portrayed by Sandra Bullock in the 2009 film, says.
It is here that I will confess that my mother-in-law likes The Blind Side. Or at least I vaguely remember that she does, just like I vaguely remember her liking Green Book and movies of that ilk. She enjoys these depictions of softening race relations, wrapped up into some other more specific feel-good story. She’s a nice White boomer lady, living in a planned community out in Western Nevada. This is to say that Black/White dynamics aren’t a part of her daily life and insofar as they are experienced, it’s almost purely through the TV.
Many, many people are like my mother-in-law, and I feel like that can be forgotten in The Discourse. These aren’t bad people, and their blind spots aren’t attributable to some great moral failing. They’re just boomer-aged, living somewhere far from conflict, and they want people to get along. They want to see the nation heal. They want to see a White guy not be racist and they want to see a Black guy really appreciate that he wasn’t. Maybe they’re living vicariously through the White character and having a fantasy where their own high-minded idealism gets affirmed. Maybe, maybe.
It’s why, even though I might lack a lot in common with a guy who calls himself a “Justice Journalist,” I don’t think he’s entirely wrong here.
Where I likely diverge from Mr. Modi is I don’t think it’s that big a deal that a nice lady over the age of 70 likes such a savior theme and I might even say it’s preferable to some realistic alternatives. I’d posit, perhaps controversially(!), that the boomer enjoyment of “white saviorism” in movies probably isn’t causing as much harm in the world as certain academics would suggest. Additionally, I’d posit that the now-conventional media view of race relations is just as myopic, only absent any hope.
The New Blind Side
Get Out featured a lot in the memes that sprang up in the aftermath of the Michael Oher lawsuit, which makes sense. The movie’s main villain is a perfidious White lady who, at one point, is researching Black athletes to entrap in her scheme. Just as The Blind Side might be a marker of the early Obama era, Get Out denotes a cultural shift in the early Trump era. Bradley Whitford’s “By the way, I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could” line isn’t just hilarious; it also reminds you that Obama has left the stage. In his wake, Get Out’s cynical, pessimistic view of liberal White racial overtures became a kind of media consensus, the sort that rips apart The Blind Side in retrospect.
What’s funny about the revisionism on The Blind Side is that the media, in effect, traded one simplistic racial parable for another (At least until the Tuohys and their lawyers fired off some strong sounding “shakedown” rebuttals). A pre-social-media-era tale of wealthy Whites atoning for the past with an act of kindness has given way to a post-social-media interpretation where their act is indeed, just an act, as it always is. What looked like open-minded kindness is just another manifestation of racism. Or so goes the thinking.
Except, like so many discrete stories that get shoehorned into The Discourse, this one doesn’t appear to map neatly onto anyone’s ideological project. Oher alleges that the Tuohys locked him out of Blind Side riches, but it’s been reported that he got $100,000 from the film, just like the individual Tuohys did. That’s a small fraction of what the movie made, but it’s not as though the family, already extremely wealthy off Sean Tuohy’s business empire, benefited greatly monetarily.
It is here that I’ll pause and note that The Blind Side movie was inspired by a book of the same name, written by the ultra successful Michael Lewis. As often is the case, the book is better than the movie, though I’d say the book also didn’t completely work for me. It’s a high concept offering, where Lewis tries to merge two distinct works into one. One part is about the history of modern football and I fucking loved it. You get graphic depictions of violence and the schematic innovations inspired by such brutality. That all is a lead up to explaining why the left tackle, the guy who protects the quarterback’s “blind side,” became important. Then we are introduced to Michael Oher and this human interest story that I didn’t really care about.
The book was a big best seller, but I believe that was off the strength of Michael Lewis’ status as non fiction superstar. The Blind Side, as a book, didn’t wow the critics, and I think it’s because it was aimed at trying to make very different types of people happy. The book’s muted reception might have something to do with why those involved weren’t excitedly primed to profit off a movie. Who could have predicted that the studio would cut out all that fascinating football history and somehow turn a glorified Hallmark Channel flick into a box office smash?
Michael Lewis was ripped for saying, “Michael Oher should join the writers’ strike,” but I found his explanation to be pretty persuasive. It’s plausible that the studio cashed in far more so than the source of the IP, as often happens.
It should be noted that Oher is hardly a pauper either, having made over $34 million in the NFL. That money is all well-earned, considering how tough life is for an offensive lineman, but this fact should lend some perspective on how we’re not talking about someone who’s been absent means this last decade. Now that the Tuohys have ended their conservatorship with Oher, under media scrutiny, it’s Oher’s life to live. The truth of his claims vs. the Tuohys’ counterclaims will shake out, but there’s an irony in how the highly sympathetic media treatment of this 37-year-old, on the basis of a movie depicting him as simple, conforms to the idea that he’s an unsophisticated victim.
The New Idealism: No Idealism
There probably is a dearth of “Clear Villain” and “Clear Victim” in this, as is true in 99 percent of situations. As much as I found The Blind Side to be an eye-rolling movie, and also a flawed book, I might even prefer its antiquated hamfisted idealism to the sort of moralizing that’s replaced it.
Lewis himself has taken a lot of heat in a variety of high-status publications, places where he’s normally fêted. Now he’s getting criticized in the LA Times by some guy who hates football as a professional crusade:
Lewis chronicles all this as if it were a heroic journey. It does not appear to trouble him that, for every Michael Oher, there are tens of thousands of African American children who will never be rescued, who are born into broken family systems, crumbling schools and underserved neighborhoods.
That seems like a lot to lay at the feet of Michael Lewis, who’s also getting crushed for joking about Oher’s academic bonafides. This article by Steve Almond, who was taking a victory lap over his scathing review of The Blind Side book back in 2007, is an example of today’s competitive, negative morality. Almond, a White liberal guy from Palo Alto, is seeking to prove greater high-mindedness than Michael Lewis, a White liberal guy in the Berkeley Hills. Sure, Lewis is inspired by the salvation of one Black kid, but he certainly isn’t as troubled as Steve Almond is by the plight of all the other Black kids. So we all know who the better guy is here.
And what’s Almond’s solution?
What these children need isn’t the charity of some wealthy family or the stern wisdom of some sanctified coach. They need the kind of social, economic and educational support that can begin to repair the damage wrought by two centuries of systemic racism and economic injustice.
So, something vague that somehow will “begin” to fix the unfixable. At least Michael Lewis can feel momentarily good about one Black kid getting rich. Almond seems to feel no joy until some unspecified date when the most intractable problems get solved.
Almond does make one good point in his original review though, and it’s about the question Michael Lewis doesn’t ask in his book.
The Tuohys eventually persuade Oher to attend their alma mater, Ole Miss, where football players have to “go through the tedious charade of pretending to be ordinary college students” to get their shot at the NFL. Lewis doesn’t dwell on the cynicism of this arrangement, either. He is too determined to paint Oher as a heroic figure. “The world that had once taken no notice of Michael Oher was now so invested in him that it couldn’t afford to see him fail,” he insists. The problem is, that Lewis never bothers to ask why.
I’ll take my crack at answering “why,” though Almond did indicate one aspect in mentioning that Oher ended up playing for Ole Miss, the Tuohy alma mater.
I don’t think it’s money, even if Leigh Anne Tuohy’s speaking fee is very expensive. I can’t tell you how genuine or selfless the Tuohys were in their feelings for Oher back when they took him in, but it’s pretty obvious this nine figure net worth family didn’t require cash. People with money, having checked that box, often drift in the direction of seeking a kind of moral status. Saving Oher likely felt good intrinsically, but it also probably felt good to tell the sort of story that became a bestseller. Not only did they, boosters for Ole Miss, help their beloved football program, but they were elevated in status by the tale of how they did it.
There’s also a potential religious component. The Tuohys are committed Christians. Both the book and movie qualify as rare pop cultural products that depict faith in a real world positive light. It would appear that the Tuohys care about that sort of message.
In this way, Oher’s focus on the money has probably led the media down the wrong path of critique. He wasn’t seen as a profit center for the family that took him in; he was a source of school pride, but more importantly, a source of moral pride. Was he objectified in this process? Treated as an instrument to boost the egos of White people in his midst, rather than a fully formed human being? I doubt the ugly public divorce between Oher and the family can objectively answer these questions.
A bigger question might be whether Lewis’ unasked “why” even matters. The Tuohys clearly helped Michael Oher, regardless of their true motivations. If they were motivated by some haughty sense of racial noblesse oblige, then at least it led to someone else’s opportunity. From a consequentialist perspective, that’s the takeaway. The Tuohys were good because they did good. We should want others to do similarly, generally speaking.
What did the Tuohys want? Probably the same thing so many media members criticizing them want, after years spent being weaned on stories of racist villains and heroic idealists. Steve Almond and so many others just yearn to be the good guy in a racial narrative. The issue is, in this new morality era, the only good guy permitted is the one who sees through the façade of good intentions.