LOS ANGELES-It's always an interesting experience as a Christian critic to attend a film preview in Los Angeles, especially when the film is as enriching and pro-Christian as The Blind Side, which relates the true story of Baltimore Ravens rookie Michael Oher.
As a poor teenager living in one of the most dangerous projects of Memphis, Oher's life changes the day Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) sees him walking on the side of the road at night in the dead of winter in nothing but shorts and a T-shirt. Taking the Good Samaritan example to heart, Bible-believing Leigh Anne brings Michael (Quintin Aaron) home, offers him a meal and a place to sleep, and eventually, along with rest of the Tuohys, begins to see him as one of the family.
She and her husband Sean (Tim McGraw) soon adopt Michael formally and help him get his education on track by hiring tutors and encouraging him to join the football team. The rest is very recent history: Oher went on to college at Ole Miss, made the dean's list, and was a first-round pick in the 2009 NFL draft.
After the screening, many critics were, like me, dabbing their eyes and shared my feeling that The Blind Side (rated PG-13 for realistic depictions of violence and drug use) is a classic old Hollywood-style film that is well-written, nicely-paced, and wonderfully acted, in addition to being hilarious and heartwarming. After all, it's a movie about the best in humanity and how, if those who are blessed with financial and spiritual resources reach out and share those blessings, they can change the course of someone's life for good. What's not to cheer about that? Apparently, depending on your worldview, quite a bit.
Over the course of several years attending film previews, I have struck up a friendship with a reviewer for a large news service. We have the kind of good-natured debates that only friends who are diametrical opposites in all matters political and theological can share. I had no doubt that he would dislike The Blind Side as much as I liked it and that his views would represent a large portion of the entertainment press present.
I wasn't wrong. "It's formulaic," he opined. I countered: "Why, because it is about an athlete overcoming great odds to reach even greater success? There are countless movies about singers/actors/painters who drink and drug themselves to death. They are all also true stories. We don't call them formulaic. We give them Oscars." Later, I presented the outline of our debate to Blind Side's writer/director John Lee Hancock.
"It's not really a sports story, if anything it's an unconventional mother/son story," Hancock responded. "Of course because it has a happy ending some people are going to say, 'Oh it's another feel-good sports movie,' but to me it's a sports movie like Jerry Maguire was a sports movie. Or like Erin Brockovich was a legal thriller. It's only one small element of larger narrative, and it only has a few minutes of actual game footage."
Hancock then echoed my own belief that some viewers are contemptuous of emotionally uplifting story arcs no matter how based in reality: "I think some people are so cynical that anytime they finds themselves moved, they turn around and go, 'You must have manipulated me.' And of course there's the hip, cool quotient. If some people in the film community think I don't have street cred because I try to make honest, moving films, then fine. If they want to call it corny, fine. This is a great story, and it's a true story. If what the Tuohys did is somehow corny, I hope there are lot more corny people out there."
My friend had another objection. "It's racist," he argued. How so? "It's about a black man who can only succeed if a white woman saves him." Yet, I answered, it's also what actually happened. If the story were about a white woman who passed a freezing black kid by, would it then not be racist? Again, I put the question to Hancock.
"There will always be a certain camp that will say, 'Oh it's paternalism; its white guilt; its another one of those stories that says an African-American can't make it on his own.' I think its all balderdash," said Hancock. "Even though there is a racial component, I looked at this story as more of a discussion of haves and have-nots and nature versus nurture. This is a kid who been discarded by society, especially from an educational standpoint. And his story goes to prove what having a safe bed to sleep in, having a family unit, having loving, interested parents can do. Lo and behold, this kid who was falling through the cracks is on the dean's list at college. It's like a miracle, and I think that's a far more interesting element than any racial aspect of it. Leigh Anne Tuohy didn't stop that car to pick up that kid because he was African-American. She stopped that car to pick up that kid because he was cold."
Finally, my friend disliked the "goody two-shoe-ness" of the Tuohys themselves. I found this challenge the most unfair as nothing in the film's depiction of Sean or Leigh Anne suggested anything sanctimonious or holier-than-thou. If anything, the pair come off a bit ribald, though with hearts that empathize with the hurts of others. Hancock, not surprisingly, concurred. "A lot of people think Christians are uptight or not a lot of fun. But Leigh Anne and Sean are two of the most fun people I have ever met."
Also agreeing with this assessment was Sandra Bullock, who, while getting to know the Tuohys during the filming process, found her own preconceived notions about Christians challenged. "One of my biggest issues has always been people who use their faith and their religion as a banner but don't do the right things, yet still go, 'I'm a good Christian and I go to church and this is the way you should live your life,'" said Bullock. "And I'm like, you know, do not give me a lecture about how to live my life when you go to church every week but I know you are still sneaking around on your wife. And I told Leigh Anne in a live interview, one of my largest concerns getting involved with this project was that whole banner-waving thing because it scares me, and I've had experiences that haven't been great with people like that. I don't buy a lot of people who use that banner as their shield. But she was so open and honest and forthright with me I thought, wow, I've finally met someone who practices but doesn't preach."
Bullock's next comment suggested that the Tuohy's newfound fame has provided them fresh opportunities to impact others with the hope that they have. "I now have faith in those who say they represent a faith," Bullock commented. "I finally met people who walk the walk."