I recently ventured past the holiday bargain-hunters to see two very different blockbuster films. Both movies centered around African-American teenagers who are up against the odds but destined to overcome, yet their approaches were strikingly different.
Of course, these movies serve two different purposes. One entertains and affirms, while the other challenges and transports. You may prefer to see a film that encourages a more passive escape into fantasy, andThe Blind Side won’t disappoint.Precious takes some effort, a willingness to confront the most revolting sides of humanity and the energy to think through how it relates to your own life.
Precious, based on the novel Push by Sapphire, contrasts a world full of severe human depravity with a handful of individuals – predominantly the title character – who hold on to hope when all seems lost. Precious’s successes seem miraculous, and we wonder at her strength to overcome the worst obstacles of abuse, neglect, illiteracy, illness, poverty, and isolation.
The Blind Side is about a homeless African-American high schooler with extraordinary athletic ability who is taken under the wing of an affluent white family. The film emphasizes the impact of single acts of charity and the rare person who ventures beyond their comfort zone to help someone else. But here, it is the latent talent of the young man that is his ticket out of strife.
The Blind Side is based on a true story, and Michael Oher’s (Quinton Aaron) achievements are that much more powerful to watch because we know the suffering he endures is real. One of a dozen children born to a crack-addicted mother, Michael spends his childhood in and out of foster homes, repeatedly running away to search for his mother and siblings, for whom he has undying devotion. The loyalty he feels towards his family shapes the protective instincts credited with giving him an extra edge as a left tackle on the football field.
The film is based on a book by Michael Lewis, which explores more about Michael’s childhood and personality. This retelling of the story focuses on his rescuer, the rich white woman who takes him in, played by Sandra Bullock. She is a stereotype of white Southern affluence, dripping in gold with every hair in place, her unwavering confidence and convictions affirmed by her homogenous Christian community. Isolated in country clubs and sororities, Mrs. Tuohy’s ideas about gender and race have been passed down from one bigoted generation to the next. And while she never lets go of her dreams of a picture-perfect cheerleading daughter, she does come to see one African-American young man as family. Her willingness to shelter and love a boy who had lost everything is inspiring, but it is also nothing new; it emphasizes the fairy tale ideas we’ve all grown up with.
Precious doesn’t have the benefit of a rich family who takes her out of her horrible circumstances – not to diminish the value of an encouraging presence in our lives. There are some people who take an interest in her well-being. A handsome male nurse played by Lenny Kravitz shines some needed light her way and Precious’s unrelenting teacher, Ms. Rain, won’t allow her to sink into the background. By holding Precious to a higher standard, Ms. Rain ignites her inner motivation to succeed – but Precious must jump the hurdles herself. She must learn to read, give birth, confront her abusive mother, and seek a safe home for herself and children. No one can do these things for her. Director Lee Daniels artfully imagines Precious’s inner world and fantasies where she does dream of attention and recognition, the flashbulbs and red carpet. Like everyone, she wants the world to find value in her, but somehow she conquers on her own even without it.
While The Blind Side is an inspiring story – especially because it is true – it perpetuates the stifling ideas we see all around us: because of some hidden talent, a privileged outsider will swoop in to rescue us from our dingy circumstances (think Sleeping Beauty or Harry Potter). But eventually we realize that there is no fairy godmother, and that we aren’t misplaced princesses or princes within frog bodies. No; we are who we are, and most of us won’t be NFL stars. We may be gifted in many ways, but we may also be average and never get to experience the splendor of being center stage. Without that outside admiration, where do we belong? The question of where we get our value, how we measure our success, is what Precious takes on so artfully.