Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Blind Side

Jae Head, Quinton Aaron, and Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side

First to state the obvious: Gabourey Sidibe, the young actor from Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, would have been a better choice for Best Actress at the 2010 Academy Awards. Her transformative performance in a role that showed both toughness and tenderness, that took her character on a journey from abjection to determination, required the young actor to plumb the depths of an experience far from her own.

Sidibe’s performance, directed by Lee Daniels—the openly gay, African American who was only the second man of color ever to be nominated in the Oscars’ Best Director category—is powerful and impressive, as she modulates Precious’s tentative but dogged growth from a girl cocooned in layers of self-protective mistrust to a young woman open to learning, to love, and to survival. Sidibe captures the spark of fortitude and life that fuels a physically and emotionally abused teenager to make her own way, to strive to be more than her circumstances dictate.

As my partner in movie-going and in life Stacy Wolf pointed out, how ironic that Sandra Bullock won Best Actress for a role in an idealized story about white people “saving” an African American teenager, instead of Sidibe, who plays an African American teenager who manages to save herself.

Although Sidibe deserved the award, I’m glad that Sandra Bullock won instead of, say, Meryl Streep, whose vivacious turn as Julia Childs in Julie and Julia was great fun but not as impressive in this competition. Bullock’s achievement comes from the understatement she pulls off in a film whose moral is writ so large she practically bumps her head on it in every scene. In the ham-fisted and formulaic movie The Blind Side, Bullock performs with thoughtfulness and depth last evident when she played a racist housewife in Crash (2005).

Bullock plays Leigh Anne Tuohy, the wealthy Memphis woman who adopts a homeless African American teenager and encourages him to become a football star. Bullock performs Tuohy with an ethical clarity and straightforward, no-nonsense, ameliorating love that wins over even the toughest of toughs (who, in this film, are African American men in the housing projects from which Leigh Anne helps teenager “Big Mike” “escape”).

Michael “Big Mike” Oher, the Baltimore Ravens football player on whose life story the film is based, is played by Quinton Aaron as a taciturn, gentle giant dumbfounded but heartened by Leigh Anne’s insistent substitute mothering. Oher’s own mother, in the story the film chooses to deliver, is an inattentive addict who can’t pay her rent. When Tuohy goes to their apartment to see the woman, wanting her tacit approval for becoming Michael’s guardian, Denise Oher (Adriane Lenox) happens to be home.

Both women are inarticulate with grief that Michael’s mother hasn’t the wherewithal to hold on to her son. Leigh Anne’s Christian sympathy (her cross is insistently apparent around Bullock’s neck throughout the scene) is meant to somehow mask the fact that the Tuohys intend to take control of this poor woman’s flesh and blood. Lenox plays Denise Oher as angry but too befuddled to be proactive about Michael’s future or her own. Her sensitive performance and Bullock’s restraint make the scene halfway bearable.

Given very little to work with, the skillful Lenox ennobles Denise Oher with her own sympathetic dignity (Lenox played another African American kid’s mother in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt on Broadway in 2005). And because she doesn’t give in to the condescension or moral superiority that could easily overpower the scene, Bullock’s self-possession tempers what might have been a stark showdown between would-be mothers with very different entitlements to and investments in Michael Oher. Instead, Bullock takes Lenox’s hand and sits beside her, the two characters wordless as the scene ends.

Tim McGraw plays Sean, Leigh Anne’s rich husband, who never once objects to his wife’s altruism, and only shakes his head affectionately over her forceful personality and bullying, get-it-done style. Their young son Sean Tuohy, Jr., or “SJ” (Jae Head), appoints himself Michael’s manager and front-man; he’s a talkative little tow-headed guy of perhaps eight or nine.

Much of the film’s calculated humor comes from the Laurel and Hardy, Mutt and Jeff shtick of Michael and SJ’s scenes together, but inevitably, Michael plays the straight man to SJ’s comedy. Director John Lee Hancock allows young Head to so overplay his scenes with Aaron, they become much more about SJ than they are about Michael. Head is used throughout to showcase how young white children are “color-blind”; the fact that he’s befriended Michael (before his family drives by the teenager one night, seeing him alone and cold, walking on empty Memphis streets in the rain) sets in motion SJ’s parents’ decision to become Michael’s guardians.

That’s the film’s point and its problem. The Blind Side isn’t about Michael Oher’s rise from poverty to a notable career as a professional football player. In fact, we rarely get to hear what Michael thinks about any of the decisions his new white family make for him. Even his interior monologue on the football field, replayed in voiceover as he struggles to win a big game for his team, is supplied by Leigh Anne, as Michael simply echoes her instructions to protect his teammates as he does his (new, white) family.

The film uses Oher as an excuse to extol the virtues of the rich white folks who take him into their home and their lives. Michael provides the vehicle for their redemption, the vessel through which they demonstrate their unique ability to rise above racial divisions.

Bullock somehow manages a dignified performance in the middle of this bull, resisting the angelic heroism the script thrusts at her character. Bullock’s Leigh Anne just does what she thinks is right. Her catty, rich, white women friends ask during lunch at a fancy restaurant if Leigh Anne isn’t worried about bringing such a “big strapping black Buck” (not their words, but their implicit meaning) into her house to live under the same roof with her teenage (white white white) daughter. In response, Bullock as Leigh Anne narrows her eyes and says softly, “Shame on you.” She lifts the check from the table, says quietly, “I’ll get this,” and walks out with her spine straight and her head high, as her friends look by turns guilty and defiant.

The film continues in this vein. Bullock keeps her posture firm and the schmaltz in check, acting with subtle, emotional and physical nuances that avoid self-righteous, morally haughty display. No slapstick pratfalls show off her comic timing; no goofy scenes end by revealing the lonely tears of her clown. Hancock’s film objectifies her, including too many shots of boys and men staring approvingly at her lithe, appealing figure as she walks away from them.

These voyeuristic shots imply that Leigh Anne advocates effectively for Michael because she’s a physical knock-out. That’s just sexist. And not at all true-to-life, if the photographs of Leigh Anne Tuohy that ran in various media outlets when the film premiered are any indication of her actual appearance. But Bullock resists her director’s misogyny. She plays Leigh Anne as a woman following her own moral compass, determined to do right by a young man who through no fault of his own, has nothing but the chance she gives him.

That is, at least in this version of Oher’s story. From what I understand of the much more complicated, true story of Michael Oher and Leigh Anne Tuohy, the African American community in Memphis did a lot more to help out than The Blind Side lets on. The film needs Leigh Anne to be its sole heroine, so that white middle-class spectators just like her, to whom the movie is so blatantly pitched, can identify with her pure selflessness.

Mark Harris wrote an incisive column in Entertainment Weekly (February 19, 2010,,,20347725,00.html) about how The Blind Side distorts its source material, the book by Michael Lewis on which it’s based. According to Harris, Lewis’s book offers a more realistic, truthful rendering of the community effort it actually took to move the teenager from homelessness to a football scholarship, detailing how a series of African American and white families rotated caring for Michael. Harris ends his editorial saying,

Too much substance gets swept aside by The Blind Side's feel-good agenda. Lewis' book remains clear-eyed in its view of the kid he calls ''my main character,'' a young man with the one-in-a-million luck to ''swap one life for another'' because he has a pair of multimillionaire benefactors and a skill that can make a lot of money for a lot of people. In the movie, the ''main character'' isn't Michael, but the nice white lady who plucks a winner out of the otherwise apparently worthless population of the projects. What does this alteration accomplish, other than to tell audiences that all you need to change someone's life is a heart (and wallet) of gold, innate bossiness, and a pistol in your purse? It's sad that many of the people moved by The Blind Side haven't seen Precious, a much more challenging story of a poor black teen who also survives shocking adversity to find the road to an identity. The Blind Side is a fable of exceptionalism about a kid who's worth saving because he might become a superstar. Precious is about a kid who's worth saving simply because she's a human being. That's a case that The Blind Side forgets it should be making. But it's in Lewis' book, ripe for discovery by anyone who suspects that this movie has a problematically large blind side of its own.

The Blind Side’s film doesn’t escape the racism of its sanctimoniousness message about “tolerance and acceptance” (which is only ever about white people). But if Bullock had to win—as thin, pretty white women are wont to do in these competitions—I’m inclined to celebrate her selection because at least she also demonstrates that a woman can pull in the biggest box office of the year and still be very good at what she does.

Harris reports that the film is now the highest grossing non-fiction adaptation in the history of the industry. The Blind Side is also apparently the first female-lead movie to make over $200 million. Given that women over 40 (Bullock is 45) are rarely cast in active, strong leading roles, and are never expected to make money, Bullock’s coup is worth an Oscar, even as I rue the racist slant of her material.

An epilogue: Days after the Academy Awards aired, the tabloid press revealed that Bullock’s husband of five years, the motorcycle aficionado and reality TV star Jesse James, had an affair with a woman of ill-repute (her name is linked on various internet sites with Nazi paraphernalia, porn, and prostitution). While I’m the last to invest in “happily ever after” narratives, or what Jennifer Armstrong, in her Entertainment Weekly “PopWatch” piece, “Sandra Bullock’s Marriage Woes: The End of a Fairy Tale?” (March 18, 2010,, sentimentally calls the mythic story of the woman with a successful career and a good marriage.

But I do think it’s a shame that so soon after her professional victory, Bullock has to contend with paparazzi needling her about her unfaithful man. Even though this story underlines that some men remain threatened by strong, successful women, Bullock is the one who’ll bear the brunt of the press’s intrusions. She’ll be tarred the “ball-buster,” the powerful broad who “forced” her man to seek out the comforts of what some bloggers have harshly called a “bimbo” with a life much more quotidian than Bullock’s.

Why is it that even successful women rarely have a chance to enjoy their deserved accomplishments before they’re taken down, put back where American popular culture continues to think they belong?

Bullock stays thin to conform to conventional notions of sexiness for white women; she works very hard to create a career for herself with films other than screwball comedies; and she succeeds as she stretches her craft. But when the day is done, she’s still judged according to whether or not she can hold on to a man who by all accounts hasn’t a fraction of Bullock’s talent.

That’s just wrong.

The Feminist Spectator

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Hurt Locker

Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker

I didn’t see the Academy Awards extravaganza on tv on Sunday night which, I read in the Times, lasted for three-and-a-half hours. But reading the news the next day, I was delighted by several awards: first, that The Hurt Locker won for Best Picture over Avatar; second, that Kathryn Bigelow won as Best Director for The Hurt Locker, the first and only woman in the history of the Oscars to achieve this distinction; and finally, and perhaps surprisingly, that Sandra Bullock won for The Blind Side. I’ll save Bullock for my next post.

The Hurt Locker is a terrific film, made with a combination of guts and sensitivity that can’t be attributed in any superficial way to the gender of its director. I’ve been reading a lot lately about 1970s lesbian feminist “women’s culture” in the U.S., and its essentialist claims about women’s unique emotional understandings, their pacificism, and their prized connection to nature. I’m finding that these exaggerated claims were usually more tempered than history has made them sound; many1970s feminists were just trying to stake claims for women in a political context in which their social and cultural contributions had been dismissed and ignored.

Carving out separate space and insisting on women’s differences from men seemed, in the 70s, a useful activist strategy, and it promoted a range of cultural production that I’m hoping reconsider. But 1970s cultural feminists would no doubt have disparaged Bigelow’s work in The Hurt Locker, tarring it with the sticky brush of “male identification.”

But in 2010, it's still not surprising that the first woman to receive the Best Director award won it for a film about war. But Bigelow's film addresses not just war’s brutality, but its seductions, the adrenalin rush it can deliver, and the insidious, chaotic way it makes lives meaningful.

Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner, nominated but passed over for Best Actor) spends the war in Iraq wandering the ravaged countryside defusing bombs. He’s part of a three-man team traveling together in an armored vehicle, but he’s the one who puts on the suit that’s meant to protect him from the bombs he proceeds to dismantle by hand.

The puffy, full-body suit and the helmet that encases his head makes James look like an astronaut space-walking across the desert. Bigelow brings her camera close to Renner’s face as he moves laboriously toward bomb sites, so that you can see the sweat slicking his skin and hear him talking to himself and his partners as he trundles awkwardly toward what might very well be his own death.

The nonchalance and defiance with which he confronts his job’s danger make James gripping to watch. He’s also a renegade who makes his own decisions and often refuses to follow the protocol his superior, Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), shouts at him through his headset. James is as unpredictable as the bombs he sets out to defuse.

Bigelow brings the film a stunning tension that electrifies each scene. Even when the soldiers aren’t racing over dusty Iraqi streets, past burned out storefronts and shells of apartment buildings toward buried munitions, The Hurt Locker keeps you wary, suspicious, and watching for the unexpected.

The soldiers see peril where the audience’s untrained eyes don’t. For example, as James dons the heavy suit and walks toward the center of a town where a bomb has been discovered, Sanborn surveys the scene with binoculars, and sees an Iraqi man with a cell phone in his hand.

Before we understand what this means, he’s screaming, “He’s got a cell phone, he’s got a cell phone!” The other American soldiers try to find and shoot the man before he can activate the bomb. The most minute, imperceptible actions signal danger; the fact that the audience can’t read these signs makes every moment of the film anxious.

Bigelow nuances our vicarious understanding of how soldiers’ actions can be intensely intimate and personal or completely distanced and removed. In another scene, James, Sanborn, and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), their naïve young teammate, are caught by snipers as they cross an abandoned stretch of deserted desert countryside. Leaping out of their Humvee, the three soldiers roll into position against a hillock that offers a vantage point from which they can barely see their assailants off in the distance.

Even with binoculars and telescopic rifle sights, it’s difficult for them to target the men, who occupy an abandoned structure that sits what might be miles away. Bigelow frames our view through James’s binoculars or Sanborn’s rifle sight, but we still can’t really make out what they see. James directs Sanborn’s aim, and as Sanborn squeezes the rifle’s trigger, time attenuates. The bullets seem to travel very slowly over the long distance to their marks.

When the bullets finally reach the anonymous Iraqis, their features blurred by distance, they fall silently. But the relationship between cause (the shooting) and effect (the dying) seems tenuous and surreal. It’s difficult to draw a connection between the American soldiers’ actions and the Iraqi men’s crumpling bodies, making the scene almost phantasmagorical in how Bigelow constructs the relationship between the action and the thing it does. When we see someone shot in a film, they usually buck from the force and instantly fall over dead. Here, we watch the unpredictable but inexorable passage of time between aim and destiny, and these long moments feel disquietingly real.

The sniper scene is also remarkable for how patiently Bigelow waits in the moment. It’s not clear how long James and Sanborn sit in their positions against the low rise, surveying the enemy. The light changes imperceptibly as they watch, barely moving. Sanborn sights through his weapon as flies land in his eyebrows. They talk quietly, not facing one another, keeping their eyes on the horizon.

Long after it seems they’ve killed all the snipers, James and Sanborn wait, searching for movement, determined to outlast anyone who might be calculating their last opportunity to strike. The excruciating but simply constructed scene demonstrates the men’s vulnerability as well as the boredom they endure to protect themselves and to outwit their enemy.

In another unforgettable moment, the team is called to an open town square where a suicide bomber balks and pleads to be spared from the fate he chose. James and Sanborn approach warily, assessing whether the man just intends to trick them into coming closer. Again, Bigelow puts the audience within the soldiers’ emotional turmoil, keeping her camera back with the vehicle as James and Sanborn try to judge the danger, then moving toward the overwrought Iraqi as James puts on the suit and approaches.

We arrive with James to find the man trussed up as a human time bomb. The dynamite strapped against his chest attaches to a clock ticking off the minutes and seconds until it explodes. A metal cage encases the whole apparatus, padlocked against just the kind of second thoughts the would-be suicide bomber now experiences.

Here, unlike in the sniper scene, Bigelow gets intimate with the effects of war. James realizes he can’t defuse the bomb in time, and instead tries to free the man from his death trap. Ripping off his helmet and visor, he insists Sanborn bring him tools, and works mightily to release the Iraqi. But as the seconds tick down, James realizes his attempt is futile; he doesn’t have time to cut through the cage. He looks into the poor man’s eyes, entreating him to understand, in a language he doesn’t speak, James’s sorrow over not being able to save him. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he repeats, knowing his face is the last this hysterical, doomed fellow human being will ever see. Then he runs, with seconds left to save himself.

The dynamite ignites as James hustles away, its force lifting him off the ground and throwing him from the tornado of fire, dust, and body parts it hurls through the air. The ambivalent Iraqi’s death is palpable, as we’re left imagining in vivid detail his body exploding like an overripe piece of fruit dropped from a high table. The moment’s intimacy depicts the flip side of war; looking a soon-to-be-dead man in the eyes and trying to release his body from its fate is a far cry from the remote, clinical rifle work necessary to execute men so far away their humanity is abstracted.

Bigelow’s feel for how war changes register and key is also apparent in how she draws the soldiers’ relationships in The Hurt Locker. Sanborn and James warily paw the ground around one another, knowing they’re forced to trust the other man with their lives. Their situation requires machismo they both know is only fabricated. In one of Mackie’s finest moments—in an excellent performance overlooked by the Academy—Sanborn asks James if he thinks Sanborn would ever be brave enough to put on the suit.

From the timid, embarrassed hopefulness with which he poses the question, Mackie demonstrates that Sanborn isn’t made of the necessary stuff. But James’s generous reassurance that Sanborn, too, could do the work, underlines that the only thing separating the two men is their essential level of regard for their own lives.

The Hurt Locker is paced by titles that count down the days until the men’s unit leaves Iraq, markers that also increase the tension by playing on the audience’s expectation that something will go wrong and they won’t make it out alive. But James and Sanborn do decamp. We soon see James at home, months later, his hair grown longer, domesticated by his girlfriend (Evangeline Lilly). They shop at a supermarket, where the array of colors and the variety of textures contrasts with the rest of the film’s limited visual palette, in which khaki-clad soldiers crawl over dun-colored land bleached by harsh sunlight.

But James rests lightly at home. He smokes and stares out the window, held static by a world that comes at him with slow predictability. Before long, he’s back in uniform, marching out of the belly of a transport plane that delivers him back to Iraq and a war to which he’s clearly addicted. A chilling half-smile plays on his face as he leaves the plane; James is an adrenalin junky anticipating his next fix.

The Hurt Locker is a terrific anti-war film, in part because it never overtly criticizes the conflict's politics. It tallies the war’s effects in human costs, not by counting the dead, but by chronicling in quotidian, disturbing ways what war does to the living.

The Feminist Spectator