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12.03.09

Is Sandra Bullock's New Movie Racist?

The African-American teen character in the hit movie The Blind Side is loyal, polite, sexless, and surrounded by white people who love him—it's a miracle of the Obama age.

As portrayed in The Blind Side, the story of a homeless black teenager taken in by a wealthy white family and who later became an NFL star, Michael Oher is gentle, hard-working, self-sacrificing, and soft-spoken.

Though raised in Memphis housing projects, he uses no slang and dislikes the taste of malt liquor. Instead of Ecko and Sean John, he wears Charlie Brown-style polo shirts. His table manners are impeccable. He exhibits virtually no sexual desire. He is never angry and shuns violence except when necessary to protect the white family that adopted him or the white quarterback he was taught to think of as his brother.

Though he appears to be made of (large amounts) of flesh and blood, Michael Oher performs miracles for white people.

In other words, Michael Oher is the perfect black man.

While Precious is garnering a great deal of attention from critics and intellectuals for its unapologetic portrayal of blacks who are cruel, violent, and self-destructive, The Blind Side is far more popular with audiences. With virtually no preceding buzz or publicity, it nearly beat the massively hyped New Moon at the box office last weekend. And Sandra Bullock’s performance as Michael’s adoptive mother has made her an early contender for Best Actress.

Kim Masters: Sandra Bullock’s $200 Million Year The success of The Blind Side might be attributed to the fact that it is the most recent example of what some film historians have labeled the "black saint" or, less politely, "magic negro" genre, in which a virtuous black character saves the white protagonist. The term was coined to describe a series of movies in the 1950s—most notably No Way Out, Blackboard Jungle, Edge of the City, and The Defiant Ones—that feature Sidney Poitier as an upright black man who sacrifices himself, often with his life, for whites. These movies were so successful that they not only established Poitier as the first “serious” black movie star, but also changed the way Hollywood thought about race.

According to Donald Bogle’s history of African Americans in cinema, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks, Poitier was "the model integrationist hero." For white audiences, he was "a black man who had met their standards." His characters "spoke proper English, dressed conservatively," were "amenable and pliable," and "non-funky, almost sexless and sterile." They were "the perfect dream for white liberals anxious to have a colored man in for lunch or dinner."

The "black saint" genre was established by white filmmakers—mostly Jewish and left-wing—who sought to overthrow the dominant Hollywood image of blacks as either sexual predators or hapless buffoons. But their project began when the civil-rights movement had not yet become a national phenomenon and black leaders like Martin Luther King were still largely unknown among whites outside the South. So the creators of the genre were informed largely by the ideas of white liberals like Eleanor Roosevelt and the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal, who wanted to create a new image of African Americans as being "just like us."

Myrdal’s bestselling 1944 book, An American Dilemma, which essentially established white racial liberalism and the new rules of race for Hollywood, instructed African Americans to overcome their cultural "pathologies" and “become assimilated into American culture.” To do this, they had to acquire “the traits held in esteem by the dominant white Americans.” Eleanor Roosevelt issued similar directions in several influential articles and speeches. In a famous 1953 Ebony magazine cover story titled “Some of My Best Friends Are Negro,” Roosevelt praised her black friends for their “Christianity and intelligence,” their ability to “go through so many hardships and emerge so free of bitterness,” and their “serene, charming" manner.

The theme of honorable black men saving white people dominated Hollywood "race" movies into the 1960s and helped many whites become accustomed to the idea of integration. But with the advent of the "blaxploitation" films of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the black saint was replaced by a new generation of "bad" black heroes who were more likely to shoot The Man than save him.

But perfect black men began to reappear in the 1980s, in films such as Mississippi Burning, Glory, and most famously in Morgan Freeman's portrayal of a wise and noble chauffeur for an elderly white lady in Driving Miss Daisy, which won the 1989 Oscar for Best Picture. Though Driving Miss Daisy was widely criticized for reviving the "magic negro," the archetype gained increasing popularity among Hollywood filmmakers.

Frank Darabont's Green Mile, which celebrates the magical healing powers of a wrongly convicted black death-row inmate, was nominated for four Oscars in 1999. The following year, Robert Redford's Legend of Bagger Vance, featuring Will Smith as a supernatural golf caddy, caused Spike Lee to announce the era of the "Super-Duper Magic Negro."

The Blind Side, which is based on a book by Michael Lewis, purports to tell the story of a real person. And Michael Oher was in fact a parentless, homeless kid who was adopted by a white family and now plays for the Baltimore Ravens. But like all saints, the cinematic version of Michael Oher is pure, entirely selfless, and therefore not human. Though he appears to be made of (large amounts) of flesh and blood, he performs miracles for white people. He stops an airbag from injuring his adoptive white brother (Jae Head) and single-handedly takes down an entire house of gun-packing crack dealers who threaten to rape his white sister (Lily Collins) and mother (Bullock).

But the most important miracle Michael performs is to make his new family feel good about themselves. Throughout the second half of the film, Bullock’s steely Leigh Anne declares to all around her that adopting Michael has given her a new and complete happiness.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, members of the Republican Party circulated a song calling Barack Obama "the magic negro." They were excoriated for what many saw as a racist attack, but their inspiration was a Los Angeles Times op-ed written by the African-American film critic David Ehrenstein, which argues that Obama offers the same thing to whites that Sidney Poitier did in the 1950s. And indeed, Obama's moral rectitude and promise of racial reconciliation and redemption are similar not only to Poitier's characters but also to the character of Michael Oher. The makers of The Blind Side seem to be aware of this. The film contains a gratuitous jab at George W. Bush, much is made about Michael's academic tutor being a Democrat, and fist-bumps between Michael and his white little brother are ubiquitous.

While many are appalled by the portrayal of black sinners in Precious, we might also question what it means to portray African Americans as saints.

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Thaddeus Russell has taught history, philosophy, and American Studies at Columbia University, Barnard College, Eugene Lang College, and the New School for Social Research. He is the author of Jimmy Hoffa and the Remaking of the American Working Class (Knopf, 2001) and the forthcoming A Renegade History of the United States (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2010).