In the months preceding December’s blockbuster explosion, two films have been dominating the box office: Lee Daniels’ Precious and John Lee Hancock’s The Blindside. Both films are based on critically acclaimed books and both take issues of racial inequality head-on. Albeit for different reasons, both films have also been lauded as inspiring stories of racial uplift.I’d love to offer glowing reviews of both films, noting their sophisticated and nuanced take on contemporary race relations. I’d love to submit my own adoration for their careful depictions of disadvantage, dealing with complex and often contradictory emotions with honest realism. Most importantly, I’d love to express my satisfaction with their innovative explorations of solutions—some policy-relevant commentary, perhaps—to the problems of urban poverty vividly portrayed in each film.
But in reality, Precious is more of a shortsighted journey into insulated dysfunction, while The Blindside is closer to a condescending fairytale of Christian charity cure-alls.
Precious portrays internal, inner-city pathos like no film before it. The film’s main character, Precious, is morbidly obese, sixteen years old in the 8th grade, pregnant with her second child from her father, living in abject poverty with her physically and emotionally abusive mother, and HIV-positive to boot. The film itself follows her through a particularly difficult period in her life, from the welfare office to the fried chicken spot to the alternative school where she can finally express herself—through writing in a journal, of course. But it rings of reality, and, anachronisms aside, speaks a few truths of urban poverty.
Yet the excessive focus on internal dysfunction and pathology ignores the role of external forces—be they shifts in the economy or social policy reforms—in perpetuating the conditions from which Precious emerges. For viewers ignorant to criminal justice reforms in the last two decades or AFDC or economic decentralization or employment discrimination, Precious provides a simplistic message of fried chicken loving, psychologically disturbed welfare queens. The system failed Precious well before her birth, but this reality of poverty is all but obscured by flying frying pans and hairy pigs’ feet. And the uplifting ending? Precious’ triumphant awakening as she exits the welfare office, finally standing up to her mother? It’s hard to forget that she’s still 16, with two mentally retarded children, homeless, no job, and slowly dying of AIDS. Forgive me for not feeling empowered.
The Blindside provides a glimpse into what Precious’ life could have been…had rich white people in Tennessee adopted her. The Blindside is based on the true story of Michael Oher, a homeless black teenager who’s athletic ability found him enrolled in a Memphis prep school. The gentle giant is ultimately adopted by Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy after the Good Christian family discovers that poor Michael is, well, poor. They take Michael into their home and find him a tutor, raising his GPA to make him eligible for a college football scholarship. Michael ultimately “chooses” a scholarship from Ole Miss (his adopted parents are alums and boosters), and, as of the 2009 season, suits up for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens. For two hours of racial Kum Bay Ya, the white family accepts the black teenager without so much as an inkling of reservation, and the black teenager accepts the “crazy white people” without ever seriously questioning their intentions.
That’s not to say that The Blindside doesn’t include flashes of racial brilliance. In one scene, Leigh Anne (Michael Oher’s adopted mother, played by Sandra Bullock) has lunch with three of her affluent, white, female friends. One friend asks her how she can possibly feel comfortable with a big black boy in her home—she does have a teenage daughter, after all. Leigh Anne looks her square in the eyes, and with piercing subtlety, quietly states “Shame on you” as she leaves the restaurant. Later that night, she pulls her daughter aside and asks her—in a far less subtle tone—if she feels comfortable with Michael sleeping next door. She’s cool with it, but this mother-daughter awkwardness isn't the point of the scene. Rather, it illustrates the daily internal negotiations among socially conscious whites, constantly balancing pervasive stereotypes with their own moral inclinations. Racial literacy is a process, not a character trait, and this honest scene is quite powerful.
Ultimately, there are good scenes and bad scenes in each film. Yet both end with deeply problematic, insidious implications: Precious relegates disadvantage to internal pathos, and The Blindside perpetuates the dubious fairytale that a little bit of individual charity can solve group-level social problems. Why does concentrated poverty persist? Must be because the lives of poor African-Americans are in disarray as a result of drug abuse and parental neglect. And what can we do about it? Find some nice white people, and adopt all the helpless black children.
Internal dysfunction, solved with external charity. Not exactly the sophisticated portrayal of racial inequality I had hoped for.