By Dr. Willie James Jennings
Associate Professor of Theology and Black Church Studies
Duke Divinity School
Growing up in Michigan, I learned to love football. There are few things as exhilarating as playing football in fresh snow, running, falling, and jumping with imaginations filled with images of becoming professional football players. My friends and I channeled the actions of our football heroes even if we lacked their actual skills. My best year of high school football was ninth-grade when I was a starting guard. I loved being a lineman, down in the mud and dirt where the real beauty of football is found. By the time I entered the tenth grade it was clear that I lacked the size to remain a guard. Such work was reserved for bodies that took up much more space on this earth. Yet my love of the game remains strong. Such love drew my attention to Michael Lewis’s book, The Blind Side. Thanks to the movie of the same name, the story of the book is now fairly well-known. It is the story of the black man child Michael Oher and the white family, the Tuohy family who made Michael their son.
I must admit watching the movie The Blind Side after watching the movie Precious is a jarring contrast. The actors in Precious were simply brilliant, but the sheer power of Precious is that it presses on anyone watching with eyes and ears attuned to its messages crucial questions about the way things are, especially for many black women. Precious brings the viewer deeply inside the horror and absurdity of her situation, an absurdity unabated by the few episodic fragments of the church in the movie. The failures and failings of people surround the character Precious and we along with Precious find it difficult to discern sources and sites of love for her. No such difficulty attends the movie The Blind Side. Love is front and center, love for black bodies located in love for a big black boy. But it is precisely this front-and-center-love that makes The Blind Side a complicated and problematic movie.
I liked The Blind Side. I want to say this clearly, because my experience is that people who have seen the movie and like the movie seem to be unusually defensive and quickly irritated with any suggestion of something amiss in this piece of art. But it is not difficult to imagine the source behind this hyper-sensitivity. As one woman said to me, “I know it’s a good movie, but I am tired of stories about white women saving black boys.” It is the dynamic of white paternalism - salvation in white hands - that generate a lot of tension and fuels thorny conversation and interpretations of this movie. But there are a deeper set of problems exposed by the movie. They are exposed by the movie because these are problems primarily of the social world that informs the artistic imagination displayed in this and other Hollywood products.
As with so many cinematic renderings, the movie is very different from the book. Michael Lewis is a beautiful writer and his text, The Blind Side, is quite elegant. He offers what amounts to a secular form of predestination within the world of professional sports, especially football. Factors beyond the knowledge or control of Michael Oher or the Tuohy family are moving them toward each other. Contingency, individual agency, and choice are always present but you sense larger realities at work all around the central people of the story. The book brings the reader into an evolutionary and capitalist tale of football. The emergence of a new more powerful black athlete on defense created the need for offenses to adapt. That the new more powerful athlete is black is both beside the point and the point. That new athlete was Lawrence Taylor and the new situation was his ability through speed and strength to get to the quarterback’s body and bring him down or do him harm.
The central adaptation to this new situation was the emergence of more powerful athletes on offense who could protect the quarterback’s blindside, that is, the left side for right-handed quarterbacks. The new athlete would be unusually big, unusually quick and nimble, and very strong. He would be a left tackle and he would become one of the highest paid players on any football team. As Lewis shows us the mind of the market we come to see how money follows demand. We also come to see thanks to Lewis’ wonderful portrait how offensive schemes come to rely profoundly on the strength of the left tackle. He is the foundation on which offenses stand or fall. Of course, football remains a team sport but the real contest of strength, skill, and will begins with this crucial lineman and the defensive end assigned to disrupt the offense.
It is both brilliant and strange to insert the lives of real people into the drama of this game, but Lewis has actually found an ingenious way to present the American story of race in a way that keeps us from looking away from the familiar. Lewis lifts up the single life of Michael Oher and pulls forward a web of relations that shape not only this young man’s life but also American life. Michael is the neglected child of a single mother who is an addict and trapped in poverty. He then draws us into the Tuohy’s family life – wealthy, Christian, and conservative -- in ways that honor their humanity and vulnerability, but there is something quite ominous working in Lewis’s account. It has to do with black bodies. Anyone who understands the deep architecture of modern western slavery can sense the problem that dogs this book. The story is sandwiched between the body of Lawrence Taylor and the body of Michael Oher.
Fundamentally, black bodies have been about utility. Other bodies have also been about utility, but black bodies mark the way, reveal this modality of use-value. Professional sports hide this history of use-value right out in the open. The problem here is that Lewis humanizes this history, domesticates further an already demonically domesticated order of things. The line of thought is simple: sport gives a way out for poor white folks, for black folks, for young black men, thug and non-thug. Lewis adds complexity to that simple line: But college sport (bound to pre-college preparation) gives a way in, into society, into middle or upper class existence, into civilization, into hope. Trapped inside that industrial strength logic is the fragile reality of the Oher-Tuohy story, they fell in love. Leigh Anne and Sean, Sean Jr. and Collins and Michael came to love each other. Their love must find a way in the midst of the slavery haunted, capitalist driven reality of black men in sports. In truth sport is not an answer. It performs the problem.
The problem it performs is to squeeze love inside utility. It presses our imaginations to bind the possibilities of white people loving black people to the performances of black flesh: athletic, artistic, or minstrel. And it suggests the central mode of relation to be quintessentially paternal. This is the American imagination at work. Thankfully, people have and some people do break open this restrictive imagination and walk in greater realities of love and belonging. I would like to think that the Tuohys are an example of this and that their Christian faith is what made this possible. But the Christianity presented in both book and movie reflects Christianity’s problems in America. It is a Christianity bound in segregation and weak in how it imagines its world, which brings me to the problems of the movie.
The movie is certainly not the book. The movie does give us through the wonderful acting of Sandra Bullock a vision of a mother’s heart expansive enough to love a child not her own to such an extent to make him her own. The Tuohy family extend themselves in ways that gesture the central logic of the gospel, life offered in weakness and love for the sheer sake of love. But black people come off in this movie as the frontier of risk, the boundary and boarder of danger, the line that one must have absolute courage to cross. That is, black people come off as a site of an almost impossible reach of love. The movie makes nothing of the risk that brought Michael into the white community, the white school, the white world. More importantly, the movie plays in the sick logic of black exceptionalism. In the movie, Michael is kind, gentle, teachable, and protective of white flesh. He is just the opposite of the vast majority of the other black men depicted in the movie. In one sad scene, Sandra Bullock’s character faces down a drug dealer in the black community who has threatened Michael. She touches her purse and says in effect I will kill you if you try to hurt me or my family. Michael is now in her circle of protective fear. Such a scene is not in the book or in the real history of Michael with the Tuohy family, but it is in the real fears of so many people.
There is another sense of exceptionalism that is equally tragic. The effort of the Tuohy family, especially Leigh Anne, is also an exception for the white Christian community of Memphis. The movie captures the abnormality of this love as an abnormality even within Christianity itself. This kind of love is not what Christians do. It is what this particular family did. What if this kind of love, this kind of claiming was the norm for Christian existence? What if what it meant to be Christian in all the specific locations where Christians live was to be people who created places that bridge racial, social, and geographic divides? What would happen if a Christian education was indeed shaped by a scandalous joining of very different peoples who love each other and this love constitutes the very ecology of an educational experience? My questions reach for what does not exist but which we can catch glimpses of even in this flawed movie. The more decisive question in this regard is, however, will Christians here and elsewhere begin to grasp the deeper demands of community and communion implied by the faith we confess. The real question is whether we will ever begin to see our real blindside?