When I first saw the trailers for “The Blind Side,” I thought it was a joke. Sandra Bullock as a rich white lady who helps an under-privileged gigantic black boy to become a successful football player? After I realized it was serious, it just seemed like it would be a blatantly offensive story. Never mind that it’s true…but do we really need a movie about generous white people helping poor black folk to achieve all that they can? I mean, really…perhaps there should be a movie made about my generous donation to Haiti relief?
But I finally saw “The Blind Side” recently, not necessarily because I was waiting patiently for its DVD release, but instead because my wife has a woman-crush on Sandra Bullock, so it was time to test the theory: was this movie actually offensive and patronizing, or was it just a good story that a few filmmakers thought would make a good and emotional film? I’m actually happy to report that it wasn’t offensive, not really. And–because it’s true–it actually was a pretty good story. If “The Blind Side” was fiction, and the entire movie stayed exactly the same, the opposite would have been true: the choice of a white benefactor helping a black boy who couldn’t help himself would have pulsed with racist subtext. As a true story, it’s not offensive because the characters and the plot are not manufactured choices of a storyteller.
“The Blind Side,” in fact, represents a trend in literature that has been building and building over the last couple decades, and now seems to surface mostly in book clubs and award-season films: middle-class guilt. There is a motherly tone that drips from this film, and that drips from a large number of memoirs and novels that line the front tables at Borders and Barnes & Noble, a tone that can best be expressed by this line: “Oh my God! Look at what this person (whether he/she is from an under-developed nation, or a poor background, or the inner-city slums, etc.) has had to go through! I feel like I’ve just been educated about something awful, and during that educational experience I felt incredibly guilty, but now I feel a little bit better about my fortunate middle-class existence because I made the choice to watch that film or read that book instead of watching something more frivolous, like Jersey Shore.”
The characters in “The Blind Side” suffer from middle-class (actually, upper-class, but it’s Memphis, so…whatever) guilt, and this guilt drives the story. But more importantly, the viewer is made to feel this guilt, too, as we are saddened by the circumstances of young Michael. By the end, we are given a happy conclusion and the guilt lifts, and we feel better for having endured the tough circumstances, even though we’ve only watched a movie…we haven’t done volunteer work in the inner city or given money or done anything productive, really. We’ve just said, “Oh my God! Look at what this person…” Etc.
Does that make “The Blind Side” a bad movie, or does that make viewers evil? No. The trend of “middle-class guilt” does show that the filmmakers and the viewers are generous with their emotions, empathetic, caring. But the trend itself is a bit like clicking “like” on a dozen different charity pages on facebook; it educates, perhaps, but in many cases, it doesn’t really do much else unless the consumer is willing to take real action afterward. And often, in our current globalized and facebooked culture, we’re bombarded by so many online charities that we wind up supporting very few. We’re overwhelmed by choice. Same goes for “middle-class guilt” literature. There’s a whole lot of social and international problems posed by such literature, and in the end, we wind up overwhelmed by options and doing very little except patting ourselves on the back for watching/reading, and waiting for another opportunity to do it all over again.