Undefeated

By , April 29, 2012 2:36 pm

The Undefeated

Village Voice film critic Melissa Anderson mostly echoes my opinion of “The Blind Side,” which “peddles the most insidious kind of racism, one in which whiteys (sic) are virtuous saviors, coming the rescue of African-American who become superfluous in narratives that are supposed to be about them.”  The movie, adapted from Michael Lewis’ novel, canonizes the Tuohy family, the wealthy suburbanites who adopt “Big Mike” Oher, son of an inner-city crack addict with a gift for protecting the quarterback.  The movie perverts Michael Lewis’ novel—which is about the moral complexity of the Touhy’s motivations for doing this good deed—into propaganda for a particular brand of pious suburban conservatism.

As Anderson says, the movie isn’t about Big Mike, the personality-free cipher for the Tuohy’s goodwill.  It’s about Leigh Anne Tuohy, the sassy rich White woman who brings Big Mike into their McMansion.  In this way, “The Blind Side” gives the game away: Big Mike says virtually nothing and so rarely shows his neighborhood that the movie actively demonstrates how little the Tuohys understand him or his world.  Rather, it exploits this blank-slate Minority to demonstrate the moral superiority of gated communities—as Tuohy herself says, “We’re not changing his life.  He’s changing mine.”  According to “The Blind Side,” fixing inner-city poverty simply requires “family values,” as if the inner-city lacks churches, and “attitude,” as if the poor lack the desire to no longer be poor.  Because the movie is Leigh Anne’s, the intended audience isn’t inner-city youth, it’s well-off suburban White people who are normally accused of being racist by people like Melissa Anderson.

To be fair, “racism” is a loaded word that distracts from the real issue.  In a democracy, if you care about the poor, the question is whether your politics help the poor.  Taking in a Black kid who’s good at football only glosses over the Tuohy’s larger worldview, which is enforced by the brand of politics they practice.  One of the central jokes of the movie—central enough that they put it in the press clips—is that “coming out” as a Democrat is like coming out as a lesbian.   This is not to say that voting Republican precludes you from caring about the poor, only that this particular kind of gated-community conservatism completely blinds you to the realities of the inner-city.  It never occurs to David Tuohy that his fast food empire is one reason kids like Big Mike are obese.  In their neighborhood, why does Leigh Anne carry a gun, other than being paranoid of the minority boogie man?  Or support the NRA, which has made it far easier for drug dealers in neighborhood’s like Big Mike’s to own assault rifles?  Higher taxes to rebuild the city infrastructure?  Socialism!

There are perfectly legitimate reasons to oppose regulation of fast food, guns, and public services, but the Tuohy family of this movie don’t grapple with any of them.  Rather, it makes a show of their concern for this one kid while being completely ignorant to the social consequences of their wealth-based politics and class-based Christianity.  The Tuohys embody the hypocrisy of Ayn Rand-worshipping conservatives who call themselves Christians.

 

Sandra Bullock won perhaps the least deserving Best Actress Oscar for this breathtakingly clueless scene where Mrs. Tuohy’s goes to Michael’s crack addict mother’s public housing.   Apparently, sassy White suburb ladies can intimidate a gang of drug dealers by saying “I’m in a prayer group with the DA, I’m a member of the NRA, and I’m always packing.”  My goodness, where to start?  This is precisely the kind of fake-tough gated community conservatism that comes from a total misunderstanding of Black urban poverty.  As “The Blind Side” explains it, to solve urban poverty, we need to move Black youth into good Christian schools in the suburbs and teach them all good manners and “hard work,” probably through football.  But doesn’t the specialness of Michael’s situation demonstrate exactly why private school vouchers are a wasteful and inefficient way to fight poverty?  Unless, of course, people like the Tuohys and schools like Briarcrest are read to adopt the urban poor by the hundreds.

Ultimately, “The Blind Side” unintentionally exposes the cowardice of this kind of Christian witness:  rather than go into poor areas and model the faith for many, the Tuohys use their money to pull one kid out to assimilate him.  Yes, the Tuohys do good, but the film so celebrates their willingness to embrace a Black teen that it demonstrates the wealthy suburban White fear of Black teens.  It’s a form of Stephen Colbert’s “I’m not racist, I have a black friend” argument:  Your politics can’t be cruel towards impoverished urban minorities if you aren’t repulsed by the one or two “nice” Black people you know.  They just, you know, need to be more like us.  With money and stuff.

It seems like Anderson sees “The Blind Side” in “Undefeated,” the Academy Award winning documentary about white coach Bill Courtney, who guides the impoverished urban school Manassas High to the state playoffs. Anderson asks, “Have you had enough of even true stories about white people rescuing black communities?”  Well, yes, if they engage in the soft bigotry of “The Blind Side.”  But Anderson’s hatred of this type of movie seems to hit her from the blind side:  “Undefeated” defeats the self-congratulatory fantasies Hollywood peddles about race relations in urban America.

Bill Courtney, a successful White business owner in northern Memphis, coaches a group of Black inner city kids at a troubled high school to the state playoffs.  You expect, at best, a white-person-saves-minorities-and-learns-about-life story, with all the condescending soft bigotry that goes with it (in the fiction version, expect Morgan Freeman to play the Manassas principal).  At worst, the set-up gives off a whiff of plantation mentality, as in the uncomfortable sight of rich White football coaches and richer White donors shoveling money into SEC football programs while the 90% black teams go unpaid except for scholarships.  And at the very worst, you expect a documentary version of “The Blind Side.”

Instead of cherry-picking a few talented kids out of the ghetto, Coach Bill goes inside the neighborhood.  Yes, it’s a neighborhood of guns, crime, poverty, drugs, and violence, but Coach Bill doesn’t act scared, nor does he act like they’re changing my life more than I’m changing theirs!  Rather, Coach Bill opens the film by turning the sports movie cliché on its head:  Football doesn’t build character, he says—if you believe that, you’ll never understand how to build a team.  Rather, football reveals character.

The rest of the film documents how Coach Bill manages the players—football, really, is beside the point.  Basically, in a culture of violence, Coach Bill teaches kids turn to the other cheek.  For example, Chavis, returning from 15 months in juvenile detention, gets into a stupid argument with his friend about being made fun of.  Bill goes to Chavis’ house, talks him through the consequences of letting it get to him, and coaxes him back to practice.

In the most emotional moment of the film, a rich White man calls Coach Bill to offer to pay for all of Money’s college expenses.  We never meet the man, nor does make a show of his charity.  Rather, he makes a call and Coach Bill delivers the news, no questions asked.  If this were “The Blind Side,” the man would have invited Money to Bible study to take his picture in front of an oversized check.

The lesson of “Undefeated” isn’t that poor Black people need to be saved by rich White people.  The message is that, to defeat urban poverty, we need good people of all colors and creeds to go there and model the faith.  It’s not enough to throw money at the problem—that’s message liberals and conservatives can get behind.

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