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Why 'The Blind Side' is too good to be true

Mark Harris on the true story behind the Sandra Bullock sports weepie

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No current Best Picture nominee has caused as wide a cultural rift as The Blind Side, the story of a rich white Memphis family that takes in a poor, uneducated black teenager and helps him become a football star. The film is now the highest-grossing nonfiction adaptation ever — and the least popular nominee with critics this year. On the review-aggregating site Metacritic, it scores just 53 out of 100; its nine competitors average an 82.

Brimming with Republican good guys and up-front Christian values, The Blind Side is one of those movies that conventional wisdom says is too heartlandy for ”media elites” but just right for middle America. But that equation oversimplifies the problem some of us have with the film. I’ve seen The Blind Side twice; both times I was tear-jerked but also skeptical. So I decided to read the Michael Lewis book (currently a best-seller) on which it’s based. And I discovered what tens of thousands of others are also learning: The movie is actually too good to be true. At least, as true as it should be.

Quiet, impassive football player Michael Oher is, no question, a tough subject; he’s so unreadable that Lewis titled one chapter ”The Blank Slate.” But he’s not nearly as blank in the book, which portrays him as an imperfect, multidimensional kid, as in the film, which refashions him as a saintly giant with almost no inner life. All reality-based movies simplify their source material, but the changes to The Blind Side suggest that the film finds him more interesting as a symbol than as a person. In his book, Lewis extensively recounts Michael’s early years, which were so harrowingly traumatic that even when living with the Tuohys, he still hoarded food, clothes, and money. The movie squints briefly at his past, then averts its gaze in disgust. When taunted by racist football fans, Movie Michael shoulders it with silent stoicism; Real Michael flipped them the bird — you know, like an actual human teenager. In the movie, Michael starts blossoming academically when teachers discover he can learn; in the book, educational ethics are largely trashed by senior year, when he’s encouraged to replace Fs on his transcript with As by taking some easy 10-day Internet courses from Brigham Young — an NCAA eligibility trick that Lewis labels ”the great Mormon grade grub.”

But the most significant alteration concerns Michael’s quasi-adoption by the Tuohys — who, interestingly, are now writing their own book. In the movie, this happens about two minutes after Sandra Bullock spots him trudging along the road; he appears to get no helping hand from African-Americans at all. But as Lewis’ book makes clear, for months after that encounter, the school custodian ”Big Tony” (who is barely in the movie) continued to house Michael himself, and for months after that, half a dozen families, white and black, informally shared custody of him. Clearly, the story of a conservative, traditional family learning firsthand that it really does take a village to raise a child would have been less tidily inspirational, and a lot more politically complicated.

Too much substance gets swept aside by The Blind Side‘s feel-good agenda. Lewis’ book remains clear-eyed in its view of the kid he calls ”my main character,” a young man with the one-in-a-million luck to ”swap one life for another” because he has a pair of multimillionaire benefactors and a skill that can make a lot of money for a lot of people. In the movie, the ”main character” isn’t Michael, but the nice white lady who plucks a winner out of the otherwise apparently worthless population of the projects. What does this alteration accomplish, other than to tell audiences that all you need to change someone’s life is a heart (and wallet) of gold, innate bossiness, and a pistol in your purse? It’s sad that many of the people moved by The Blind Side haven’t seen Precious, a much more challenging story of a poor black teen who also survives shocking adversity to find the road to an identity. The Blind Side is a fable of exceptionalism about a kid who’s worth saving because he might become a superstar. Precious is about a kid who’s worth saving simply because she’s a human being. That’s a case that The Blind Side forgets it should be making. But it’s in Lewis’ book, ripe for discovery by anyone who suspects that this movie has a problematically large blind side of its own.