We are in a pivotal turning point in America’s obsessive fear of race.
We’re struggling to evolve past our shameful race-based history. We’re in such a rush to “move on” and “get over it” that we miss the subtle things standing in the way of true progress.
All across the media (and America’s consciousness) there are the subliminal attacks. Consider Confederate History Month, the Obama rape cartoon, the Harry “no Negro dialect” Reid conversation, and films like “The Blind Side” being obfuscated by the overt. See the spitting Tea Baggers, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. In fact, look at “The Blind Side.” The popular movie and its on-and-off screen controversy is the epitome of America’s multi-faceted race problem. I would argue that the real conversation about race is painfully nuanced and hard to pin down. Because the problem sometimes looks like Sandra Bullock, sometimes like Jesse James, and the dialogue is colored with much anger.
To set the stage, I should start by saying that I never saw “The Blind Side.” And I should also explain that I am a kid whose way out of Gary, Indiana (the country’s murder capitol (at that time)) was through the kindness of a wealthy white man who paid my tuition at an exclusive prep school. While I have mixed emotions about that experience, I am thankful to have had it. But I digress. Ultimately, I couldn’t bring myself to sit for two hours as another child of color is “saved” by the goodwill of America’s latest sweetheart. After “Dangerous Minds,” “Freedomwriters,” “The Ron Clark Story,” Avatar,” “Hardball,” “Radio,” Cool Runnings,” “A Time To Kill,” “The Gran Torino”… even “Amistad,” and on and on… I have grown tired of this particular narrative. Maybe I’m too sensitive – I relate too closely to the people who look like me on the screen and I care too much about their perspectives.
What strikes me about “The Blind Side,” in particular, is that as an individual film, it gently lulls the audience into a false sense of some sort of peace offering from White America. There are thousands of true-life tales of people of all colors who perform the most amazing acts of kindness to uplift others. Yet, what we consistently experience through America’s most popular movies is some benevolent white “decider” making the ultimate choice in the lives of people of color. As individual films they can be seen as inspirational. It is not until we consider these films as a catalog of an universal American theme, that we are able to see how these films are actually quite dangerous. Through the power of repetition, we subliminally shape current public consciousness and, in turn, the future’s understanding of history.
Sandra Bullock, apparently America’s sweetheart, plays Leigh Anne Tuohy – a real life woman who grew up in a very racist home but eventually adopts a black son. In the movie version, Tuohy is depicted by a genial Bullock as a ballsy, benevolent ringleader who saves yet another overweight black teen besieged by the failings of his own family. Tuohy, not the teen, is the central character. Now, if we HAD to tell her story (and not the story of the person with the real crisis), why not actually track her life – her personal struggle? The current filmic incarnation talks around but never closely examines the woman with the actual strife and struggle and misses a huge elephant in the room – What happened to Bullock’s character that caused her to grow and evolve from her racist roots?
If you read Tuohy’s interviews, she never quite describes what suddenly “clicked” and made her change her conceptions. But a braver version of the film would have attempted to tackle this question. Perhaps, the movie could have centered its focus on the complexity and awkwardness of our stabs at forging a new racial consciousness. That we all as individuals have to overcome our prejudices in order to make connections to others outside our own experiences. In doing so, the film could have daringly made a comment on our American evolution and the work we still have to do. For an example of how it has been done, the film “Lonestar” comes to mind. But the easier tale – the one that makes the conversation simple (and definitely more profitable) – is of the gun totin’, short blonde saving the day.
While the film is quietly racist, Bullock’s off-screen dilemma is loudly racist. For starters, I never personally thought she was some sort of “sweetheart” I could emulate – like the commenting ladies of Jezebel were so quick to proclaim. Perhaps it’s because she doesn’t represent my experience as a woman and I could never identify with her ability to maintain her sexiness and humor without being off-putting to white men. But again, I digress.
This entire situation exemplifies how we are so lazy when it comes to dealing with racism. We love to watch movies about a white woman helping a poor black boy, and feel good about another lost cause being saved. We, as a whole, do not like to watch serious movies about people of color pulling themselves out of their rough lives. We are proud to laugh along with John Stewart poking fun at the infamous C SPAN caller. But we turn away from serious discussions of how we are too complacent to confront everyday racism prevalent in today’s media – radio, television and film. America loves to point and say “That’s racist. That’s not me!” so much so that they become completely blindsided (pun intended), confused and offended when people of color are disgruntled about they way they are routinely depicted.
I get it. It isn’t so easy to relinquish the idea of cultural superiority. However, we have to be honest with ourselves about what is happening. Folks are angry. Blacks and Latinos look at the number of brethren in jail, the economic and health disparities, and the accepted forms of racism despite the societal battles that have been fought and “won.” And they are angry. They also do not want the answer to lie in the willingness of more Bullock-like characters to provide salvation. On the other hand, maybe white people are angry that they have to figure out a way evolve from the shame of slavery and colonization while still denying their ancestral responsibility?
At the end of the day, in white-savior films, the real story is the tale of a person (or group of people) whose lives must overcome tremendous struggle in order to survive. Yet somehow, such films turn the tale into the most amazing derailment of empowerment and self-worth, if ever there were one. They dangerously erase the agency and voice of the saved group, reinforce the idea of white cultural (economical, spiritual, & political) supremacy, and actively keep our attention focused on the white point-of-view. The conclusion, people of color cannot save themselves.
We have so far to go in America.
Yes, there are strides made every day. However, for the most part, we are so blinded by the wildly ignorant vitriolic chit chat that we ignore other quiet and more powerful forms of racism. Such as, one of the most popular movies of 2009 was about a gun totin’, short blonde who helps puts the dysfunctional blacks in their place and the scared whites at ease.
**Written by Niki Williams. In addition to being a freelance writer, Niki is a founding member of The GingerFly as a filmmaker, blogger, and graphic designer. She also recently started a non-profit to teach self-efficacy to young women. Find her at thegingerfly.com.**