“Precious” and “The Blind Side” Tell Some Hard Truths

by Borderstan.com December 7, 2009 at 5:00 am 2,414 0

by Mary Burgan

This week Mary the Borderstan Movie Fan reviews Previous and The Blind Side. Her column normally runs every two weeks.

Other Reviews by Mary

Borderstan Movie Fan: Children’s Movies for Grandparents, Part 2/Older Kids
Borderstan Movie Fan: Children’s Movies for Grandparents (Part 1)
High School Musicals
Movies for Foodies
Health Care Options at the Movies
My Favorite Sexy Movies
“Borderstan Movie Fan” Tells You What to Rent

Precious and The Blind Side

Two of the best films I saw over the Thanksgiving break were Precious and The Blind Side. Precious was almost unbearable to watch, and that may be the reason that the theater had only a sparse audience when we went to see the film, though we did go on an ordinary weekday afternoon. We saw The Blind Side at a Saturday matinee after Thanksgiving, and then the theater was packed with uplifted viewers. As we were leaving, I heard one ask another, “Did you cry?” And the response was, “Yes, I did.”

Actually, I cried at both films, but with different tears–tears of shame, tears of relief. I stumbled out of Precious feeling ashamed that I was a member of the human race, but I left The Bind Side feeling relieved that there were some good people on the planet.

Both films focus on the psychic and physical deprivations two abandoned, African-American teenagers must overcome to become themselves; one lives in Harlem and one lives in Memphis. Each is, essentially, a motherless child.  Both are wordlessly passive at the beginning, letting the awful lives they’ve been given just happen to them. But both find enough energy and hope to move out of their miserable situations and to use the help to do so from the few good people who reach out to them. (A. O. Scott wrote an insightful comparison of the two movies in the New York Times on November 20.)

Precious is the deeper film, I believe, and not just because the Harlem setting of the film is so gritty.  Its depth derives from the fact that the main character bears all the burdens of being female.  Her life has been an unremitting disaster that includes rape and pregnancy, but also pitiful fantasies of being pretty, light-skinned, and loved. At first Precious Jones’s huge body seems a prison that has made her wordless and stupid, but the film shows her gradual self-liberation aided by the intelligent kindness of a teacher and a social worker and the rough friendship of classmates.

Precious’s final confrontation with her mother’s cruelty is staged in a scene of astonishing violence. And then the mother’s long statement to the social worker about the history of her hatred for her daughter is mesmerizing (you’ll see the clips of Mo’Nique’s performance at Oscar time). Those revelations are what made me cry. And they made Precious one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen.

I don’t mean to be dismissive of the happier Blind Side by suggesting that it is merely a tear-jerker, designed to please a mass audience by offering easy solutions to hard problems. It all seems too good to be true, but the events and characters are based on real-life happenings, and the movie takes pains to invoke that aspect of the story. That factuality actually grounds the story in authenticity about race and big-time college football.

The Blind Side features a main character as wordless as Precious, but partly because he is male, his bulk serves him well. Though he hates being called “Big Mike,” his size, with the proper coaching by his adoptive white mother, leads him to the football success that gives his teachers the motivation to help him liberate his mind. By the end of the movie, he goes to college at Ole Miss and eventually becomes a Baltimore Ravens draft choice.

Some may think The Blind Side is too pat, showing the rescue of a black kid by a wealthy fairy godmother (played with extraordinary verve by Sandra Bullock). But that kind of condescension fails to honor the possibility that loving care and intensive education can make a difference, even if they come from affluent people in a southern city and even if those people are Republicans. Actually some who scorn the movie may harbor an unacknowledged prejudice against people from the South who say grace at meals and who pray at football games. It’s easier to believe in the goodness of liberals in the North who act on secular compassion.

I grew up in the South, and I know that not every white person there was a racist monster, just as I know that social workers in the North can be rule-bound, and sometimes hoodwinked by welfare frauds. I also know about the pure meanness of poverty and the nastiness of being cast out. Both Precious and The Blind Side seem authentic in their telling the hard truth of these things.

There are other films that have done the same; I will recommend only two of them here. My first pick is The Long Walk Home, a fine film that was released in 1990 and quickly forgotten. It stars Sissy Spacek as a decent housewife in Montgomery, Alabama, who slowly comes to recognize the dignity of her housemaid, played marvelously by Whoopi Goldberg. The maid refuses to take the bus to work during the 1956 boycott that finally ended segregation on public transportation throughout the country.

The housewife ends up revising her sense of justice and going against her own culture by helping the black woman, as Sandra Bullock helps Mike Oher in The Blind Side. But the Bullock movie, excellent as it is, fails to get at the full devastation of racism.  It spends some time in the Memphis slum, but it makes only a feeble, last- minute stab at wondering what will become of the many kids in that neighborhood who have no sympathetic teacher, no sudden sponsorship by a white person, and no athletic talent.

My second pick is Hoop Dreams, a 1994 documentary that follows two eighth-grade black basketball hopefuls in Chicago as they are recruited into a local Catholic high school with the promise of getting to play in college and the lure of a future in the MBA. In the process, the film shows the conditions of life for William Gates and Arthur Agee in the infamous Cabrini Green project neighborhood, now torn down. It also shows the manipulation of their careers under an ambitious coach at a Catholic institution, and how expendable they come to be when their potential as players dims; so much for Christian charity.

As in the other films I’ve reviewed here, the cruelty and neglect on display are heartbreaking and the efforts to undo them are heartwarming. Both need to be acknowledged as we try to proceed to a “post-racial” future.


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