UPDATE: Dear friend, two-time Black History Quiz champion and frequent commenter David Russell had this gem:
I had similar reaction to the movie. I had read the book and was quite angry at what I thought was the misrepresentation of Michael Oher. One example: the little Tuohy coaches Michael through some exercises in the movie. In the book we learned that Michael, while heavy, played basketball for endless hours. He had no problem exerting himself, and he didn’t need a smart-aleck white kid to give him directions and motivation. There does seem to be a consistent pattern in the movie of showing Michael as slower of mind than he was in the book, more dependent and pathetic. This is undoubtedly related to the movie’s success, I believe. It is a comforting image for white audiences. Gutman’s book is one of my all-time favorites. When he did yor posting some time ago of your favorite books of all time I should have listed this in my tip ten. I remember when I first read it decades ago feeling that I had been given access to a world I hadn’t previously seen, the resilience and strength of the black family. It is a powerful antidote to the racist images of victimization. And such a moving human story. Gutman is wonderful at bringing the data to life. Untold millions of people persevered mightily through oppressive conditions, and The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom gives voice to a piece of that experience.
Dunreith and I watched The Blind Side, the Academy Award-winning adaptation of Michael Lewis’ book by the same name.
The movie concentrates on one of Lewis’ two narrative threads-the rescue of Michael “Big Mike” Oher from poverty, homelessness and a future trajectory of a Hobbesian life by Leigh Anne and Sean Touhy, played by Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw, respectively. Through their love, care and resources, Oher become an honor roll student and All-American left guard at the University of Mississippi, his legal guardians’ alma mater, before being picked by the Baltimore Ravens in the first round of the 2009 NFL draft.
The second of the two strands-Lawrence Taylor’s impact on the game and the emergence of the need for left tackles to protect right-handed quarterbacks’ blind side-is the movie’s backdrop, rather than its primary focus.
Oher’s horrific childhood is mostly alluded to in the movie, and spelled out in more detail in the book. His father, with whom he never had meaningful contact, dies shortly after the film begins, while his mother, a crack addict, cannot even remember Michael’s father’s last name when Leigh Anne Tuohy goes to visit her in her apartment midway through the movie.
Black family dysfunction leading to white uplift has been a movie staple for many years, whether in education movies like Dangerous Minds or sports movies like Hardball and Radio to issue films like A Time to Kill. The Blind Side, while based on a true story, continues that tradition of representing black families as pathological.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s highly controversial 1965 report advanced the idea of the black family as an institution torn asunder during slavery and morphing into a pathological matriarchy that was one of the major causes of large sections of the black community faring poorly.
In his report, Moynihan draws on the work of acclaimed sociologist E. Franklin Frazier and historian Nathan Glazer to buttress his points.
He did not read or rely on Herbert Gutman’s classic work, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom because it had not yet been published. Had it been written, though, Moynihan could have come to a different conclusion.
Gutman takes direct aim at Moynihan’s recounting of the black family during slavery as completely destroyed. Drawing on extensive archival records, Gutman instead shows how many black families were intact during the slavery era, Reconstruction and beyond.
The book does end in 1925, and it cannot be denied that much of the data about black families can be disheartening. At the same time, Gutman’s work challenges us to resist the easy and all-too-common representations of black families as dysfunctional that we see over and over on the screen and which serve as the moral canvas on which white protagonists, like Huck Finn before them, demonstrate their heroism.