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The mindset of the American populace has steadily improved in regards to racial equality since the achievements during the Civil Right’s Movement of the 1960s. With the support of the government, influential leaders, and peaceful protests, African Americans were able to establish themselves in broader career paths and begin to receive the recognition and respect that they deserve. Just as negative habits are difficult to terminate, intrinsic prejudices are not easily extinguished. As a result, acts of racism continue to plague society; albeit they have molded into less distinguishable forms of discrimination. This obscurity impedes the ability to denounce the perpetrator for their comments or actions and, harder still, to elucidate to them how this way of thinking reflects dogmatism. These antipathetic instances, which are known as microaggressions, extend past racism; people of lower social class often find themselves subjected to similar injustices. Addressing these two aforementioned issues, the 2009 film The Blind Side, based on the book by Michael Lewis, follows the true story of Michael Oher, an African-American teenager who is adopted by the wealthy Touhy family. Largely through verbal slights, manifested through racial stereotypes and social class dissociation, the existence of microaggressions in current society are epitomized; additionally, Michael’s character serves to challenge the philosophy of meritocracy in relation to race and social class.
The contention of racial microaggressions is conveyed in the film most noticeably by way of comments, as opposed to nonverbal actions. Director John Lee Hancock utilizes the Touhy family to illuminate the presence of egalitarian values within aversive racism as portrayed in the film. Leigh Anne Touhy, despite her charitable act of inviting Michael to overnight at the Touhy family house, nervously questions her husband whether their belongings are safe. This seemingly innocent inquiry reflects the presumption of Michael’s criminality based on his race. Leigh Anne may not blatantly state that it is Michael’s race which contributes to her concern, however that message is nevertheless implied. Dr. Derald Wing Sue acknowledges the essentially good intentions behind such comments; regardless he argues that “The invisible nature of acts of aversive racism prevents perpetrators from realizing and confronting […] their role in creating disparities in employment, health care, and education” (201). This initial infraction aside, the Touhy family serves primarily as a means of interaction with passively racist comments. One instance of this occurs during cousin Bobby’s voicemail message, inquiring the Touhys if they were aware of the “colored boy” on their Christmas card. Equally evident of covert anti-minority sentiments, one of Leigh Anne’s friends expresses her concern regarding Michael’s presence in a household where the Touhy’s daughter resides. By commenting this, black males are negatively stereotyped as sex offenders; once more, Michael is presumed dangerous on the account of his skin (Sue 205).
Reflecting the film’s respect for all social groups, other stereotypes are mentioned in good humor and the banter is directed towards each party involved. In one of the film’s beginning scenes, when Michael and the mechanic’s son, Steven, play basketball on the school’s court, the latter exclaims in wonder that the basketballs are not secured with a lock. Michael retorts that white people are crazy, delineating race as the basis for differences in their accustomed lifestyle (Park 224). Additionally making light of a stereotype, Sean Touhy jokingly addresses their Republican background by rhetorically asking his wife, “Who would of [sic] thought we’d [sic] have a black son before we met a Democrat?” The comedy of self-criticizing humor indicates the non-malicious intrinsic nature of the film, despite the negative comments which are made by other characters within the movie (Belton 173-75).
As well as brushing upon the issue of race in this film, The Blind Side also magnifies the division of social classes within the setting of Memphis, Tennessee. Throughout the movie, the director clearly strived to magnify the void between social classes within the film’s fictitious demographics; exaggerating the white majority in the wealthy sector and black majority on the opposite side of town. While the movie’s opening credits ghost across the screen, establishing shots of the lower-class areas are framed behind an appropriately gloomy sky. In a well-used car, Michael and two other passengers, Big Tony, the mechanic, and Steven, pass a middle-aged male pushing a shopping cart full of cardboard boxes and his belongings. The setting changes noticeably as they drive from one area of the city to another; a thicket of trees separates the lifeless, impoverished area from the nicer neighborhoods, bubbling with children and activity. The three men’s short commute, within the span of mere miles, underlines the unequal distribution of wealth and distinct segregation of social classes.
In a way, this setting transition foreshadows the classism of the film’s town; portraying social prejudice as a form of authentic discrimination, one which is often ignored as a valid experience. Sociology professors Stephen McNamee and Robert Miller Jr. further this idea by negating the assumption that “true equality of opportunity in America [would exist] if only these forms of discrimination (race and sex) were eliminated” and explaining how this theory “overlooks the effects of other non-merit factors identified here (especially inheritance)” (241). By means of verbal exchanges within Leigh Anne’s circle of pretentious female friends, the film also effectively ridicules the elitist influence which wealth can have on the character of a person. When discussing Park Village, the lower class section of town, the ladies refer to that area as the projects and deride about the negative effect which visiting such an area would have on their reputation.
These affected women also serve as the medium through which the myth of meritocracy is proposed; specifically the rich housewife, Beth, who admits that she came from the Park Village slums. Despite having been entrenched in that lifestyle, Beth insinuates that there is an ease to escaping the vicious cycle of poverty; after a little hard work, she now is able to eat lavish salads, join expensive gyms, and vacation in Paris (McNamee 241). By boasting her current affluence and means of obtaining it, she falsely asserts that any person can ascend the figurative social ladder, regardless of race or gender. As a white female, it is improbable that Beth would experience the same hardships and obstacles as would a black male such as teenage Michael (Sue 201). Extending past meritocracy in its relation to wealth, Michael’s character also depicts the narrow life outlook which results from circumstantial restriction of opportunity. The initial lack of enthusiasm which Michael expresses about his participation on the football team and for his grades is not a reflection of his ambition, but rather of the pathological effect from his upbringing and lifestyle (McNamee 241). After Michael’s enrollment at the private Christian school, his poor background and consequently less-progressed level of education for his age and grade is mistakenly equated with his intelligence. The camera pans down upon the school’s brick entrance, over which the motto of With Men This Is Possible, With God All Things Are Possible is heralded; ironically juxtaposing the pool of wealth in which the academy is soaked, hinting that the existence of money, rather than God, functions as the primary facilitator.
Once again defined by McNamee and Miller, intelligence is more than a matter of brain capacity; outside forces such as family and environment impinge significantly on a person’s potential (241). Disregarding this assessment, the majority of Michael’s high school teachers do not feel that he has the mental capacity for the subject matters which they teach. One of his teachers, Mrs. Boswell, finds a journal entry that Michael has written and thrown away, in which he states the alienation he feels in being constantly surrounded by white people, white walls, and white floors; moreover the simple expectation to complete homework assignments and contribute in class is a foreign concept to him. Better understanding Michael’s perspective, Mrs. Boswell administers an oral exam, on which Michael exhibits an improved comprehension. Michael’s academic progress after his adoption into the Touhy family promotes the theory regarding the myth of meritocracy and highlights wealth as a catalyst for success. The Touhy’s investment in Michael does not discredit his ability or intelligence; their resources merely fostered his pre-existing capabilities. From the Touhy family’s open arms towards Michael, they allude to one of the meritocracy myth solutions, insofar as the position that “American society could be made more genuinely meritocratic [if] current forms of discrimination could be reduced or eliminated” (McNamee 245).
The manner in which director John Lee Hancock depicts society’s regard for persons of different race and lower class status reflects an acknowledgement of racial and social experiences. Whereas some of the film’s characters do not actively respect the diversity of individuals, the film’s fundamental moral supports an appreciation for all social groups. Michael’s character does not definitively affirm or deny the theory of meritocracy, however wealth demonstrates its role as an unequivocal enabler in its advantageous effect on accessibility to resources. The Touhy family’s apparent unification after Michael’s induction into their home, reflected in their increase of time spent together, substantiates the importance of family as it transverses a person’s racial or environmental background. Perhaps it is a result of Michael’s childhood having lacked a familial support system that he values the interdependencies of family dynamics that much more. Regardless of the reason behind Michael’s affinity for commitment and protection to family, his presence in the Touhy family undeniably strengthens their bonds among each other. The respect shown for minority characters in The Blind Side, with regard to their appreciation for and acknowledgement of race, class, and the experiences pertaining to these categorizations, pursues an elimination of inequality in the cinematic industry.
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