ORIGINAL: Tambay Obenson over at Shadow and Act is asking what scores of cineastes have been asking over the past week: Who in America is watching The Blind Side (and recommending it) and why? Like Tambay, I saw the trailer and immediately rolled my eyes deep into my stomach, itself about to hurl. Black cineastes naturally recoil at dramas that dramatize the uplift of the Magical Negro by a rich white family.
Yet here we are. The film has passed the $100 million in record time; it’s already taken the trophy for highest grossing sports drama opening; it’s a career-best opening for Sandra Bullock; and received an A+ from CinemaScore moviegoers, which, while an unreliable metric, signals that audiences are likely recommending the movie to friends.
What’s going on? A few guesses:
Blind Side = Precious, But Happier: Faced with the decision of what to see during the holidays, as winter approaches, I’m sure a lot of people chose The Blind Side. Says one (black) Tweeter: “I was going to see Precious but I want something happier, so The Blind Side. I like Sandra bullock and it’s true story.”
Promise of Racial Unity: As much as people have been flocking to Precious to see how “we are not post-racial,” everyone else is seeing The Blind Side (dir. John Lee Hancock) to see how we can be. While my instinct to sneer at the film’s promised sentimentality and softening of class and racial conflict, I’m trying to temper my biases. As many racial problems as we have in this country — many of them in full view over the past two years — many Americans, particularly a slightly more sophisticated moviegoing public, believe we can progress, and that interpersonal relationships are the place to start. Like nearly all films about race, struggle is seen as personal and individual (it’s hard to do The Wire on film), so if an old white lady and bulky black man can come together, the film asks, can’t America? The Blind Side really played up the differences between Bullock and newcomer Quintin Aaron, upping this kind of drama. I’ll write a separate post later on individualism, uplift and media.
Gender Targeting: Older women needed something to see, with the only other major releases being the tweeny New Moon and macho 2012 and Old Dogs. BoxOfficeMojo reported: “CinemaScore’s demographic survey suggested the audience was 59 percent female and 75 percent 25 years of age and older.” Many movies skew female and older, so if you can make a movie older women want to see, you’re primed for a hit; RomComs are great examples: The Proposal, Something’s Gotta Give, Mamma Mia. Meanwhile, the sports narrative, equally played up in the trailer, brought in enough men to increase its box office power.
We’ve Been Here Before: Even though we don’t get here too often. I looked up the grosses for Dangerous Minds: $180 million…in 1995. Set against the backdrop of court challenges to affirmative action, welfare reform, and black-directed urban crime films, it seems films that America continually longs for well-marketed films about black and white people making it together. (I would even throw in hits like The Green Mile). While other such films like Finding Forrester and Freedom Writers have been less successful (am I missing a major example here?), the draw can be strong when a charismatic star like Sandra Bullock is brought in. Which brings me to:
People Like Sandra Bullock: I don’t know why. I certainly like her more after The Proposal — I like women in charge — but her appeal is intense. She appears to have out-Julia Roberts’ed Julia Roberts, both in their 40s. Quite a feat. Good for her.
I’m not sure if the enormous success of The Blind Side should make us feel bad about the state of racial politics in America. It might signal that Americans have bad taste in films, but strong reviews could counteract those claims. Sure, the movie plays up the worst aspects of the book, but that’s to be expected. Most simply, the movie shows us that during holiday season, people get itchy for out-of-home entertainment and look for what’s most pleasurable — it’s why I just saw New Moon on Friday.
Most importantly, I think we might see The Blind Side’s appeal optimistically. Even as Fox News and conservative Republicans stir up and condone the worst sentiments among white Americans, teabaggers, 9/12ers, Beck and Limbaugh listeners, there may be another silent majority who have (admittedly puerile) visions of interracial harmony. Even though those dreams invoke a sad history of black people needing to be “saved” from their own sloth and poverty by whites, I would say, it’s the thought that counts. Sentimentality can be powerful, and besides, it’s just a movie.