on saturday night i went to see "the blind side", which is the movie sandra bullock won an oscar for, in case the name is not immediately familiar to you. i hadn't intended to see it after reading a couple of posts on blogs written by african-americans. they were mostly upset that gabourey sidibe hadn't won the best actress oscar for precious, but also concerned that ms bullock had won it for yet another role where white person saves person(s) of colour (looking at you, james cameron).
however, i'm glad an american friend persuaded me to see it and sent me this link to a new york times story about michael oher, published back in 2006. and i have to say that i really enjoyed the film, more than i enjoyed "precious" in fact, even though i wouldn't say that it was a better film.
partly, it was because i had a crappy week and it was exactly the pick-me-up i needed. but it's more than that. there are several key differences between the two films. they are similar to the extent that they bring out the reality of life for african-americans who live in poverty. they create a consciousness of the struggles of what it is like to grow up without the loving support of a cohesive family unit, without access to decent education and in the midst of extreme violence and crime. in both cases, i think the films succeed very well.
the key difference to me is that precious is the story of an african-american, told from the point of view of an african-american. we see the world through her eyes, and share her experiences as she felt them. blind side, on the other hand, is not actually michael oher's story even though that is how it's promoted. it is actually the story of leigh ann tuohy, in which mr oher features prominently. the story is told from her point of view, how she sees michael oher, what she understands of his situation, how she helps and supports him to become the successful person we know today.
and because blind side is her story, we actually don't get any graphic details of what mr oher's childhood was actually like. we get brief flashbacks, and a couple of scenes where he's back in the old neighbourhood. but not too much, not enough to seriously disturb. compare this with precious, where we get much more of the full force of her experience - the violence she suffered from her mother, the scene of her father raping her, the abuse from kids on the street because she was fat, the violation of her privacy by her social worker, the abuse of the system that punished her for her situation.
precious was so much more accurate and honest as a portrayal of a person's suffering. it gave us the full picture, and hence was so much more difficult to watch. so, while there's no doubt that it was a much better film than blind side, in a way it's less accessible. what i mean is that it's harder for someone who isn't poor or a person of colour or overweight to identify with precious. it's much easier to identify with leigh ann tuohy, because most of us have some experience of donating money or time, and of trying to help others who are less fortunate than us.
it seems to me that this is a pity, because really, precious is the story we should be watching and learning from. precious and michael oher are the ones who need our understanding the most, because it is people like them, and particularly those who didn't get the happy ending, who need for us to be on their side. it's only when we're on their side that we will advocate for better public policy that provides proper support and opportunities for people in similar situations. it's only when we understand their experiences with the full tragedy and horror this involves that we shake the notion that poor people deserve to be poor, or are lazy bludgers who could get out of their situation if only they tried hard enough.
in that sense, i thought "pursuit of happyness" (which i also loved) failed a little. [**spoiler alert**] the film itself did a great job of showing how wrong it is to judge people when they find themselves in a situation where they depend on the charity of others. but the ending could be interpreted to show that anyone in that situation would succeed if they only tried hard enough. the reality is, of course, that the majority of people in that situation will fail, and it is only through an extraordinary combination of opportunities and luck that a person might succeed.
so, to end a longish post, i'd actually recommend all three films i've mentioned here. i think they all give us something valuable, in different ways.