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Two films, two routes out of poverty

It is possible to imagine “Precious” and “The Blind Side” in dialogue with each other, taking part in a conversation on race that the American public is always supposedly eager to have, but never right now.
Image: Paula Patton, Gabourey Sidibe
In “Precious,” the title character, played by Gabourey Sidibe, finds her way into an alternative school program for at-risk girls, and blossoms in the friendship of her peers and the patient encouragement of her teacher, Ms. Rain (Paula Patton).Anne Marie Fox / Lionsgate
/ Source: The New York Times

An African-American teenager, overweight and undereducated, a survivor of poverty and abuse, is rescued by the benevolent intervention of strangers. That, in a nutshell, is the plot of “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” which has attracted fervent praise, as well as some controversy, since its debut in limited release two weeks ago.

The same sentence could sum up “The Blind Side,” based on a nonfiction book by Michael Lewis, which opened nationally on Friday. Michael Oher (sometimes called Big Mike), the young black man whose fate drives “The Blind Side,” is in many ways a male, Southern counterpart to Claireece Jones (usually called Precious), the Harlem 16-year-old whose struggle animates “Precious.” Like Precious, Michael has emerged from a childhood of violence and deprivation, and finds a measure of hope and stability in a new school and a safer social environment. And, just as the illiterate, emotionally damaged Precious discovers a talent for writing, so does Michael, gentle and shy in spite of his intimidating size, unlock an athletic gift that will lead him to a big-time football career. (From Memphis, where the film takes place, the real Michael Oher went on to play offensive tackle at the University of Mississippi and now for the Baltimore Ravens.)

“Precious” and “The Blind Side” come from different corners of the movie cosmos, and their simultaneous appearance is entirely accidental. But it is nonetheless possible — and, I think, useful — to imagine these movies in dialogue with each other, taking part in a conversation on race that the American public is always supposedly eager to have, but never right now.

“Precious,” directed by Lee Daniels, is an unusual hybrid. Independently produced, with a Sundance audience award in its pocket, it attracted the sponsorship of Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey, media empire builders whose names are potent brands for mainstream audiences. The unusual convergence of art-house cachet — confirmed by the New York Film Festival, where “Precious” was the centerpiece — with the ecumenical black populism represented by Mr. Perry in particular, has proven commercially potent so far.

“The Blind Side,” directed by John Lee Hancock, is a more conventional product: a Hollywood movie built around the charisma and presumed box office draw of its lead actress, Sandra Bullock, who dominates the movie in the role of Leigh Anne Tuohy, the surrogate mother and guardian angel of Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron). In spite of walk-ons from real-life football coaches, “The Blind Side” is a traditional star vehicle, allowing Ms. Bullock to find new registers for the indomitable, sometimes grating energy that has long been the bedrock of her appeal.

“Precious” mixes florid melodrama and harsh naturalism in a sustained and effective emotional assault, daring its audience to identify with its heroine as she endures every kind of humiliation. “The Blind Side” treats its characters and its viewers more gently, leaving the details of Michael’s early life vague and focusing on the warm, redemptive bond that forms between him and the Tuohy family.

It is not only that family’s cultural and political allegiances that make “The Blind Side” something like a red state version of “Precious.” The Tuohys are wealthy white Southerners who send their children to a Christian private school and who treat college football (in particular when Ole Miss is involved) as a second religion. When Michael’s tutor, played by Kathy Bates, confesses her party affiliation to the Tuohys, Leigh Anne’s husband, Sean (played by Tim McGraw, who lends the movie further regional bona fides) wonders, “Who would have thought we’d have a black son before we met a Democrat?”

In this film publicity image released by Warner Bros., Jae Head, foreground left, Quint Aaron and Sandra Bullock are shown in a scene from, \"The Blind Side.\"Ralph Nelson / Warner Bros.

Who indeed? Or, for that matter, at least when audiences hear this line, a black president (who is also a Democrat). This movie’s generally warm, honest portrayal of Southern whites — a group that tends to be either sentimentalized or sneered at in movies and on television — is one of its striking features. Another is its thorough if somewhat understated conservatism. To the extent that Michael represents a social problem (or maybe a whole bunch of them, including poverty, drug addiction and family dysfunction), the solution depicted is individual, charitable and, at least implicitly, faith based.

Some of Leigh Anne’s friends wonder if she is helping Michael out of a sense of “white guilt,” a notion she laughs off without entirely dispelling. Whatever her deeper motives, her actions are fairly radical. After figuring out that Michael, who attends school with her children, is homeless, Leigh Anne offers him a bed for the night. Eventually she and Sean become his legal guardians and the leaders of a group — including their children, Michael’s football coach, tutor and teachers — committed to helping the young man succeed.

Precious (Gabourey Sidibe), for her part, benefits from a similar support network. She finds her way into an alternative school program for at-risk girls, and blossoms in the friendship of her peers and the patient encouragement of her teacher, Ms. Rain (Paula Patton). The school secretary (played by the comedian and talk show host Sherri Shepherd) and a kindly male nurse (Lenny Kravitz) also help Precious, as does Ms. Weiss, the social worker played by Mariah Carey. Unlike the private charity of the Tuohys, the kindness of the nurses and teachers who help Precious is sanctioned and supported by the state.

It may be something of an inside joke that Precious claims to be unable to determine Ms. Weiss’s ethnicity, given the similar enigma surrounding Ms. Carey’s background. But one notable difference between Precious’s benefactors and Michael Oher’s is that Michael’s are virtually all white.

There is an older male relative who engineers Michael’s admission to the school where Leigh Anne discovers him, but he disappears almost entirely from the movie, resurfacing briefly at graduation. There are brief scenes with Michael’s mother and one of his brothers, but the world he knew before the Tuohys is rendered in a flurry of broad strokes and is represented by a leering, violent drug dealer who offers himself as an alternative to Leigh Anne. The only nonunderclass black person is the N.C.A.A. official who shows up near the end to threaten the football scholarship that the Tuohys have done so much to help Michael earn.

“Precious” has been lauded for its honesty, and also faulted for its extreme, pathologizing depiction of black family life. African-American writers have been on both sides of this argument, and also in the middle. Armond White, the great contrarian of American film criticism (and the chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle) accused “Precious” of trafficking in “racist hysteria disguised as social sensitivity,” and compared what he saw as its misrepresentations of African-American life to those in D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation.”

Raina Kelley, in an essay in Newsweek, took a more ambivalent, less incendiary view, noting that the movie’s intense focus on an individual’s terrible story blunted its potential to make a larger statement. “I wish I could agree with those who say ‘Precious’ is just one more movie that feeds our vision of ourselves as victims,” she wrote. “Even that would have been better than what lies underneath: the fact that black people have begun to accept as unchangeable the lot of those stuck in the ghetto.”

And this is a critique that might extend to “The Blind Side” as well. Both movies tell stories that suggest a way out of poverty, brutality and domestic calamity for certain lucky individuals while saying very little about how those conditions might be changed. For all their differences, they ultimately occupy a common ground that is both optimistic and, at the same time, curiously defeatist. Both locate the problems facing their main characters in the failure of families — of mothers in particular — and find solutions in better families, substitute mothers (Ms. Rain and Leigh Anne), whose selflessness and loyalty exorcise the biological monsters who have been left behind. The fact that “The Blind Side” is based on a true story lends credibility to this sentimental idea.

Left or right, black or white, Americans love happy endings. Overcoming adversity is our national pastime, especially when it can also be a spectator sport. And we love stories of heroic educators, coaches and moms — Michelle Pfeiffer in “Dangerous Minds,” Edward James Olmos in “Stand and Deliver” — who change the lives of poor, marginalized children by teaching them hard work and self esteem. Let me be clear: I’m not disparaging either “Precious” or “The Blind Side,” even though I think “Precious” is a much better movie. They are both sincere and serious, and if they serendipitously share a premise, they also share a blind spot, which is hardly theirs alone.

At the end of “Precious” the heroine shoulders her burden and sets off to make her way in the world, a conclusion that may be objectively bleak — Precious is an H.I.V.-positive teenage mother who has only recently learned to read and write — but that fills the audience with a sense of hard-won redemption. We believe she will be all right because we would rather believe that than confront the failures of institutions, programs and collective will that leave so many other Preciouses unrescued.

Michael Oher, at the end of “The Blind Spot,” fares rather better, but the film concludes with a reminder of what might have been, as Leigh Anne peruses newspaper accounts of young men from his part of Memphis killed by gang violence. She wonders why he was so much more fortunate, modestly declining to mention her own role and thereby deflecting attention from the movie’s curious moral, which is that the best hope for a poor black child in America is to have rich white parents.

This article, first appeared in The New York Times.