Norma Rae vs The Blind Side

(Author’s note: there’s apparently a critic who needs to be heard on this topic. She’s either 14 or 62 – either age would tend to have more certainty on the topic of what constitutes a worthy film production than I do. We may be hearing more from her in the future. Stay tuned.)

In scene after scene, the boy towers over his classmates. We’d been made aware that public school had failed him, passing him up the grades while never bothering to teach him. He’d been brought to the attention of the football coach at an expensive, presumably elite, Christian school, and, despite the fact that he’d never seen the boy play the game, he urges the admission committee to accept the boy. “It’s the Christian thing to do,” the man pleads. The admission committee, after pointing out that it might not be kind to the boy on the basis that his grades were what you might call ‘underwater’ and omitting entirely the fact that he’d need to rely upon scholarships and financial aid, is presumably sufficiently shamed into accepting him, for the next scene shows the boy, Big Mike, looming over the other children who run beneath the arch before the school. He pauses to read the inscription above the arch: “With God All Things Are Possible.”

His biological mother, a “crackhead” and, by the scornful estimate of a state official, mother to at least a dozen kids, all by different fathers, (“with her drug arrest record, my guess would be she probably can’t even remember…”) is shown only when the wealthy woman who’s taken this boy into her home finds her, finds him even when her own son can’t. It was made clear that she’d no obligation to do this, that the effort to find and contact the boy’s mother was purely the result of her own mothering instinct, aghast that the state wouldn’t even bother to contact the boy’s mother to let her know where he was.

So within the elegant confines of his new home, the large boy becomes a young man. He’s taught to play football by his newly adopted brother SJ who will function as a kind of miniature loud-talking agent for the boy as he navigates eager college football scouts. Once he learns to play the game, that is. Which requires teaching him to act on his “protective instinct” which, we’d been told early on, he scored in the 98th percentile on standardized testing. Sadly, standardized testing doesn’t actually measure “protective instinct” and his other scores were in the single digits. “He’s Ferdinand,” his adoptive mother explains, reading aloud the simple children’s book to her family, the story of the gentle bull who refuses to fight in the bull ring.

Sandra Bullock stars as the woman who’s the catalyst in this boy’s life, the woman who calls the football coach on his cell phone in the middle of the game to tell him how to do his job. She’s a dynamo, a wonderful character, in sky-high heels, tight skirts, and a cascade of blonde hair, a cell phone permanently ensconced in her manicured fingers. She’s fun to watch, all passion and outrage, with wonderful lines. “If you so much as set foot downtown, you will be sorry,” she warns some African American men hanging around in front of the boy’s mother’s home. “I’m in a prayer group with the D.A., I’m a member of the NRA and I’m always packing.”

“Whatchu packin? .22? A little Saturday night special?” One kid asks.

“Yep. And it shoots just fine every other day of the week too.”

I laughed in spite of myself. But watching this film, I remembered another, better movie, with another passionate, outraged movie star. I remembered Norma Rae, starring Sally Fields, from 1979. Norma Rae is the story of a young woman who herself had several children out of wedlock, who lives with her parents. They all work together at the local textile mill, the town’s primary employer, where they’d worked for generations with low wages, no benefits, no job security, and, pointedly, no interest in unions, not if they wanted to someday become supervisors, if they wanted to be promoted. Although their homes and churches continue to be segregated, black and white folks are shown working together in the way that poor people always have; economics are more significant than race, is implied.

Sally Field is promoted, happy with the prospect of additional money, until she realizes that her new job means that she has to report the shortcomings of her fellow workers. Ultimately, she decides the money isn’t worth not being part of the group. At the same time, a union team is traveling through different small towns attempting to draw workers together, to organize into unions, and she becomes interested in what they have to say. It appears that she’s interested also in the man delivering the message, but the two never become romantically attached. This is not a love story.

The small group of organizers eventually convinces the mill to bring the issue to a vote, and the result is that the workers are unionized, with promises of better working conditions, predictable schedules and a new respect for their rights. Whether this proves to be the case or not is a matter for another movie, or at least another essay, but the differences between these two films outweigh their similarities in ways that are telling.

While both films star beautiful, feisty women, passionate about social justice, The Blind Side never moves beyond the individual. “We should start a charity for kids like Michael,” Sandra Bullock muses. “Maybe fund a program…” But the specter of wealthy whites “adopting” droves of inner city blacks, even if only in order to train them to be confined within the athletic arena of the alma maters looms large. “This could set a dangerous precedent,” warns the representative of the NCAA. “The NCAA fears that with your recruitment a door might be opened – that boosters from lots of schools in the south will become legal guardians for young athletes without means and funnel them to their Alma Maters.” The fact that the rep is portrayed as an African American isn’t irrelevant, but it’s also not presented as a factor. He doesn’t seem to notice that she’s the first black person he appears to have encountered since he left the projects.

“I didn’t even ask you if you wanted to play football,” Sandra Bullock says, sadly, near the end of the film. “Do you even like football?” It’s too late. He’s already been taught the game, and worked with a privately hired tutor to teach him, individually, in order to bring his grades up to the gravelly bottom of what’s required to play on the team.

Both films aim at the heart strings rather than the brain. Neither is a cerebral analysis of social context or ideological action. But in Norma Rae, Sally Field shows a woman whose efforts are directed at empowerment of a group of people; her story is one of becoming more fully human through passionate commitment to social justice. She convinces people, one by one, that it’s in their own personal best interest to join together in order to commit to a more socially conscious way of living. Sandra Bullock simply reminds her friends that if they don’t like her actions, she can find an overpriced salad closer to home: she doesn’t need them.


About Carolyn Ogburn

Writer, hiker, activist and gadfly. #Binder Writes @NumeroCinq555 / Blogs @pshares MFA @VCFA
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One Response to Norma Rae vs The Blind Side

  1. eli says:

    Incisive & brilliant as you are hilarious, Cousin.

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