Flicks & Faith
11/20/09 at 04:09 PM 0 Comments

Living Faith Out Loud: Capturing Authentic Christians on Film in THE BLIND SIDE

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Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy told me that they did not have script approval, and therefore had no control over how they were portrayed on screen in The Blind Side. The film is the story of how the Tuohys brought a troubled, homeless black teen, who could barely read, into their family. They gave him a bed, food, and love, and watched him mature into a dean's list scholar at Ole Miss, and the finest collegiate left tackle in the nation. The young man was Michael Oher, who is currently playing his rookie season for the Baltimore Ravens.

That the Tuohys were unconcerned about their portrayal struck me as an act of faith. Sean said that it really didn't matter how they appeared, because everyone at church who really knew the Tuohys would recognize them if the portrayal was accurate, and dismiss it if Hollywood got them wrong. His only concession to the magic of the silver screen came in a lament. At his current stage of life, Sean is in the "cuddle weight" division. When country western star, and sometime actor, Tim McGraw (who is very fit) asked what Sean thought about being played by him, Sean, laughing, replied, "if you could take your shirt off in the film and walk around for about 20 seconds, you and I are good." But, to be honest, that image would have been an illusion, and the truth of what appears on screen is so much more appealing. The Tuohys trusted director John Lee Hancock to get it right.

The Tuohy's faith in Hancock was well placed. Hancock pulled off something that has eluded just about every filmmaker other than Tyler Perry: he portrayed authentic Christians in a mainstream Hollywood film. Over the past few decades, Christianity has been essentially ignored as a part of a character's profile in most Hollywood roles. Easily identifiable Christians (you can tell who they are by the clerical collars) are primarily relegated to performing weddings and funerals, or are remarkably unsuccessful exorcists. Otherwise they are ultimately the ones who turn into werewolves or are revealed as the sweaty serial killer. But Christianity, as part of the normal life of a character, was hard to find in mainstream Hollywood film. I mean, the world is coming to an end in 2012 and no one bothers to pray?

I do not know anything at all about Hancock's personal faith commitments, or even if he has one, but what I can say after speaking with him and seeing the film he directed is that he strives for authenticity. It comes out in The Blind Side in just the way any fair-minded person of faith would hope: integrated rather than preachy, complex, and introspective. In other words, Hancock dared to portray these Christian folks as real people. And he did so while crafting a very entertaining story perfect for the holiday season.

Get a Life

Hancock argues that the main reasons most Hollywood filmmakers do not get Christians "right" in films is a combination of stereotypes and laziness. To them, "Christians" are a type - like "bank robber" or "town drunk." Once they come across a wild-eyed preacher on the late night cable access channel, they think they understand, and so they do not bother to dig deeper.

In The Blind Side, the Tuohys are decidedly Christian. They send their kids to Wingate Christian School. Leigh Anne identifies herself as attending a prayer group. When Michael's mother declares Leigh Anne a "good Christian woman," Leigh Ann replies, "I try to be." But unlike most films that come out of strictly Christian production houses, where the final reel inevitably leads to an altar call, The Blind Side is content to tell the Tuohy's story, and trusts the audience to draw the implications. Yes, the Tuohys are Christians, but they are also business people, Sean is the owner of chains of fast food restaurants, Leigh Anne is a designer and philanthropist, both are devoted (yet tough) parents. Their daughter, Collins, is a cheerleader who studies hard, and has to deal with the racist attitudes of some of her schoolmates. SJ, their son, takes a keen interest in Michael's training, and is a wheeler-dealer when the recruiting coaches come to call. The family is well-rounded, integrated, and attractive. You can tell that faith informs their lives and, for once, it does not seem weird or out of place. Their circumstances - helping to raise Michael Oher - are extraordinary, but that is what makes for a great story: ordinary people doing an extraordinary thing.

It's Complicated

The Christians in The Blind Side are not made out of cotton candy or cardboard. Christians are not a "type," they are people who struggle with living in the world, just like everybody else. In fact, trying to adhere to the standards of a Christian calling is a source of dramatic struggle. Shortly after Michael Oher is admitted to Wingate, a disagreement erupts between the faculty and staff over whether keeping him is a good idea. On one side are clear-eyed pragmatists who look at numeric scores and see failure - the right thing to do is to kick him out. Then there is Mrs. Beasley, Michael's biology teacher, who sees a disadvantaged student who just needs a chance and someone to believe in him. But ultimately what gets everyone's attention is the plaque on the wall that reminds them that Wingate is a Christian school. They exist to serve. And even though Michael Oher's problems are substantial, as the Bible passage inscribed over the gates of the school reminds them, "with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."

Coach Cotton is also conflicted. When he first sees Michael he has visions of a state championship. He looks on the outside and imagines that this mountainous teen is his ticket. But when Michael proves slow to learn on the gridiron, the coach's dissatisfaction shows. He doesn't do everything right. He is afflicted with aspirations that sometimes get in the way of treating others as God would treat them. And all that means is that he is a human being; he is real. Coach Cotton needs Leigh Anne Tuohy to come along and show him the importance of really knowing his players. Interrupting practice, she storms onto the field to have a conversation with Michael, using familiar metaphors about protection to increase his understanding of his role on the team. Needless to say, Michael exceeds expectations, and Coach Cotton learns a spiritual interpersonal lesson. As in all of life, there is growth.

Dealing with Doubts and Doing the Right Thing

The Tuohys are not saccharine saviors. There is never the sense that they wear permanent halos. Leigh Anne, in particular, can be tough, even threatening, when it is called for. When the Tuohys first bring Michael into their home they are fearful of theft. When their motives for intervening in Michael's life are questioned by a representative from the NCAA, Leigh Anne expresses self-doubt. The Tuohys recognize the dangers of selfish ambition, and they are aware that "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? " (Jeremiah 17:9). As a result, they are introspective, weighing their actions against an unyielding standard rather than on merely favorable outcomes. Living the Christian life is not a static condition, but a living drama that contains many anxious moments. The film does not shy away.

What does come across in The Blind Side - and in interviews with the real-life Tuohys - is their commitment to doing the right thing. They don't spend a lot of time talking about it, they simply do it. Sandra Bullock, who plays Leigh Ann in the film, noticed. Skeptical of some Christians and leery of the hypocritical judgmentalism that some people who claim faith exhibit, Bullock was touched. "I've finally met someone who practices, but doesn't preach...she [Leigh Anne] has no idea the path that she has begun in terms of adoption and fostering. It's not been on the forefront of people's minds. It is on the forefront of my mind every day now, when I get up, when I look around, I think ‘Is he? Is she? What is their situation?' And it's because of this family... I now have faith in those who say they represent a faith. I finally met people who walk the walk and it's made me happy."

Faith and Works

Cinema works best when it "shows" rather than "tells." Faith, as the Apostle James notes, works the same way: "What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and be filled," and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, ‘You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.' (James 2:14-18). If you claim to have faith, show it.

The Blind Side gives an honest, real-world, fair shake to Christians, allowing their lives to speak for themselves. We care about these people because they care about each other in the same way that all of us would like to believe ourselves capable. What makes the film even better is that it is based on a true story, where real people can serve as living examples of a lived-out faith. I wish the cast and crew all the best this holiday season. I feel as if I have received an early gift.

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