Lately I’ve been hearing a lot about the movie The Blind Side. It’s coming out next month, and it’s the story of a wealthy white family that adopts an African American teenager. Trailers are being passed around on adoption message boards, and many people have mentioned it to me, assuming I am excited about it, too.
I’m really not thrilled about this movie, for a number of reasons. For full disclosure, probably the number one reason is that it just isn’t the type of movie I usually enjoy. I’m not big on the feel-good, tear-jerker genre of movies (unless there is singing and dancing). I tend to gravitate towards movies that are a little dark, a little brooding, a bit dysfunctional, and that don’t wrap up with a happy bow at the end. You might be thinking that this is because I am cynical and prone to merriment at the misfortune of others. And to that I would say, you are right.
The part of this movie that troubles me on a philosophical level, though, is that it reinforces some of the savior narratives about adoption. The first thing I noticed when I watched the preview was that, with the exception of the main character, every black person in the movie is bad, and every white person in the movie is good. We see a female black relative who appears to be an addict, several thugs who threaten the mom, and even a sassy black social worker who further plays into stereotypes. Then, on the Great White Hope side, we see sacrificial parents, concerned friends, loving coaches, and encouraging tutors. The subtle message: if we can just get some of these kids away from BLACK PEOPLE, then they might have a chance.
I don’t think I need to expound on the problem in that message. Do I?
And then there is the overt message that this teen is being saved by his adoptive parents. I can’t remember where I saw this quote, but it has stuck with me: You can only save a child once. After that, it’s called parenting. Adoption is not something people should do out of some sort of messiah complex. And of course, the main character gives the ubiquitous line, “We’re not saving him, he’s saving me.” I might be guilty of having said something like this a time or two – but it’s putting adoption into a simplified, quid-pro-quo kind of light: You take a kid out of the ghetto, and the kid will change your life and become a hero and shining star for the family. Parents who expect their kids to redeem them are in for trouble, adopted or not.
Ugh. And the football scholarship. So more people can look at transracial adoption as a way to get themselves a pro-ball player. Because, you know, all black people are naturally good at sports. Right, Spencer and Heidi?
Now, obviously, this movie is based on a true story, so I can’t really criticize the plot, but I’m annoyed with the glossed-over presentation. I guess I just wish that a mainstream adoption movie could present the full picture in a more realistic light. Like the fact that many adoptive couples are not wealthy. Like the fact that continuing ties with the birth family are important. Like the fact that older adoptees will have some serious issues with bonding that don’t go away with a hug and a pep talk. Like the fact that adoptive parents are not heroes, they are parents, and adoptive children don’t owe them any more gratitude than bio kids do. Like the fact that bringing home a troubled homeless teen off the side of the road, when you have a teenage daughter and a young son, is a risky idea no matter how selfless and heroic it may seem.
For me, the best transracial adoption movie I’ve seen is a quiet little film called Lovely & Amazing, that takes an honest look at the identity issues an adoptee feels being raised in a loving yet typically dysfunctional family.
I haven’t seen The Blind Side yet, so maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this movie does delve into the complex issues of attachment and race that doesn’t end with a “love will solve everything” message. But I somehow doubt it.
EDITED TO ADD: When my husband read this post he said I was being too harsh. Probably true. And then he accused me of being biased just because it looks cheesy. Also true. I do think a pro-adoption movie is a good thing overall. I’m mostly balking at the savior narrative and the racial stereotypes. Also, I don’t think it’s unwise for people to adopt older children. I think it is a HUGE need. Just the whole “pick a person up off the side of the road and bring him home” scene bugs me, since they have no idea what his story is, haven’t gotten a pyscho-social background or an idea of his mental health, etc. Maybe the movie explains that they knew more about him. That’s the beauty of writing movie reviews on movies I haven’t seen. I get to judge without being informed. But I don’t want to give the impression that I think it’s unwise to adopt older children. Couldn’t be further from the truth. Just maybe use an agency instead of picking them up roadside?