by Thaddeus Russell

The African-American teen character in the hit movie The Blind Side is loyal, polite, sexless, and surrounded by white people who love him—it’s a miracle of the Obama age.

As portrayed in The Blind Side, the story of a homeless black teenager taken in by a wealthy white family and who later became an NFL star, Michael Oher is gentle, hard-working, self-sacrificing, and soft-spoken.

Though raised in Memphis housing projects, he uses no slang and dislikes the taste of malt liquor. Instead of Ecko and Sean John, he wears Charlie Brown-style polo shirts. His table manners are impeccable. He exhibits virtually no sexual desire. He is never angry and shuns violence except when necessary to protect the white family that adopted him or the white quarterback he was taught to think of as his brother.

Though he appears to be made of (large amounts) of flesh and blood, Michael Oher performs miracles for white people.

In other words, Michael Oher is the perfect black man.

While Precious is garnering a great deal of attention from critics and intellectuals for its unapologetic portrayal of blacks who are cruel, violent, and self-destructive, The Blind Side is far more popular with audiences. With virtually no preceding buzz or publicity, it nearly beat the massively hyped New Moon at the box office last weekend. And Sandra Bullock’s performance as Michael’s adoptive mother has made her an early contender for Best Actress.

The success of The Blind Side might be attributed to the fact that it is the most recent example of what some film historians have labeled the “black saint” or, less politely, “magic negro” genre, in which a virtuous black character saves the white protagonist. The term was coined to describe a series of movies in the 1950s—most notably No Way Out, Blackboard Jungle, Edge of the City, and The Defiant Ones—that feature Sidney Poitier as an upright black man who sacrifices himself, often with his life, for whites. These movies were so successful that they not only established Poitier as the first “serious” black movie star, but also changed the way Hollywood thought about race.

According to Donald Bogle’s history of African Americans in cinema, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks, Poitier was “the model integrationist hero.” For white audiences, he was “a black man who had met their standards.” His characters “spoke proper English, dressed conservatively,” were “amenable and pliable,” and “non-funky, almost sexless and sterile.” They were “the perfect dream for white liberals anxious to have a colored man in for lunch or dinner.”

The “black saint” genre was established by white filmmakers—mostly Jewish and left-wing—who sought to overthrow the dominant Hollywood image of blacks as either sexual predators or hapless buffoons. But their project began when the civil-rights movement had not yet become a national phenomenon and black leaders like Martin Luther King were still largely unknown among whites outside the South. So the creators of the genre were informed largely by the ideas of white liberals like Eleanor Roosevelt and the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal, who wanted to create a new image of African Americans as being “just like us.”

Myrdal’s bestselling 1944 book, An American Dilemma, which essentially established white racial liberalism and the new rules of race for Hollywood, instructed African Americans to overcome their cultural “pathologies” and “become assimilated into American culture.” To do this, they had to acquire “the traits held in esteem by the dominant white Americans.” Eleanor Roosevelt issued similar directions in several influential articles and speeches. In a famous 1953 Ebony magazine cover story titled “Some of My Best Friends Are Negro,” Roosevelt praised her black friends for their “Christianity and intelligence,” their ability to “go through so many hardships and emerge so free of bitterness,” and their “serene, charming” manner.

The theme of honorable black men saving white people dominated Hollywood “race” movies into the 1960s and helped many whites become accustomed to the idea of integration. But with the advent of the “blaxploitation” films of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the black saint was replaced by a new generation of “bad” black heroes who were more likely to shoot The Man than save him.

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