Racial Appropriation: Hidden Motives in Hollywood Film

Everyone loves an underdog success story. There’s something attractive about a team or player that overcomes seemingly insurmountable odds. This attractiveness likely results from the “feel-good” quality that exists in most of these stories. People love uplifting stories and unsurprisingly there’s no shortage of them in Hollywood. One story that touched the hearts of people all over America was made into the Hollywood award-winning film, The Blind Side. Originally told by Michael Lewis in his bestselling book of the same name, the movie examines the rags to riches story of Michael Oher, a black football player who grew up in poverty.

Michael Oher with the Tuohys

Race plays a critical element Oher’s life story. The book and movie so elegantly portray the heroic role of the Tuohys, a wealthy white family who rescued Oher and put him on the road to success. On the surface, this heartwarming story shows the coming together of whites and blacks. The goodness of the heart triumphs over racism. Many would argue that The Blind Side celebrates how far we have come in regards to race. A rich white family in the south adopts a black boy off the side of the street. They make him feel at home, send him to school, hire tutors, give him anything he needs, and most of all love him. Who could possibly say that this is not progress? This all happened in the racist south! And now Michael Lewis (white) and film director John Lee Hancock (white) have spread the story all over the nation, so that people of all races can rejoice in the unlikely success of Michael Oher.

Audiences across America loved the Michael Oher story so much that the film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. In addition, Sandra Bullock won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. There are a couple of issues here. First, the Oscars are notoriously white. In 2015 and 2016, only white actors and actresses received nominations in the top four categories. Secondly, the hero of The Blind Side was not Michael Oher. Aided by Bullock’s praiseworthy performance, Leigh Anne Tuohy had unmistakably been made the hero. Seemingly a story about the coming together of black and white, it became a story about the white savior. In The Invisible Weight of Whiteness: The Racial Grammar of Everyday Life in America, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva writes, “Stories about whites become stories about all of us. This is how whites frame these stories symbolically, but, of course, this is not the case in reality.”[1] The Blind Side in no way celebrates an underprivileged black boy overcoming many obstacles to achieve success in the way that it seems. According to the film, Oher could not overcome any obstacles without the help of the Tuohys. Instead, the movie uses the cover of black success to tell the story of a charitable and honorable white family.

In a review of the film the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “The Blind Side is interested only in that world[2] as an occasion for selective charity, and it is only slightly more interested in Michael’s inner life.”[3] This illustrates racial appropriation, where whites use black culture for their own purposes. New York Times columnist David Brooks, commenting on the use of the white savior motif as a plot device in pop culture, wrote,

[The white savior motif] rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades… It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.[4]

As far as Oher is concerned, the film stripped him of any nuance or complex character qualities. Insofar as he is incapable of leading his own life and (as we shall see) playing football, he needs Leigh Anne to save him. In order for him to be saved, he needs something to be saved from. Enter racial appropriation. Had Oher been white, there is not much of a story. But a cross-racial adoption in the south is (sadly) a big deal. Hollywood likes to pat white people on the back. What better way than to show a southern white family doing the amazing deed of adopting an underprivileged black child and setting him on the path to success.

But what really makes the Michael Oher story incredible? What attracted Michael Lewis to the story in the first place? The fact that Oher became a tremendous football player! Adoptions (even cross-racial ones) happen all the time. Very rarely does a homeless kid become an All-American in college and then a Super Bowl champion in the NFL. Although the Tuohys certainly did a great service to Oher, that’s not the real story here. White Hollywood took Oher’s journey and shifted the spotlight onto the Tuohys and away from him. While the Tuohys may have provided Oher with resources and a support network, the film exaggerated if not completely fabricates the true extent to which they helped his football career.

In one telling scene from the film, Oher’s high school coach watches with frustration as he struggles in practice. The coach whispers to an assistant, “Well at least he’ll look good coming off the bus, they’ll be terrified until they realize he’s a marshmallow.” Leigh Anne, watching from the bleachers, decides that she’s had enough and boldly marches onto the field. In an incredibly corny speech, Leigh Anne tells Oher to think of his teammates as if they were his family and that he needs to protect them at all costs. As if the dopey metaphor was all he needed, on the very next play, Oher had transformed into the high school version of Jonathan Ogden.[5] What makes even less sense is that before her speech, Oher was having no trouble stopping the defensive players from reaching the quarterback. The only issue he was having was doing it within the rules of the game. Somehow her speech not only made him an unstoppable force, but also instilled in him a nuanced knowledge of how to play left tackle.

Pointing out inconsistencies and flaws in the scene is somewhat pointless because the entire scene is wholly inaccurate to begin with. Apart from the cuteness and humor of the speech, the scene makes a hero out of Leigh Anne and a bum out of Oher. Well, it turns out (unsurprisingly) that Oher didn’t need much help from anyone, including the Tuohys when it came to football. The real Michael Oher had this to say about the film:

I felt like it portrayed me as dumb instead of as a kid who had never had consistent academic instruction and ended up thriving once he got it…I could not figure out why the director chose to show me as someone who had to be taught the game of football. Whether it was S.J. moving around ketchup bottles or Leigh Anne explaining to me what blocking is about, I watched those scenes thinking, ‘No, that’s not me at all! I’ve been studying — really studying — the game since I was a kid!’[6]

In fact it’s quite clear why the director made these decisions. In pop culture, it is common for white people to selectively incorporate elements of non-white cultures, but reconfigure them for their own purposes. In the case of The Blind Side, the success story of a black athlete was used as a means to tell the heroic and uplifting story for majority white audiences.

But if the movie depicts the whites as saviors, how can we explain the presence of the Tuohy’s racist neighbors in the film? Why does Oher’s white high school coach fail to connect with him and is portrayed as a loser? Clearly the movie paints both positive and negative pictures of white people. Hollywood movies must maintain some level of integrity and realism for people to take them seriously. That said, the evidence for racial appropriation in The Blind Side is everywhere. This film does not truly celebrate the coming together of black and white. White Hollywood simply uses that cover for its own purposes.



[1] Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. “The Invisible Weight of Whiteness: The Racial Grammar of Everyday Life in Contemporary America.” Michigan Sociological Review 26 (2011): 1-15.

[2] “that world” meaning Oher’s life before he was taken in by the Tuohy’s

[3] Scott, A. O. “Steamrolling Over Life’s Obstacles With Family as Cheerleaders.” The New York Times. November 19, 2009. Accessed May 16, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/20/movies/20blindside.html.

[4] Hughey, Matthew W. The White Savior Film: Content, Critics, and Consumption. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014.

[5] NFL Hall of Fame Left Tackle who played for the Baltimore Ravens from 1996-2007

[6] Holmes, Linda. “Beyond ‘The Blind Side,’ Michael Oher Rewrites His Own Story.” NPR. February 8, 2011. Accessed May 16, 2016. http://www.npr.org/sections/monkeysee/2011/02/08/133590180/beyond-the-blind-side-michael-oher-rewrites-his-own-story.


Get Busy Livin’ or Get Busy Laughin’

What’s so funny about the daily lives of a bunch of miserable middle-aged employees at a low-level paper company? For 9 seasons (201 total episodes), we watched these employees at the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin Inc. sit at their desks, make phone calls, go to meetings, pour their coffee, and go to the bathroom. As we grew to like these characters, we watched as they got fired, transferred, or had to work on weekends. What a grim premise for a show, am I right? Yet, The Office didn’t have a morbid feel to it, more the opposite. It made us laugh time and time again. So how did the show’s creators manage to turn a miserable day at the office into a 5-time Emmy winning comedy? Let’s take a closer look at a classic scene from the show, which occurs in the episode “Stress Relief” from season 5.

I want to highlight a few important moments from this scene. It is important to note that Michael (the boss, who’s roasting everyone) stands in front of the entire office and roasts each and every one of them, while they silently sit there and give him their full attention. Despite the inappropriate nature of his verbal jabs, no one says a word, as if they’re acknowledging his correctness (or more likely signifying his power over them). At first, Michael’s victims respond with puzzled looks. Once Michael says “Stanley, you crush your wife during sex and your heart sucks. Boom! Roasted,” Stanley starts to chuckle. His laughter gradually grows louder and others around the office start to join in. Before long, nearly everyone in the office is laughing, albeit not as much as Stanley. Michael wraps up the roast by saying, “Goodnight. God bless. God bless America. And get home safe.” Now that he has finished his “speech,” notice how the office breaks into a round of applause, implying a happy ending to what started off as a nasty roast. Addressing Stanley’s outbreak of laughter, Michael says, “They say that laughter is the best medicine, so Stanley you can throw away those pills, you are cured. Actually you better hold on to the pills just in case.” We’ll come back to that later.

Stanley is not laughing at Michael, rather he is laughing at himself. Poor sexual performance and heart problems epitomize a shitty life, so once Michael brings both of these personal issues to the attention of the entire office, all Stanley can do is laugh. Andy follows suit and breaks into a somewhat nervous laughter when Michael tells him that “Cornell hates you and you’re gayer than Oscar.” By the end of the scene, it’s clear that the office workers are laughing at their own misgivings. While the Michael’s roast appears to be liberating for the office, the feel good ending to the scene comes across as phony on account of how Michael “exits the stage.”

Several aspects of the scene point to Michael being a self-interested politician of sorts instead of the “friend first, boss second” role that he intended to play (Soper). Notice the silence and attentiveness of his “friends” as he roasts them in front of the entire office. The silence signifies the vulnerability and dependency of his audience, much like that of a politician’s supporters. Look at the round of applause he receives as he walks back to his office. People will applaud anything their preferred candidate says much like is the case in this scene. Michael’s employees applaud a speech in which he publicly humiliates all of them. The connection of Michael in this scene to a politician is driven home when he concludes the roast by saying, “God bless America and get home safe.” Ending speeches with “God bless America” has become a staple of most political speeches. The implications of this connection can drastically change the viewer’s perception of the scene (and the show). As we all (hopefully) know, politicians are often manipulative and have ulterior motives. What seems to be the truth on the surface may very well be a lie or cover. Maybe we should re-examine how we think of Michael. Maybe he’s not quite the fun-loving and caring boss we always thought he was.

In an essay for the literary journal, Studies in American Humor, Kerry Soper closely analyzes Michael. It’s clear that he wants to give the impression that his role in the office is to humanize the workplace. However, Soper notes that “each party, basketball game, booze cruise, awards ceremony, casino night, fun run, or other activity that he organizes is ultimately a front for either ulterior personal motives or a bland corporate agenda.” Let’s revisit the end of the scene when everyone is smiling and applauding. Are the office workers really any happier than they were before Michael arrived? On the surface, it sure seems so, but in truth they were just embarrassed in front of their friends and co-workers for no particular reason. At the end of the day, a politician just wants to keep his supporters happy. One easy substitute for keeping them happy is to make them laugh. Laughter can work as a substitute for happiness because in the moment, it’s difficult to separate the two. In this scene, Michael the politician cleverly uses laughter as an instrument for maintaining the support and loyalty of his employees.

Michael notes that laughter is the best medicine, that it can “cure” you of your problems. In other words, laughter can help one escape from the world of pain and misery. While the characters on the show are laughing at themselves, we too from behind our television screens laugh, because we are just like Stanley the salesman, Pam the receptionist, and Kevin the accountant. Earlier I described the lives of the employees on the show; they sit at their desks, make phone calls, go to meetings, and pour coffee. These are ordinary people! Look no further than the show’s all-encompassing title, The Office. The title forms an umbrella over a majority of Americans, and a vast majority of those watching the show. We love the show because it provides an escape and temporary relief from our own miserable days at the office. As Kevin Craft of The Atlantic put it, “The Office made its audience feel better about their professional lives by showcasing a workplace with even drabber décor and more grating coworkers.” In creating The Office, the culture industry (represented by Michael in this particular scene) replaces our potential happiness with laughter and forces us to be content with that. Adorno’s claim is that although laughter temporarily disperses the pain, “it also destroys the possibility of the ever-broken promise of happiness, and hence the culture industry makes laughter the instrument for cheating happiness” (Coulson).

Best friend or self-centered manipulative boss?

Looking back on that scene, this claim makes perfect sense. Pam failed out of art school. Jim is tall and skinny. Angela is tiny. Oscar is gay. Meredith looks like a man. Kevin is fat and dumb. Dwight is a suck-up. Creed has stinky breath. Andy is gayer than Oscar. While none of them may be happy, they are all afforded the right to forget (embrace may be more accurate) their misgivings temporarily through laughter. But does laughter universally destroy the possibility of finding happiness? It’s not difficult to find a couple of strong counter-examples right in central storyline of the show.

For the first few seasons of the show, Pam was engaged to Roy, an unpleasant warehouse worker. Pam’s seemingly never-ending engagement was often a subject of Michael’s jokes. Despite the stale and humorless nature of her relationship with Roy, it showed few signs of ending. During the same time period, Michael had an on again off again relationship with Jan, who worked above Michael in Corporate. Their relationship was also humorless and mostly sexual. Neither Pam nor Michael ever seemed truly content with these relationships, but consistent with the premise of the show, they accepted what they had because in theory the everyday person doesn’t have a great relationship. As we will see, laughter allowed Pam and Michael to break out of their stale relationships into much healthier ones.

Pam’s relationship with Roy didn’t prevent Jim from spending a lot of time flirting with her at her desk to avoid doing work. They team up several times to play pranks on Dwight. The laughter that they often shared soon developed into apparent feelings, but due to circumstances and other relationships, it never seemed to work out between them. Finally after what seemed like an eternity, in season 4 Jim and Pam officially start dating for the first time. Their relationship grows and they eventually become married and have kids. In this case, a love of laughter helped spark the relationship, which gave both Jim and Pam happiness.

In a similar fashion, Michael discovers that his true love is for Holly and not Jan. Unlike his relationship with Jan, Michael’s relationship with Holly revolves around jokes, impersonations, and humor. Laughter is the driving force that brings them together. Unfortunately, like with Jim and Pam, several factors, including Holly being transferred to another branch make their relationship difficult if not impossible. In the end, love wins out and the two become happily married. Both couples manage to escape the walls of the office both figuratively and literally, since all four characters eventually leave Dunder Mifflin.

So even though Adorno’s claim seems to ring true most of the time, these two relationships prove to be exceptions to the rule. An Adornian might try to explain these counter examples in the following way. Kevin Craft said, “The Office‘s characters developed, and their individual stories gradually outshone the show’s focus on survival in a corporate setting. By Season 5, the show was struggling to transition from a narrative about a listless workplace to a comedy that just happened to be set in an office.” In other words, as the seasons went on, the show got away from its original mission. According to these critics, only the first three or four seasons were truly The Office. The rest of the seasons may as well have been titled The Michael, Dwight, Jim, and Pam Show. Neither of these counter-examples took place in the first three seasons, and only occurred once the show needed its characters to have life arcs in order for the show to maintain its commercial success.

Although this point may be valid, to suggest that the show had gotten away from its main premise in later seasons would be misguided. The scene analyzed earlier in this essay (which supports Adorno’s claim) took place in season 5, well after Jim and Pam started dating. To be clear, I believe that Adorno’s claim is usually true and quite insightful. I would just suggest that the full truth is a bit more complex, and that there are exceptions to the rule.

Now that we’ve concluded that it is possible for laughter to help propel people out of their misery and lead to true happiness, I wish to make one final point. Even those lucky ones who have been “cured” by laughter (Michael, Jim, and Pam) should not throw away their pills. Just in case.



Coulson, S. “Funnier Than Unhappiness: Adorno and the Art of Laughter.” New         German Critique 34, no. 1 100 (2007): 141-63. doi:10.1215/0094033x-2006-       021.


Craft, Kevin. “The Thing That Made The Office Great Is the Same Thing That Killed It.” The Atlantic. May 16, 2013. Accessed April 24, 2016.             http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/05/the-thing-     that-made-i-the-office-i-great-is-the-same-thing-that-killed-it/275883/.


Soper, Kerry. “The Pathetic Carnival in the Cubicles: “The Office” as Meditation on   the Misuses and Collapse of Traditional Comedy.” Studies in American Humor No. 19 (January 01, 2009): 83-103. Accessed April 24, 2016.    http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/42573564?ref=search-    gateway:321de5ae147119f926c135b3b84af10b.



No One Can Convince Me It’s Any Different

In his essay “The Culture Industry,” German philosopher and sociologist Theodor Adorno makes the claim that when culture is mass-produced, all art is in danger of becoming the same. This is a scary claim, especially in a country like the United States, which is notorious for its fear and criticism of communism and socialism. Surely, if we examine the best art produced by our culture, we will find distinctive features and elements that explain its success. Alicia Keys’ “No One” topped the Billboard Hot 100 for five consecutive weeks after it was released in the fall of 2007. She won two Grammy Awards for the song, which has consistently been ranked as one of the greatest R&B songs of all time. If we dig deeper into the song—the music, lyrics, and structure—we will find that “No One” follows the same simple “winning” formula as thousands of other pop songs. This leads to the insight that much of the modern music industry is a product of formulas and machines. We as consumers should learn and realize that even what we consider the “best” art probably comes off a metaphorical assembly line.

Ever since the industrial revolution, culture has become an industry in the United States. Adorno argues that the major entertainment companies control and manipulate the consumers. These companies, which control a significant majority of the industry, seek to put out products that have a widespread appeal. It’s simple, the higher the appeal and marketability of a song, the greater the profits for the record label. Since the culture industry centers on producing art with a widespread appeal, record labels and songwriters will reuse successful formulas. Artists must play along with the system, or risk becoming isolated and obsolete. Perhaps that is the real issue here. For true art (in Adorno’s sense of the word) to exist, artists cannot be indebted to appealing to the masses in order to make a profit. But whether or not Alicia Keys produces true art is beside the point. The point is that “No One,” a major hit and product of the culture industry, shares many of the same qualities as most other pop songs. A good place to start our analysis is in the central musical component of the song, the chord progression.

“No One” heavily features the I-V-vi-IV chord progression in the key of E Major. With the exception of the bridge 2:40 into the song, Keys plays the same piano riff for the entirety of the song, including both verses and all three choruses. I-V-vi-IV is famously the most common chord progression in music, with thousands of songs across several genres containing some variation of the progression. In the time frame from 2006-2010, Timbaland’s “Apologize,” Akon’s “Don’t Matter,” Bruno Mars’ “Grenade,” Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie,” Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” and Rihanna’s “Umbrella” all reached number one on the US Billboard Hot 100 charts using the I-V-vi-IV format. If we were to make a list of top 100 hits with the progression, it would span many pages. Before the industrialization of culture, great musical works rarely shared similar characteristics to the extent that hit songs do today. For example, one can easily distinguish the work of Beethoven from Mozart and Schubert.

In addition to its usage of the I-V-vi-IV chord progression, “No One” also features the most prevalent instrumentation in the pop music world, especially for a female R&B/hip hop artist. Piano is the featured instrument, and is accompanied by guitar, synthesizer, bass, and percussion. Moreover, there are several rules or guidelines to writing a pop song in this day in age. The seven components that appear in most songs are an intro, verse, chorus, hook, bridge, break, and outro. Although an artist does have some creativity to play around with the different components and the order in which they occur, many songs follow the ABABCBB format.[1] Keys does not follow this format precisely, but she comes very close.[2] We can begin to see that “No One” closely follows a common formula, but we cannot conclude that “No One” truly demonstrates a trend towards sameness in the music industry until we analyze its lyrical component.

“No One” is a traditional love song in which the singer assures her lover that no one can prevent or get in the way of her love and devotion. In order to appeal to the largest possible audience, record labels and songwriters use several tactics. Subject matter is perhaps the most important predictor of whether or not a song will achieve commercial success. An analysis from researchers at N.C. State recently found that the presence of the top seven most common themes predicts with 73.4 percent accuracy whether or not a song will appear on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart.[3] The aforementioned themes are loss, desire, aspiration, breakup, pain, inspiration, and nostalgia. As a result, songwriters hoping to produce hits will write lyrics about these common emotional themes. Almost everyone can relate to the emotional message of “No One,” which results in more potential buyers of the song. We can accept the lyrics at face value, since they do not contain subliminal messages. Most modern pop songs lack this substance that we have come to attribute to the classics.

One striking aspect of the lyrics in “No One” is their simplicity and repetitiveness. Keys sings the most identifiable line in the song, “No one, no one, no one / Can get in the way of what I’m feeling” six times and the line, “Everything’s going to be alright” four times. In the final section of the song, Keys leads a chant, consisting of only “Oh” that mirrors the melody. Many songs contain these “Oh” sections at one point or another in place of the usual chorus, with “Viva la Vida” by Coldplay and “Home” by Phil Phillips serving as perfect examples. Chanting sections in songs serve to encourage audience participation. Since there are no actual lyrics in these sections, singing along is incredibly easy. The repetition and simplicity of lyrics serve the purpose of getting the songs stuck in the listener’s head. If the listener gets a song stuck in his or her head, he or she will be more likely to purchase the song. It’s a widely used tactic that leads to sameness across the music industry.

“No One” contains all the elements of the typical hit song in the R&B/hip hop genre produced by the modern music industry. It features the most common instrumentation, structure and chord progression. The female recording artist sings hollow lyrics about the most desirable (and relatable) themes. Certain lines in the song are repeated many times in order to implant them into the consumer’s head. A catchy “Oh” section in place of the chorus toward the end encourages the listener to sing along with the song. Yet somehow, many people still consider “No One” to be a great song, hence the Grammy awards and constant recognition. For a song to be great, it cannot be like the rest. It must stand out in some way or another. So how can we explain the song’s critical acclaim?

First, we must acknowledge the argument that “No One” does differ substantially from other music. Sure, “No One” shares the same musical backdrop as hundreds of other songs, but in pop music the actual notes, chords, and progressions are far less important than the way in which they are presented to the listener. For example, “No One” and “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey share the same chord progression and are both played in the key of E Major, but the two songs have much different timbre, as they sound quite different. In reality, “No One” doesn’t sound too much alike any of the many popular songs with which it shares the same chords. It’s not until a group like The Axis of Awesome dumb down each song to its core four chords on the piano and sing them side by side that we begin to comprehend their inherent sameness. Maybe it’s not fair to claim that “No One” is the same as hundreds of other songs just on the basis of its musical notation and structure.

A proponent for the uniqueness of “No One” would also likely point to Keys’ booming and renowned voice as the main factor that separates the song from its competition. It would be nearly impossible to argue that many other recording artists possess the same talent and style as Alicia Keys. There is only one Alicia Keys, and I mean that as a total compliment. Perhaps it is her voice that makes her songs so popular and not the songs themselves. Maybe the common chord progression and mundane lyrics have simply provided Keys with an avenue to showcase her incredible singing voice. For every hit song with the I-V-vi-IV chord progression, there are likely hundreds more that never even came close to appearing on any charts. It would be valid to argue that “No One” is great because Alicia Keys is great. Some OK singer would not have turned “No One” into a number one single. One could claim that all art is becoming the same fails because the artists will always differ from one another. But for the purpose of Adorno’s claim, I think we must separate the artist from the work of art.

Arguments can easily be made to reject Adorno, for anyone can find differences in art if they search hard enough. At the end of the day, the artists will always be somewhat unique and different genres will continue to exist. However, the culture industry must find subtle ways to keep its subjects in the dark. The record labels want to create and maintain an illusion of distinctiveness in art. I believe that through further analysis of “No One,” the hit song clearly supports a trend towards sameness in art as the result of mass-production. “No One” is a product of the culture industry, and despite its critical acclaim and international success, is it really that much different from thousands of other songs?



[1] Intro/Verse1/Chorus1/Verse2/Chorus2/Middle8/Bridge/Chorus3/ChorusOut

[2] Intro/Verse1/Chorus1/Verse2/Chorus2/Bridge/Chorus3

[3] Bettina Chang, “Can A Song’s Lyrics Predict Its Commercial Success?,” Psmag.com, March 19, 2014, http://www.psmag.com/business-economics/can-songs-lyrics-predict-commercial-success-76936.