One film celebrates the courage and generosity of a white middle-class “soccer mom” who transforms the life of a disadvantaged and illiterate teenager from Memphis. The other tells the bleak but uplifting tale of the troubled teenage years of an obese, pregnant black girl living in Harlem, New York.
So far, so different. But the leading actresses in both The Blind Side and Precious — two of the most powerful hits of the year — are in strong contention for the Academy award for best actress in Los Angeles on Sunday.
Sandra Bullock, who plays the Christian heroine of The Blind Side, has been widely praised for her convincing portrayal of a well-off woman who is determined to do good for teenager Michael Oher.
Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, on the other hand, has been hailed as a subtle new talent in the taxing lead role of Precious, a girl who only just manages to pull herself clear of her underclass roots.
The two films have gained acclaim from two very different political constituencies. Since its release in America last year, in time for Thanksgiving celebrations, The Blind Side has been championed by many of the same rightwing activists who took Sarah Palin to their hearts during the presidential campaign a year and a half ago.
In fact, Bullock’s characterisation of the pencil-skirted, prosperous Leigh Anne Tuohy, an emblem of the religiously principled backbone of America, has been repeatedly likened to Palin, particularly as rumours of a new presidential push for the former governor of Alaska gain credence.
Liberal critics have taken a rather different view, describing the film as patronising and condescending towards black youth. Some have dubbed the movie an exercise “in white guilt”, while the New York Times has pointed out how little screen time is afforded to Oher’s deprived background, going on to suggest the film makers are “interested only in that world as an occasion for selective charity”.
Instead they champion director Lee Daniels’ portrayal of Claireece Precious Jones as a triumph of gritty social realism. According to the distinctly Democratic-leaning Rolling Stone magazine, the film “tunnels inside your head, leaves you moved like no film in years and then lifts you up in ways you don’t see coming. Despite the pain at the story’s core, the movie has a spirit that soars. Gabourey Sidibe’s astounding debut brims with grit and amazing grace, digs aspiration out of buried dreams.”