Earlier this week, I finally gave in and watched The Blind Side.
I had no interest in watching it when the movie was released in 2009 because I had no interest in taking in another white savior story. But in the wake of explosive charges this week from Michael Oher, the movie’s protagonist, I felt compelled to check it out. In a petition filed earlier this week, Oher claimed that crucial elements of the hit movie were untrue and made up by the family for its profit and gain.
The movie was not easy for me to watch, though I had to remind myself that The Blind Side was released during the second year of the Obama administration. The country was still congratulating itself for having elected an African American president. Many even used President Barack Obama as proof that we were in post-racial America. Viewed in this context, Oher was the perfect manifestation of white benevolence. He was an underdog for his time.
Based on Michael Lewis’ bestselling book by the same name, The Blind Side tells the story of a talented young African American football player (Oher) taken in by a wealthy white family — Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy — before his senior year in high school.
In the movie, Oher was portrayed as a lumbering, submissive teenager — slow in the classroom even slow on the field. He was whipped into shape by the family’s young son and by the mother, who overrode the coach during one practice and put the art of blocking in terms Oher would understand.
In his memoir, I Beat The Odds: From Homelessness, to the Blind Side and Beyond, Oher said he didn’t love the movie and pointed to that portrayal as an example. “I could not figure out why the director chose to show me as someone who had to be taught the game of football,” he said. “Whether it was SJ [Sean Jr.] moving around the ketchup bottle or Leigh Anne explaining to me what blocking is about. I watched those scenes thinking ‘No, that’s not me at all.’ ” During one of her talks on the motivational speaking circuit, Leigh Anne Tuohy said had the family not taken Oher in he would have been dead from a shooting or a bodyguard for a gang leader. He disagreed with that characterization. “I would have found my way out of the ghetto one way or another. Failure was not an option for me.”
The movie presents troubling images of African Americans. After the opening scene when Oher’s mentor, Big Tony, convinced the high school coach Hugh Freeze to take a chance on Oher, there were few if any positive depictions of African Americans: drugs, crime, misogyny, former neighbors attempting to pull Oher back into the poverty maelstrom.
The movie ends happily. Oher, who bounced around in foster homes and was effectively homeless, finds a stable home with the Tuohys and attends Ole Miss.
But the movie details are irrelevant. The question is whether Oher’s allegations are accurate. Did the Tuohys bamboozle him? He alleges that three months after he turned 18 in 2004, the couple tricked him into signing a document making them his conservators, which gave them legal authority to make business deals in his name. Oher thought he was signing adoption papers and was legally becoming part of the family.
Under the conservatorship, the Tuohys had the right to make business decisions on Oher’s behalf and without his consultation. An adoption would have made him part of the family and as such he would have been able to make deals for himself. The petition asked the Shelby County Probate Court for the established conservatorship to be dissolved. On Wednesday, the family announced they would dissolve the conservatorship.
The petition also alleges that the Tuohys began negotiating a movie deal about their relationship with Oher shortly after the 2006 release of the book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, which chronicled the story. Lewis and Sean Tuohy are childhood friends and Tuohy told Lewis about Oher, who ultimately cooperated with the book project.
I had issues with the movie, but millions apparently did not. The Blind Side received an Oscar nomination for best picture, and Sandra Bullock won the Academy Award for best actress for her portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuohy. According to Oher’s petition, the movie paid the Tuohys and their two birth children each $225,000, plus 2.5% of the film’s “defined net proceeds.”
In a separate deal, the petition alleges Oher is supposed to have given 20th Century Fox studios the life rights to his story “without any payment whatsoever.” According to the filing, Oher has no recollection of signing that contract.
Questions abound. Why, for instance, did Oher take so long to act? His attorney said that because Oher was beginning his NFL career when the movie was released, he didn’t take the time to look into the movie rights details. He didn’t begin to investigate until he retired in 2016. It was then that the attorney who helped him uncover the details surrounding the movie deal found the conservatorship document. Oher realized the Tuohys had not adopted him.
The family denies the charges and their attorney accused Oher of trying to shake the family down for $15 million in exchange for keeping quiet.
Who gained from the Oher-Tuohy relationship? Truth is they both did, though maybe not equally.
Oher clearly gained: The family offered him the stability so he could focus on playing football and enjoy a normal life. They also hired a tutor so he could raise his grades and qualify for an athletic scholarship.
The tutor they hired for Oher in high school was hired by Ole Miss’ athletic department. Oher’s high school coach was hired by Ole Miss as a coach. The family started a foundation and Leigh Anne Tuohy wrote a book and began her career as a motivational speaker.
Oher has written three books. His latest, When Your Back’s Against the Wall: Fame, Football, and Lessons Learned Through a Lifetime, was published earlier this month, prompting accusations that the petition was timed to drum up interest in the new book.
The family gained: They steered a top prospect to their alma mater, Ole Miss.
All of this, including the noise surrounding the petition, obscures the reality that Oher worked hard to change the trajectory of his life.
His athletic ability helped and families along the way helped. Before he moved in permanently with the Tuohys, Oher relied on a rotation of families with whom he lived, two white families and one African American family. He said he felt most comfortable with the Black family because they were in the same general economic galaxy. But the Black family did not have resources or connections of the Tuohys. He wrote in his memoir: “The Tuohys were the ones who were able to power themselves into my life to help me make the most of the doors that I was trying to open. That partnership was important for all the pieces to fall in place. I was trying to open doors and they were trying to show me the way through.”
Did Oher put himself in a trick bag? In his desperation to escape poverty, Oher put all of his faith and trust in the Tuohy family. He was so eager to become a part of not just any family, but a wealthy family where he enjoyed the trappings of money and power. For the Tuohys, Oher was an investment and the investment paid off.
- He went to their alma mater.
- He became a first-round NFL draft pick.
- He played in two Super Bowls.
- He was the protagonist of a bestselling book and hit movie.
Today, Oher is married with children. He has a degree from Ole Miss. He does not like how he was portrayed in the movie; neither did I. Yet, the notoriety he received from the film has made him a celebrity and allowed him to become an effective spokesperson for foster care issues.
The central question remains: Was Oher defrauded? Did the Tuohys take advantage of him? Time will tell, though the truth is they used each other.
Oher was determined to survive and he has. He has survived and prospered. But he also believes, according to the petition, that he was exploited and is entitled to reparations. If the charges are substantiated, the Tuohys may have benefited more than anyone, possibly to the tune of millions of dollars in royalties.
This much we know: The Tuohys were wealthy before they met Oher and presumably are wealthy now.
As for Oher, he was 17 when he met the family and is now 37. I don’t know his financial status, but at least his eyes are finally open.
And he’s protecting his blind side.