Back in 2009, the release of smash hit film The Blind Side led to not only over $300 million in sales at the box office, but also a largely anticipated Oscar win for Sandra Bullock. Based on NFL offensive tackle Michael Oher’s life, it was undoubtedly a success with audiences. But despite touching many people’s hearts, does it fairly represent its source material, or does it rely on Hollywood’s notorious white saviour complex to reach its acclaim?
After growing up in several different foster homes, Michael Oher is found and taken in by local mother-of-two Leigh Anne Tuohy (played by Sandra Bullock) to stay with her family. After realising his potential in the sport of American Football, Leigh Anne and her family support and coach him in an effort to secure him a scholarship at the University of Mississippi; their alma mater. Whilst at first just giving him a place to sleep for a few nights, the Tuohy’s eventually invite Michael to stay with them longer as they are not willing to ‘put him out onto the street’. There is little reference to the fact that he is a ward of the state and therefore legally must be in a foster home or kinship care. We do find out later from Michael’s birth mother that he runs away from every home he’s placed in, but where the movie takes a lot of liberty from reality is when Leigh Ann and Sean are able to become his legal guardians without training or qualifying as foster carers. The social worker Leigh Ann speaks to does not even appear concerned about safeguarding, totally unbothered that Michael is living with strangers instead of in an approved foster home. He also informs her that she is able to become his guardian without his mother’s consent because he is in the foster care system.
This is a false representation – birth parents still retain parental rights and responsibilities when their child is in care. These rights are only terminated if 1) the parent signs them away [to let the child be adopted, for example], or 2) the child continues to be in danger of extreme emotional and physical harm and absolutely must be protected. This is because the primary goal of the foster care system is reunification with birth family. The film gets foster care and legal guardianship confused; a legal guardian is only appointed when the parents die, and so full parental responsibility is passed over. This responsibility cannot be transferred to another whilst the parent remains alive, except through a legal adoption. So, in reality, the only way Leigh Ann and Sean could actually be Michael’s guardians is if they completed the proper assessment process and became his foster parents. The idea they could gain parental rights without his birth mother involved is ludicrous, as well as the suggestion they could become his temporary family without any approval as carers. An accurate representation of safeguarding children in the system is sacrificed in exchange for a more ‘inspiring’, heart-tugging take where Leigh Ann simply picks Michael up off the street and adds him to the family.
Accuracy aside, the film does have a heartwarming feel, with some positive representations of what it can be like to be in the care system. For example, Michael asks Leigh Ann if she can help him get a driver’s license and when challenged that he doesn’t have a car, he says he just wants to carry ‘something with his name on it’. This longing to reclaim a lost identity feels very apt – especially as we find out in an earlier scene that many of Michael’s files have been lost over the years and therefore, he does not even know his legal surname – something often all too real for young people in foster care. Another strong moment is where Leigh Ann criticises Michael’s football coach for having a violent approach, telling him that yelling at him won’t work because “he doesn’t trust men. In his experience they pretend to care about you ’til they disappear”. The reference to certain childhood traumas that young people from complex family backgrounds often carry with them is important, and they are vital to learn as a foster carer.
There are also a couple of authentically touching moments surrounding Denise, Michael’s birth mother. One is right at the end, when Michael shares with Leigh Ann a memory of his mother protecting him from the bad things by telling him to close his eyes and saying, “the past is gone, the world is a good place, and it’s all gonna be okay”. Young people in foster care often maintain strong connections with birth family members and where possible it’s important to cherish the positive memories for their own stability and development. Furthermore, earlier in the film, Leigh Ann seeks out Denise and assures her that “you’ll always be Michael’s mama”. This is important because there still remains a narrative that foster parents are looking to ‘replace’ birth parents, but Leigh Ann makes it clear she is just serving in the mother role in light of Denise’s current inability to. This scene is difficult and attempts to create a more sympathetic lens into the plight of drug addiction, which would almost work if it wasn’t for the overwhelmingly clashing depictions of Michael’s community Vs the Tuohy’s community in the rest of the film…
Obviously, the addition of Michael means the Tuohy’s become an interracial family, and the film does reference the adversity they face from their all-white, Republican community, who make ignorant and racist comments. Sean himself even quips “who’d have thought we’d have a Black son before we knew a Democrat?”, seemingly self-aware of the racist undertones in their conservative world. Leigh Ann’s response to ignorant remarks is simply “shame on you”, making the point that it should not matter. Whilst this seems like a good response on the surface, it also feeds into the ‘I don’t see colour’ argument, which can often be more avoidant than progressive. As she declares that he’s changing her life, suggesting the situation is allowing her to grow as a person beyond her exclusive and bigoted community, to what extent does she truly understand the racial context of what she’s doing? To what extent does the director understand it?
John Lee Hancock makes a clear choice to ensure the majority of what we see of the lower-class, Black community Michael grew up in feeds the narrative that Leigh Ann (and by extension, the affluent, white community) must ‘save’ him from it. The men there are all vulgar, and a social worker even flippantly suggests that Michael’s mother is so high that she probably doesn’t even remember how many kids she has; an attempt to villainise birth parents who are rendered incapable due to their own suffering. This portrayal culminates in an overwhelming problem: the film hangs onto the infamous white saviour trope to create its feel-good tone. The white saviour complex is a critical theory which describes a pattern in which non-white people are denied agency and are instead portrayed as passive recipients of white benevolence. Ironically, one of Leigh Ann’s friends even asks her “Is this some sort of white guilt thing?”, making light reference to the very issue the film falls so victim to. The real main characters in this film (even confirmed so by appearing before Michael in the credits) are Leigh Ann and Sean Tuohy. The focus of the film centres on their journey and the character of Michael falls into a very secondary, passive role. Despite his entire life being uprooted and everything changing so rapidly for him, we do not see much of his internal struggle, or hear it, given that he has barely ten lines in the entire film. There is an attempt to justify this by giving him a ‘quiet’ and ‘shy’ personality (something that Michael Oher himself has persistently spoken out against, saying he didn’t feel it represented his personality at all). Is this choice an excuse to silence the perspective of the very person the film claims to be about, in order to place the heart of the story with Leigh Ann’s inspirational good deed? That certainly appears to be what the intended audience connects with – proven by Sandra Bullock winning the Oscar (a ceremony historically known to have a lack of racial and class diversity).
It could be argued that the character of Michael is simply a catalyst for the Tuohy family’s growth, instead of a lead character with his own agency and layers. There is even an ill-judged joke where Michael’s tutor suggests he should be able to relate to the orphaned Pip in Great Expectations, which only highlights the lack of effort the film makes to truly understand and explore the experience of a young person in care. The film dedicates a huge amount of focus on Michael being trained in American Football, rather than spending time giving him a three-dimensional personality, emotional range or backstory. This isn’t ideal for care experienced people watching it, who may feel the film doesn’t really align with their own journey in the foster care system, but instead suggests Michael’s value largely comes from his success in sport.
Kooky, not to mention fictitious, scenes showing Michael being useless at football and having no ability to understand it unless it is framed in child-like concepts of ‘protecting family’ (patronisingly spelled out by Leigh Ann) is uplifting for the audience to watch, but ultimately robs Michael Oher of his own achievements by framing it as if he had no athletic interest or talent before the Tuohy’s swooped into his life and gifted it to him.
The movie ends by revealing that a character we saw earlier from Michael’s community was tragically killed in a gang fight, despite having athletic potential and promise in his future. This is underscored with a speech from Leigh Ann emphasising that it could have been Michael. This may leave the audience with the overwhelming inspiration to foster or adopt themselves, but it must be acknowledged that the film completely neglects the view that this character’s death is a result of the failures of the American social system, where systemic oppression of lower class and non-white citizens have led to these circumstances. It instead chooses to push the message that more wealthy people saving children and young people from these dangerous communities is the correct solution.
Despite these issues with the film, we still see some moments of redemption. For example, Leigh Ann realising and struggling with her privilege when Michael informs her that he’s never had his own bed, or at the end where he challenges her with “what if I wanted to flip burgers?” and she responds with “it’s your decision, it’s your life”. We are assured there is a true bond between Michael and the Tuohy’s and that, despite the film being focused on achievements, love and unconditional support remains the most important thing in the end.
AUTHENTICITY OF FOSTERING DEPICTION:
Verdict: The Blind Side is a well-meaning story about non-biological family bonding and a man’s growth from a struggling, vulnerable teenager to a great success, but it disappoints with its Hollywood-ised feel, fuelling the white saviour narrative and framing the mother as the hero instead of the man himself. It could lead people to the harmful misconception that being a foster carer is like being a knight in shining armor ‘rescuing’ children when in reality, every child and young person has a right to be kept safe.
Note: It must be observed that fostering depictions may be accurate for the US whilst still being inaccurate in terms of the UK system.