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'The Blind Side' drama just proves the cheap, meaningless hope of white savior films

Michael Oher of the Carolina Panthers celebrates with his family after the NFC Championship Game against the Arizona Cardinals at Bank Of America Stadium on January 24, 2016 in Charlotte, N.C.
Scott Cunningham
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Michael Oher of the Carolina Panthers celebrates with his family after the NFC Championship Game against the Arizona Cardinals at Bank Of America Stadium on January 24, 2016 in Charlotte, N.C.

For nearly 15 years, two things have been unquestionably true about The Blind Side, the 2009 blockbuster inspired by the early life of ex-NFL star Michael Oher: It won Sandra Bullock her best actress Oscar for playing Leigh Anne Tuohy, and it's become a poster child for Hollywood's "white savior" narratives, nestled comfortably alongside maudlin peers like Dangerous Minds and The Help.

But everything else relating to this story is far more complicated. While the movie and Michael Lewis's book of the same name claim Tuohy and her family legally adopted Oher at 18, he recently filed a petition alleging he was unknowingly coerced into a conservatorship, one he's still under to this day. (He's now 37.) He also claims the Tuohy family profited off the movie while he received nothing; in response, Leigh Anne and her husband Sean accuse Oher of a "shakedown" and deny making money off the film. Somehow, The Blind Side now seems even ickier.

By now, the movie has been appropriately excoriated for being the sentimental trash it is, and these new allegations from Oher only buttress every critique made about it over the years. But even as ostensible truths come to light, the residue remains of that pesky little bugaboo of unrelenting post-racial idealism, a fixture of far too many old and new narratives.

Hollywood is known as a dream factory, and when you're in the business of producing dreams, any attempts to depict reality are going to be elided, embellished, or completely distorted. These sweet dreams can be made of destitute, downtrodden people of color, and the noble white individuals courageous enough to "help" them get out of their destitution and downtrodden-ness, as in the Hilary Swank classroom drama Freedom Writers. Or they can be wholly imagined worlds where our most pressing social issues are resolved via the unlikely "bonds" of the historically marginalized and their would-be oppressors a la Green Book.

Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy stand on a street in New Orleans, in 2013.
Gerald Herbert / AP
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AP
Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy stand on a street in New Orleans, in 2013.

And so yes, you get a movie like The Blind Side, but also something like Losing Isaiah, a 1995 melodrama that directly and messily proposes two central questions, per one of its producers: "Who's to say who is a mother?" and "Should a white person raise a black child?"

Halle Berry stars as Khaila, a crack addict who stashes her infant son in a dumpster to go get high, only to discover later he's disappeared. She's distraught and believes he died, but he barely escapes being crushed by a garbage truck before he's rushed to the hospital, where he's looked after by Margaret, a social worker played by Jessica Lange. Isaiah is nursed back to health, and Margaret and her husband legally adopt the child. A few short years later, Khaila is clean and getting her life back on track; when she learns that Isaiah is alive, she seeks to regain her parental rights, to Margaret's horror. They duke it out in family court, with Khaila's lawyer (Samuel L. Jackson) arguing a Black child is better off with a Black family.

On the stand, Margaret protests that "it'll kill [Isaiah]" if he's taken away from them. Khaila's lawyer shoots back: "Oh, so only you can save him? You're the Great White Hope?"

"No, but I am his mother."

"Are you?"

Eventually, the child is ordered to be returned to Khaila, shattering Margaret's world and Isaiah's, too; he has trouble adjusting to life with this stranger, who happens to be his biological mother, and has frequent meltdowns.

Like The Blind Side, Losing Isaiah was unsurprisingly polarizing at the time of its release, though perhaps because of its arrival in the pre-social media era, its complicated legacy isn't as readily remembered. Yet its effects are the same – it traffics in the flimsy lane of "understanding/reconciliation" between its Black and white characters. The movie's final image is of Khaila and Margaret playing peacefully with Isaiah in his classroom, mere moments after Khaila has admitted that taking him away from the only mom he's ever known so soon is traumatizing and that she'll temporarily return him to Margaret. All is ostensibly well – both women clearly love Isaiah. But the ending is a pure flight of fancy, as if it's at all believable that a Black woman would get her kid back after giving him up a second time.

Anytime a movie like this is made, its creators usually argue their creative ambitions are built upon a desire to "start a dialogue": "We intended to say that there is no simple answer and we'd better start talking to each other about this," said Losing Isaiah director Stephen Gyllenhaal.

Tackle Michael Oher #73 of the Carolina Panther addresses the media prior to Super Bowl 50 at the San Jose Convention Center/ San Jose Marriott on February 2, 2016 in San Jose, Calif.
Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images
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Tackle Michael Oher #73 of the Carolina Panther addresses the media prior to Super Bowl 50 at the San Jose Convention Center/ San Jose Marriott on February 2, 2016 in San Jose, Calif.

Or, to "inspire" or provide "hope" – you know, the sort of meaningless words commonly found sewn into pillows or printed onto mugs. "This movie was intended to lift people up - bring out the best in people, not the worst," said one of The Blind Side's producers at the time, Broderick Johnson. The road to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions.

Oher also commented on that movie's success to a journalist in 2009, though he seemed more ambivalent: "I guess people are looking for hope. They want something to build on."

"Hope" can be a lifeline, but it can also be a crutch or a cloak for pretending racism isn't truly a widespread issue. In this sense, these thinly sketched movies allow people to convince themselves that racial inequality is an individual problem rather than a systemic one, combatted via one savior at a time. They give fuel to conservatives who willfully distort Martin Luther King, Jr.'s optimism while ignoring his searing criticisms. It allows white people like the Tuohy family to simultaneously pity Black people while unwittingly reinforcing the structures that encourage their pity. (In case you missed it, about a decade ago, Leigh Anne was called out by two Black teen boys for assuming they were up to no good, and then, upon learning they were just two Black teens minding their own business, using them as a photo op to preach about how we shouldn't "judge a book by its cover" in a Facebook post.)

Hope alone cannot power a two-hour movie, which is so often an inadequate landscape for even beginning to scratch the surface of such complex issues as transracial adoption or a flailing education system. (Which is why a slow-burn series like The Wire remains an extraordinary example of the form.) And hope alone cannot account for the fact that Michael Oher seems to feel as though he's been exploited by the very people who "saved" him.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aisha Harris
Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.
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