What kind of fidelity to the truth do you expect from Hollywood?
The 2009 movie “The Blind Side” purports to tell the story of Michael Oher, a Black high school student rescued from poverty and neglect by the Tuohys, a wealthy white family who embraced him as one of their own, and whose love and selfless care guided him on a path that would eventually land him a career in the NFL.
Last week, Oher filed a petition in a Tennessee court that challenges not only the validity of that portrayal, but alleges the couple did not adopt him — as they claimed — but tricked him, at age 18, into signing a document that made the couple his conservators for the last two decades.
As reported by ESPN, the petition alleges the Tuohys “used their power as conservators to strike a deal that paid them and their two birth children millions of dollars in royalties from an Oscar-winning film that earned more than $300 million, while Oher got nothing for a story ‘that would not have existed without him.’ In the years since, the Tuohys have continued calling the 37-year-old Oher their adopted son and have used that assertion to promote their foundation as well as Leigh Anne Tuohy’s work as an author and motivational speaker.”
“The Blind Side” received mixed reviews upon its release. Many noted its white-savior tropes. Even so, the movie was nominated for two Oscars, including best picture. Sandra Bullock won for her portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuohy, adding a sheen of art, status and validity to what Oher claims is a fundamentally bogus story.
Bullock is not to blame for the circumstances between Oher and the Tuohys. But she benefited financially and reputationally from the film. As viewers, it’s worth thinking through the ways she and others involved with the film, including the studio (Warner Bros.) and writer-director John Lee Hancock, are part of the apparatus that enshrined the story for everyone’s profit but Oher’s.
He has consistently pushed back against 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,” he writes in his 2011 memoir. It doesn’t matter whether the intentions of all involved were cynical or sincere if the movie is a lie.
White filmmakers have a habit of trafficking in these themes and Oscar voters have a habit of rewarding them for it. The 2019 best picture winner “Green Book” depicts a growing friendship between the Black pianist Dr. Don Shirley and his white driver Tony Lip. The latter worked as a chauffeur for a concert tour across the South in the early 1960s and, at various moments, Tony-as-bodyguard comes to the rescue.
The film was co-written by director Peter Farrelly along with Brian Hayes Currie and Tony’s son Nick Vallelonga. They based the script on letters Tony wrote home during the tour, as well as later conversations between Vallelonga and his father that were taped for posterity. Upon the movie’s release, Time magazine reported that, according to Vallelonga, “everything depicted in the film ‘Green Book’ happened in real life.”
Shirley’s relatives were not contacted and they had no input. In fact, after the film won the Oscar, Vallelonga noted: “I didn’t even know they really existed until after we were making the film, and we contacted his estate for music.”
The creative parties became a mechanism that perpetuated and circulated what the Shirley family has described as a “symphony of lies.” Maybe there’s nuance behind each person’s decision to work on the movie. Maybe they didn’t ask enough questions.
Hollywood executives likely prefer it that way.
Six months ago, podcast hosts Len Webb and Vincent Williams released a multi-part series called “The Class of ‘89″ analyzing notable Black films of the year. One detail that jumps out, according to Webb: “You have the disregard by the Academy of ‘Do the Right Thing,’ which is overtly about race from the Black perspective vs. the old tropes that are in play in ‘Driving Miss Daisy,’ which were the prevailing narratives about the Black experience as far as Hollywood was concerned.”
The latter won best picture. The former wasn’t even nominated.
In 2012, “The Help” was nominated for best picture and Octavia Spencer won an Oscar for her performance. The film is about the lives of Black domestic workers and the white woman who takes an interest in their stories. Years later, star Viola Davis (also Oscar-nominated for her role) said she regretted doing it: “There’s a part of me that feels like I betrayed myself, and my people, because I was in a movie that wasn’t ready” to tell the whole truth.
Davis is talking about a larger emotional truth. That’s just as important as verifiable facts.
“The Blind Side” was adapted from a 2006 nonfiction book by Michael Lewis that includes this stunning quote from Sean Tuohy: “Michael’s gift is that the good Lord gave him the ability to forget. He’s mad at no one and doesn’t really care what happened.” Does that sound like emotional truth — or the denial of a person’s full humanity?
Lewis and Sean Tuohy have a long, ongoing and mutually beneficial connection; they were high school classmates and remain friendly still. Personal relationships between writer and subject can cloud a person’s judgment and there’s an old journalism saying that speaks to this: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.
It’s telling that Lewis never fact-checked the Tuohys’ claims that they adopted Oher. He took their word for it — and then amplified the lie. “They showered him with resources and love,” Lewis said recently of the Tuohys. “That he’s suspicious of them is breathtaking.” Maybe what’s breathtaking is that Lewis’ first instinct wasn’t a horrified moment of self-reflection: Did I get this story wrong? Did I misrepresent Oher’s experience — and to my own profit? What are my own biases that might have led to that?
White people get jumpy at the word “racism,” but there’s no other term to describe these films collectively, or to think through the decisions that resulted in how these stories were shaped.
Let’s go back to the original question: What kind of fidelity to the truth do you expect from Hollywood? When anything is adapted to the screen and accompanied by the words “true story” along with “based on,” “inspired by” or any other squirrelly disclaimer in between, it has a way of becoming settled fact in the minds of viewers. That puts the onus on us to treat these stories with more scrutiny. It also means filmmakers bear a responsibility beyond simply giving audiences a good time.
If you go to the websites of Leigh Anne Tuohy and the family’s foundation, both sell merchandise branded in connection with the film’s message. One T-shirt says: “Families don’t have to match.”
Another reads: “Property of The Blind Side 2009 Athletic Dept.” That’s a common riff on school-issued T-shirts. In light of Oher’s allegations, the word “property” takes on an entirely different and chilling context.