Michael Oher arrived at Wingate Christian like an overgrown moose: gigantic, lost and impossible to miss.
Weighing more than the average Toyota and towering over his classmates, Michael was recruited to the school for his athletic promise. But most of Wingate’s students are white, rich and ever-so-smart. Big Mike, as he’s been called, came from Memphis’ projects—a lumbering African-American teen with a messed-up past and microscopic GPA. He has no home to speak of. He carries his extra clothes—just a spare shirt, really—in a plastic bag, and he washes his clothes in the sink at a local Laundromat. Big man on campus? What a laugh. Michael would give anything to just blend in. Or disappear.
And he would’ve disappeared that cold November night if he could’ve as he walked, shivering, along the side of the road. But instead, he’s spotted by Leigh Anne Tuohy and her family, and before Michael knows it, all 300-plus pounds of him is ushered into the backseat and whisked away to the Tuohy mansion. Leigh Anne throws some sheets on the couch, bids Michael a cordial goodnight and walks upstairs.
“You don’t think he’ll steal anything, do you?” Leigh Anne asks her husband, Sean.
“I guess we’ll know in the morning,” Sean says.
The silver’s all intact when they wake up, and Leigh Anne asks Michael if he might want to stay. You know, for Thanksgiving, if he doesn’t have anywhere else to go. Maybe a little longer, if he wants to. Maybe she’ll buy him some new clothes. Maybe.
And so begins a classic Cinderella story—if Cinderella were a value-sized football player who’s traded his glass slippers for cleats. There are no pumpkins here, no Prince Charmings. But a generous, too-good-to-be-true godmother? Yeah, Leigh Anne’s got that role covered.
The Blind Side is based on the life of Michael Oher, a one-time star for Briarcrest Christian School and now an offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens. While it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction in these “true to life” tales, the film suggests that his story has plenty of heroes—starting with Michael himself.
Surrounded by poverty and thuggery through much of his childhood, Michael could’ve been just a statistic—a life wasted on the mean city streets—had it not been for his gentle disposition. When he was a baby, his mother told him to shut his eyes when anything bad was going on. Before he was allowed to open them, she’d tell him, “The past is gone, the world is a good place, it’s all going to be OK.” He’s held firm to this odd little fairy tale, shutting his eyes completely to his painful past and allowing himself to accept both the present and future with a certain level of serenity. Is that kind of attitude more accurately defined as denial? Perhaps. But the result is him escaping the anger and bitterness that could’ve consumed him.
While Michael struggles in a host of areas, we learn that on an aptitude test he scored in the “98th percentile in protectiveness.” His protective nature, naturally, makes him an excellent offensive lineman (it’s his job to protect the quarterback) and a fantastic addition to the Tuohy family. He’s got their back through thick and thin, and when Michael and his new “brother,” S.J., get in an auto accident, Michael somehow manages to block the passenger-side airbag with his forearm, saving the undersized S.J. from breaking his face.
Leigh Anne is the grit to Michael’s gentleness. She manages the Tuohy family with the skill and gusto of a high-heeled Patton and, when Michael walks into the family’s life, she undertakes his betterment as her own personal mission. At first, perhaps, she gives Michael a place to stay because she feels she should. But slowly Michael turns from charity case to family member. When a friend of Leigh Anne’s tells her how wonderful it is that she’s changing this boy’s life, Leigh Anne smiles and says, “No. He’s changing mine.”
The rest of the Tuohy clan is no less supportive. S.J. becomes buds with Michael almost immediately, and the pint-sized mogul-in-the-making becomes Michael’s de facto agent when college coaches start calling. Collins, the Tuohy’s beautiful teen daughter, takes more time to warm to Michael, but eventually forsakes her stuck-up friends to study with him. Sean remains a jovial, paternal presence throughout. And Miss Sue, the tutor hired to help get Michael’s grades up to snuff, is both supportive and relentless—necessary qualities, under the circumstances.
By virtue of the fact that Michael is elevated, not demeaned by the story, expressions of racism included onscreen are designed to illustrate how ignorant prejudice is. Leigh Anne is troubled, for instance, when her friend asks whether her charity toward Michael is some sort of “white guilt thing,” and whether she’s concerned about having a big black man staying in the house with her teenage daughter. We’re meant to roll our eyes when a relative calls the Tuohys and asks, “Do you know there’s a colored boy in your Christmas card?”
Leigh Anne tells a college coach to not take Michael to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
“You’re a fine Christian lady,” Michael’s biological mother tells Leigh Anne when she hears about all the Tuohys have been doing for her boy.
“Well, I try,” Leigh Anne says. And she means it.
The real Tuohys are evangelical Christians, and while their cinematic doppelgängers don’t preach or pray much, the family’s faith still finds some expression onscreen. They do clasp hands and say a prayer before Thanksgiving dinner. And Leigh Anne mentions that she’s in a Bible study. We never see her without a silver cross hanging around her neck. These cinematic Tuohys aren’t, by any means, a perfect family. But they are refreshingly three-dimensional, and we see into their souls just enough to know that faith in Jesus is a prime factor in their best, most generous tendencies.
Coach Cotton, the head of Wingate’s football program, wants Michael at the school because of his potential on the gridiron. But when he goes to the school’s board, he pushes for the boy’s admission under a glaze of Christian charity. He points to the word Christian in the school’s name and says, “We either take that seriously, or we paint over it.” Miss Sue confesses that though she’s a spiritual woman, she has “doubts.”
In their pajamas and in bed, Sean and Leigh Anne cuddle and kiss before (implied) sex as Leigh Anne formulates plans on creating a non-profit. “You knew I was a multitasker when you married me, right?” she says.
Michael is one of 13 children, and his biological mother isn’t initially sure who fathered him. So it’s not especially surprising to hear some folks from Michael’s old neighborhood snidely suggest that he’s messing around with Leigh Anne, Collins, or perhaps both. (The suggestion of such impropriety sends Michael into a rage.)
Leigh Anne tells S.J. to not “go into the girls’ locker room again.” And she’s disappointed that a couple of college recruiters took Michael to “t-tty bars.” (We don’t see him go.) When the family drops Michael off at college, she warns him that if he gets a girl pregnant, she’ll come back to cut his penis off.
Men ogle cheerleaders, other coeds and Leigh Anne. The crude term “tap” is thrown around a couple of times.
Defending Leigh Anne’s and Collins’ honor, Michael smashes a couple of thugs into walls and furniture. When someone pulls a gun on him, Michael knocks the dude silly. (The gun fires harmlessly into the air.)
Later, Leigh Anne asks one of the thugs whether he’s seen Michael. When the guy insinuates that he might hurt Michael, Leigh Anne immediately gets in his face. “You threaten my son, you threaten me,” she scolds him, telling him that she’s a member of the National Rifleman’s Association, and she’s “always packing.”
Michael and S.J. get into a pretty bad auto accident, leaving both of them bloodied (but not critically injured).
A Wingate official tells Michael that a man who fell off a bridge a couple of weeks earlier (we’re not sure in the film whether it was an accident, suicide or murder, though in real life it was ruled homicide) was actually Michael’s father. And Michael occasionally flashes back to his violent childhood in cluttered and unfocused images.
There’s also football-related violence and action. An opposing player kicks Michael in the head, and Michael is called for “excessive blocking” when he pushes a would-be tackler through the end zone and over a wall.
Miss Sue dissuades Michael from attending the University of Tennessee by telling him that the college keeps all of its corpses right underneath the football field, where disembodied hands are liable to burst through the turf at any moment and grab at players’ ankles.
Leigh Anne does not approve of swearing. “Don’t use the a-word,” she tells her husband. But she didn’t edit the screenplay for The Blind Side. Onscreen, we still hear “a‑‑” a half-dozen times, “b‑‑ch” and “h‑‑‑” four or five times each, “p‑‑‑” once and “d‑‑n” two or three times. God’s name is misused a handful of times. “T‑t” is said a couple of times. The racial slur “n-gger” is vocalized once by one of the thugs.
Michael’s biological mother, we learn, has had issues with drugs since Michael was a baby, and she’d often tell him to close his eyes when she wanted to use. The film suggests that she still isn’t clean: When Leigh Anne asks her if she wants to see her boy, Michael’s mom tells her, “Not like this.”
Characters, including Leigh Anne, drink wine. Michael’s given a beer by a neighborhood pal. He takes a swig but doesn’t seem to like it much. During a phone message, a relative tells the Tuohys that he’s had a bit too much to drink.
Leigh Anne surreptitiously looks up Michael’s grades on the principal’s computer. She makes a reference to someone getting their “panties in a wad.” And some football fans hurl insults at Michael. The Tuohys respond by whispering about the “rednecks.”
Sports movies aren’t usually just about sports. In many ways they’ve become the morality plays of our time, preaching the importance of everything from individual effort to finding family in team. You don’t need to know about zone defenses to appreciate Hoosiers or be an expert pitcher to enjoy The Rookie.
The Blind Side, though, is a sports movie that’s not really even about sports. It’s a football movie based on the story of a real-life (and really good) football player that often avoids football altogether. Only one game is singled out for special attention—Michael’s first for Wingate. Sure, they win Tennessee’s private school state championship. Sure, Michael’s shown, in classic Rocky style, working feverishly to get into shape and learn the game. But these are ancillary things: This film doesn’t feature a single hail Mary, a solitary goal line stand or any sort of nail-biting finale.
It sidelines all of those things to instead focus on the massive impact people can have in other people’s lives. It���s not a pristine portrayal, either artistically or ethically. But I was moved by the story and walked out of the theater smiling. Issues of class, race and family are all enthusiastically grappled with—and the good guys doggedly work their way to the end zone, making a couple of extra points to boot.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.