It’s a clockwork ritual of awards season. A movie in contention, one based on a true story, will be dinged for presenting a version of reality that isn’t real enough. The critical chatter often starts on Twitter, but it can come from anywhere, ultimately spreading to the mainstream media (by the time there’s a New York Times editorial, you know the controversy has reached full tempest-in-a-teapot boil). We’ve seen this happen with dramas as disparate as “A Beautiful Mind” and “Green Book” and “Mank.” The original source of the attack can often be a rival studio, out to damage an awards competitor (a tactic that was turned into a kind of bloodsport by Harvey Weinstein). Yet it’s a curious thing: By the time the Oscars have come and gone, the criticisms tend to roll right off the movie in question. It’s as if, awards season aside, they never mattered all that much in the first place.
Yet I’m not sure that’s going to happen with “The Blind Side.”
In recent days, the true story behind the popular 2009 drama, for which Sandra Bullock won the Oscar for best actress, has made headlines, and the headlines have not been pretty. The film, set in 2004, told the story of how Michael Oher, as a lost soul of 17, was taken in by Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy (played in the movie by Bullock and Tim McGraw), a prosperous Memphis couple who gave the disconsolate Black teenager a home, made him part of their family, became his legal guardians, and steered him toward becoming a successful high school offensive tackle. He ultimately made it into the NFL, which gave the story a very Hollywood ending.
But now Oher has filed a petition against the Tuohys, alleging that he was never legally adopted by them; that they tricked him into allowing them to become his conservators; and that they arranged a deal that paid them and their two birth children millions of dollars in royalties from the movie, while Oher received nothing. The Tuohys have struck back: A lawyer representing them has issued a response alleging that Oher “threatened” the couple by saying “he would plant a negative story about them in the press unless they paid him $15 million.” The Tuohys also claim that they have divided all proceeds from the movie equally.
In the coming weeks, or maybe months, this he said/they said mess will be sorted out. However it’s resolved, though, the legal rancor blows a rather sizable hole in the fairy-tale portrait of Michael Oher and the Tuohys that was painted by “The Blind Side.” Why does the current battle undermine the movie? Mostly because “The Blind Side,” a feel-good adaptation of Michael Lewis’s 2006 book (it was never branded a “faith-based movie,” but that’s basically what it was), told a story that felt, even at the time, more than a bit concocted. In the current legal/financial/familial skirmish, each side is accusing the other one of manipulation. But in light of that, it’s worth noting what a manipulative movie “The Blind Side” is. It’s the kind of pious, sweet-tea liberal tearjerker that has largely gone out of style (at least on the big screen), and that’s because what’s transparent is everything the movie isn’t showing.
In “The Blind Side,” when the Tuohys meet Michael, played by Quinton Aaron, he’s a gentle giant of a kid — passive, docile, with an occasional Mona Lisa smile. That’s okay; we look at him and wonder what he’ll reveal as the story goes on. Michael, we learn, has a background of extreme trauma: Taken from his crack-addict mother, with siblings he barely knows, he is living with no home, flunking out of one school after another. He’s grateful when the Tuohys simply offer him a place to stay. Leigh Anne sees herself as a virtuous Christian, dunked in charity work, always putting her money where her mouth is, and no one can say that in the case of Michael she didn’t commit herself.
But what was the relationship of this newly shaped family like? That’s the story “The Blind Side” should have told. Instead, the Michael we see is treated, by the Tuohys and by the film, as a kind of family mascot. There’s never any conflict between them, and not much in the way of conversation. Bullock’s Leigh Anne, with her diamond-studded crucifix necklace, charges through the film like a refugee from “Dallas” crusading for her sainthood merit badge, while Michael, with his benign torpor, rarely rouses himself with a force of ego. At one point, when Leigh Anne and Sean are discussing whether to become his legal guardians, Sean says, “Michael’s gift is his ability to forget. He’s mad at no one, and he really doesn’t care what happened in the past.” Leigh Anne agrees, making a (comic) point of how much she hates it when her husband is right.
But Sean’s statement about Michael is shocking in how wrong it is. Michael’s gift is his ability to forget? He’s mad at no one? He doesn’t care what happened in the past? Who would say that about a white character who’d suffered the kinds of things Michael did? The movie is reducing him to a Teddy-bear simpleton, with little to no psychology. He never has rich exchanges with the other family members; he never expresses anything but gratefulness (or, after he crashes the truck they just bought him, cringing regret). There’s no interior complexity to Michael, and that’s the lie of “The Blind Side.” It’s what allows his character to basically be used by the Tuohys to feel good about themselves.
When I say that the Tuohys “used” Michael, I’m not passing judgment on the legal issues now pending. I don’t claim to know those details. But however the legal conflict sorts itself out, the reason this battle taints the movie is that what it reveals, beyond doubt, is that the relationship between Michael Oher and the Tuohys was less solid in its trust, not nearly as cozy, and more fraught with ambiguity than the one that captured moviegoers’ hearts. And the reason I don’t think all that’s going to roll off the movie is that the fakery, in this case, isn’t just about negative advertising during awards season. The fakery, if you seriously watch “The Blind Side,” is right up onscreen.
From Variety US