“What’s in it for me?”
In one of my least favorite scenes from 2009′s “The Blind Side,” allegedly adorable pipsqueak S.J. Tuohy (Jae Head), sits alongside Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), who S.J.’s family has taken in, while Oher negotiates with college coaches who want to recruit him. The kid’s excited for Michael, but even more psyched about possible perks for himself, like leading the team onto the field.
It’s supposed to be cute, but S.J.’s antics have always hit me as cloying and bratty, from a child who believes everything he does is funny. It is not.
If the real-life Oher’s allegations this week — about recently discovered revelations about the Tuohy family are true, that line isn’t just bratty, but a sinister clue to what the former Baltimore Raven asserts is a scheme all about what the Tuohys were getting out of Oher, with nothing left for him.
According to the movie’s plot, he was a homeless, intellectually challenged kid who’d never had a bed or played football before the Tuohys literally pulled him off a rainy street in the dead of night and saved him. When I interviewed Leigh Anne Tuohy, famously played by Sandra Bullock in an Oscar-winning performance, for the Palm Beach Post in 2011, she told me bluntly that if Oher hadn’t joined her family “he’d be dead by now.”
But a Tennessee probate court petition filed this week holds that the conservatorship he believed was akin to adoption actually made him not kin, but a financial hostage who’d signed control over to Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy. He claims that he’s seen none of the money from the movie about his life, based on writer Michael Lewis’ book, which would make this all a candy-coated lie. A fractured fable of white saviorism and predation disguised as altruism.
Since the movie came out, the Tuohys have faced accusations of being an exploitative family whose cinematic versions make them out to be more helpful than they actually were. As an adoptive mother, I know many believe people like me are high on a hero complex, making ourselves the lead characters in the stories of others’ lives. My own story is different from the Tuohys — my son was adopted from within my own family, we are both Black, and it was a real, legal adoption, unlike Oher’s.
His allegations are tragic not just because they’d prove the Tuohys to be cynically greedy, but because it seems to have broken the heart of a man who thought he was a part of a family that he now believes saw him as a cash cow. And that’s not what family is supposed to be.
The Tuohys family disputes Oher’s assertions that they made millions from their assorted deals, and say that since he was 18, formal adoption wasn’t possible. Also, the real S.J. alleges that Oher knew about the conservatorship — the same type of arrangement that allowed Britney Spears’ father to control her money, career and even her family planning — for years, and that he might have attempted to shake them down for cash to keep quiet.
I don’t know if Oher ever got any money out of the movie deal, or when he found out about the conservatorship, which the Tuohys admit he didn’t understand initially. But he’s always asserted that the movie shows young S.J. and Leigh Anne having to teach him how to play football, when he’d played in public school in Memphis before coming to live with them. “The Blind Side” also presents him as intellectually slow and passive, which he disputes, and portrays him as never having had a bed before he met them — when the truth seems to be that he’d never had his own bed. That seems like it’s splitting hairs, but having to share a bed isn’t uncommon for families with a lot of kids. The movie made it sound like he was sleeping on the floor or in a cupboard.
I’m a big fan of Disney sports movies like “Remember The Titans,” “Glory Road” and “McFarland USA,” each about a coach leading young people of a different race or culture than his own. But they can have a ham-handed approach to race, simplifying the edges of stories that are inherently edgy to come to a happy ending where everyone’s hugging and mournfully singing ’60s songs graveside as a rainbow collective of understanding.
But the Tuohys’ version of events, as seen in the movie, were always racially uncomfortable. It’s not just the assertion that Oher was essentially feral. It claims that white people taught him football, and how to stand up for himself. The film’s few Black characters are cartoons. There are the villainous drug dealers that Leigh Anne threatens to stay away from Michael, an angry Black woman investigating if the Tuohys have ulterior motives, and a family friend who in reality was more involved in Oher’s life than the movie depicts. All are presented as easy contrasts between the world Oher was born into and the one he was adopted into.
When I interviewed Leigh Anne Tuohy, who was speaking in Florida at the time, I found her cordial, if a little self-congratulatory. She dismissed the importance of her family’s racial differences from Oher as something others “put too much emphasis on,” no different than being skinny or fat, old or young. “He thinks I birthed him,” she jokes.
But transracial adoptees will tell you these differences are more than esoteric, and that families who refuse to consider those aspects of their child’s identity as important are less likely to be effective. I am not against these types of adoptions — there are several in my family — but loving someone also means you see them for who they are. Interestingly, the movie version of “The Blind Side” is very clear about the Tuohys being a white family rescuing a Black child, but I guess that only matters if it makes them look good?
This brings me back to the fictional S.J. and his “cutesy” insistence on being involved in Michael’s negotiations — if he got something out of it. I don’t know these people and I don’t know how they feel about Oher, although they’ve apparently been estranged for some time and did not appear to be at his 2022 wedding.
Watching the movie again this week, knowing about his allegations, the last scene is chilling. It’s a giddy S.J. running out onto the Ole Miss field as promised, under the all-caps screen legend: “SJ RECEIVED EVERYTHING HE WAS PROMISED.”
But it looks like the person who didn’t was Michael Oher.