The Michael Oher story, at least the one we all know from the film The Blind Side, has always been more complicated than anyone who watched and loved the movie that won Sandra Bullock her lone Oscar and grossed more than $300 million worldwide wanted it to be. Now all those complicating factors are coming to the surface since Oher, the former NFL player who inspired the movie, has filed suit against the Tuohys, the family that is said to have adopted him as a teenager in the film.
It is often forgotten that Michael Lewis’s 2005 book The Blind Side, upon which the film was loosely based, is not actually about Michael Oher. It’s about the offensive-tackle position in football, how NFL (and college) teams had put their entire franchises’ value in the (massive) hands of 22-year-old boys with absurd (and very specific) physical dimensions. A follow-up to his groundbreaking, still-reverberating 2003 baseball book Moneyball, it was an attempt to do for football what Moneyball did for baseball. That aspiration didn’t quite pan out. What it did do, however, thanks to an except that ran in The New York Times Magazine titled “The Ballad of Big Mike,” was introduce the world to Oher and the Tuohy family. But as many who bought Lewis’s book after seeing the movie later discovered, the story of Oher and the Tuohys was only a small part of it. Regardless, the Times article was immediately optioned and ultimately spawned the movie, which was a surprise hit in large part because of an unusual marketing plan that initially focused on churches and football fans in the South. But, again, pretty much nobody predicted ahead of time that the film would be a blockbuster.
That context is important to remember as retrospective questions about the movie — over who owned what, whether the story was optioned from the Tuohys or the book, and who had a stake in the production from the get-go — are brought to public attention in Oher’s lawsuit. Oher says he discovered just this year, in February, that the Tuohys did not officially adopt him, instead getting him to agree to a conservatorship, which gave them legal authority over Oher’s business decisions. Oher also claims he was tricked into signing the conservatorship papers and that the Tuohys and their two birth children each “received $225,000, plus 2.5% of the film’s ‘defined net proceeds,’” while he was frozen out.
For their part, the Tuohys have long said that they simply got a flat fee for the book rights. But it’s worth saying that that seems a bit strange, considering Lewis’s book is a work of journalistic nonfiction that, again, isn’t principally about Oher or the Tuohys. (Presumably these questions will be answered for all of us soon enough.) The Tuohys also maintain that they did not profit from the film and shared all of their proceeds equally with all their children … including Oher. Sean Tuohy, the father of the family and a broadcaster for the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies, told the Daily Memphis newspaper he’s “devastated” and reiterated that his family “didn’t make any money off the movie.” But even if they did not directly profit from the film — something that, despite their claims, is very much still up for debate — there is no question that the Tuohys have benefited greatly from the film’s success with both Sean and his wife, Leann, commanding hefty speaking fees, among other lucrative opportunities.
Oher, who embraced Lewis’s account and the book itself, has always been less enthusiastic about the movie. It’s not difficult to see why. The film’s depiction of Oher and the Tuohys was a particularly grotesque white-savior story, in which Oher is portrayed as so helpless and clueless about the world (at one point, he, a teenage boy, does not seem to know what a bed is) that it’s implied he’d have long perished if he hadn’t had these kind, rich white people to save him. Writer Garrett Bucks of the terrific The White Papers newsletter correctly described the movie’s portrayal of Oher as someone who “mostly just ambles about like Charlie Brown on a bad day: sad, helpless and frequently wet. He is all slumped shoulders and weary ennui.” The movie actually ends going all The Searchers with Oher saving his innocent white sister from, as Bucks puts it, “the lecherous threats of dangerous Black men from the projects.” Oher has long claimed that the perception the movie generated of him hurt him in his NFL career and afterward, saying in 2015, “People look at me, and they take things away from me because of a movie. They don’t really see the skills and the kind of player I am.” Oher’s lawyer told ESPN that “some NFL decision-makers assumed he was mentally slow or lacked leadership skills.” One suspects the increased scrutiny on conservatorships the last couple of years — because of Britney Spears’s situation with her father — also had something to do with this lawsuit.
So while fans of the movie The Blind Side may have believed the simplistic portrayal of the family and Oher, who retired from the NFL in 2017 and is currently on a book tour, this conflict has been brewing for a while. Everything in the movie was twisted into a story that sold well enough that it became easy to ignore its problems until the then-young person at the center of it all took a much harder look at the whole situation through the mature eyes of the man he has become. Oher’s lawsuit shows us that none of it was ever perfect, and it all fell apart because of money. It is, in many ways, the most American story of all.