Racial Appropriation: Hidden Motives in Hollywood Film

Everyone loves an underdog success story. There’s something attractive about a team or player that overcomes seemingly insurmountable odds. This attractiveness likely results from the “feel-good” quality that exists in most of these stories. People love uplifting stories and unsurprisingly there’s no shortage of them in Hollywood. One story that touched the hearts of people all over America was made into the Hollywood award-winning film, The Blind Side. Originally told by Michael Lewis in his bestselling book of the same name, the movie examines the rags to riches story of Michael Oher, a black football player who grew up in poverty.

Michael Oher with the Tuohys

Race plays a critical element Oher’s life story. The book and movie so elegantly portray the heroic role of the Tuohys, a wealthy white family who rescued Oher and put him on the road to success. On the surface, this heartwarming story shows the coming together of whites and blacks. The goodness of the heart triumphs over racism. Many would argue that The Blind Side celebrates how far we have come in regards to race. A rich white family in the south adopts a black boy off the side of the street. They make him feel at home, send him to school, hire tutors, give him anything he needs, and most of all love him. Who could possibly say that this is not progress? This all happened in the racist south! And now Michael Lewis (white) and film director John Lee Hancock (white) have spread the story all over the nation, so that people of all races can rejoice in the unlikely success of Michael Oher.

Audiences across America loved the Michael Oher story so much that the film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. In addition, Sandra Bullock won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. There are a couple of issues here. First, the Oscars are notoriously white. In 2015 and 2016, only white actors and actresses received nominations in the top four categories. Secondly, the hero of The Blind Side was not Michael Oher. Aided by Bullock’s praiseworthy performance, Leigh Anne Tuohy had unmistakably been made the hero. Seemingly a story about the coming together of black and white, it became a story about the white savior. In The Invisible Weight of Whiteness: The Racial Grammar of Everyday Life in America, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva writes, “Stories about whites become stories about all of us. This is how whites frame these stories symbolically, but, of course, this is not the case in reality.”[1] The Blind Side in no way celebrates an underprivileged black boy overcoming many obstacles to achieve success in the way that it seems. According to the film, Oher could not overcome any obstacles without the help of the Tuohys. Instead, the movie uses the cover of black success to tell the story of a charitable and honorable white family.

In a review of the film the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “The Blind Side is interested only in that world[2] as an occasion for selective charity, and it is only slightly more interested in Michael’s inner life.”[3] This illustrates racial appropriation, where whites use black culture for their own purposes. New York Times columnist David Brooks, commenting on the use of the white savior motif as a plot device in pop culture, wrote,

[The white savior motif] rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades… It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.[4]

As far as Oher is concerned, the film stripped him of any nuance or complex character qualities. Insofar as he is incapable of leading his own life and (as we shall see) playing football, he needs Leigh Anne to save him. In order for him to be saved, he needs something to be saved from. Enter racial appropriation. Had Oher been white, there is not much of a story. But a cross-racial adoption in the south is (sadly) a big deal. Hollywood likes to pat white people on the back. What better way than to show a southern white family doing the amazing deed of adopting an underprivileged black child and setting him on the path to success.

But what really makes the Michael Oher story incredible? What attracted Michael Lewis to the story in the first place? The fact that Oher became a tremendous football player! Adoptions (even cross-racial ones) happen all the time. Very rarely does a homeless kid become an All-American in college and then a Super Bowl champion in the NFL. Although the Tuohys certainly did a great service to Oher, that’s not the real story here. White Hollywood took Oher’s journey and shifted the spotlight onto the Tuohys and away from him. While the Tuohys may have provided Oher with resources and a support network, the film exaggerated if not completely fabricates the true extent to which they helped his football career.

In one telling scene from the film, Oher’s high school coach watches with frustration as he struggles in practice. The coach whispers to an assistant, “Well at least he’ll look good coming off the bus, they’ll be terrified until they realize he’s a marshmallow.” Leigh Anne, watching from the bleachers, decides that she’s had enough and boldly marches onto the field. In an incredibly corny speech, Leigh Anne tells Oher to think of his teammates as if they were his family and that he needs to protect them at all costs. As if the dopey metaphor was all he needed, on the very next play, Oher had transformed into the high school version of Jonathan Ogden.[5] What makes even less sense is that before her speech, Oher was having no trouble stopping the defensive players from reaching the quarterback. The only issue he was having was doing it within the rules of the game. Somehow her speech not only made him an unstoppable force, but also instilled in him a nuanced knowledge of how to play left tackle.

Pointing out inconsistencies and flaws in the scene is somewhat pointless because the entire scene is wholly inaccurate to begin with. Apart from the cuteness and humor of the speech, the scene makes a hero out of Leigh Anne and a bum out of Oher. Well, it turns out (unsurprisingly) that Oher didn’t need much help from anyone, including the Tuohys when it came to football. The real Michael Oher had this to say about 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…I could not figure out why the director chose to show me as someone who had to be taught the game of football. Whether it was S.J. moving around ketchup bottles or Leigh Anne explaining to me what blocking is about, I watched those scenes thinking, ‘No, that’s not me at all! I’ve been studying — really studying — the game since I was a kid!’[6]

In fact it’s quite clear why the director made these decisions. In pop culture, it is common for white people to selectively incorporate elements of non-white cultures, but reconfigure them for their own purposes. In the case of The Blind Side, the success story of a black athlete was used as a means to tell the heroic and uplifting story for majority white audiences.

But if the movie depicts the whites as saviors, how can we explain the presence of the Tuohy’s racist neighbors in the film? Why does Oher’s white high school coach fail to connect with him and is portrayed as a loser? Clearly the movie paints both positive and negative pictures of white people. Hollywood movies must maintain some level of integrity and realism for people to take them seriously. That said, the evidence for racial appropriation in The Blind Side is everywhere. This film does not truly celebrate the coming together of black and white. White Hollywood simply uses that cover for its own purposes.



[1] Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. “The Invisible Weight of Whiteness: The Racial Grammar of Everyday Life in Contemporary America.” Michigan Sociological Review 26 (2011): 1-15.

[2] “that world” meaning Oher’s life before he was taken in by the Tuohy’s

[3] Scott, A. O. “Steamrolling Over Life’s Obstacles With Family as Cheerleaders.” The New York Times. November 19, 2009. Accessed May 16, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/20/movies/20blindside.html.

[4] Hughey, Matthew W. The White Savior Film: Content, Critics, and Consumption. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014.

[5] NFL Hall of Fame Left Tackle who played for the Baltimore Ravens from 1996-2007

[6] Holmes, Linda. “Beyond ‘The Blind Side,’ Michael Oher Rewrites His Own Story.” NPR. February 8, 2011. Accessed May 16, 2016. http://www.npr.org/sections/monkeysee/2011/02/08/133590180/beyond-the-blind-side-michael-oher-rewrites-his-own-story.