The Blind Side: The Problems of the White Savior Narrative
The Blind Side (2009) is based on a true story, a nonfiction book by Michael Lewis about the sport of football. The film focuses specifically on a notable real life incident that Lewis talks about in detail, in which the former foster adolescent Michael Oher is shown being recruited by the NCAA and eventually playing with the NFL. The film shows Ohers fate as the direct result of the fact that Leigh Anne Tuohy, whose son goes to the same preparatory school where Oher had won a sports scholarship, decided to take an interest in Oher and foster him. Although the family the story may have been based on may have been commendable in their actions, the film is problematic in the degree to which it focuses on Leigh Annes desire to save Oher, and how she is contrasted with his inadequate parents. The film denies Oher agency by focusing on only the Caucasian figures, without exploring Ohers own psychology. He is merely portrayed as a helpless victim of his family situation and society.
The segmentation of the film is fairly traditional, beginning with a scene (Oher being recruited by a NCAA representative), and then flashing back into a sharply contrasting scene in which Oher is shown how he was before he met the Tuohy familysleeping on the couch, unhappy and a runaway. Immediately, the coach of Wingate Christian School is shown as kindly reaching out to help Oher because of the young mans extraordinary football ability, gaining him a scholarship to the school. Leigh Annes husband Bill is wealthy, but the couple is immediately interested in reaching out to help the young man with an altruistic impulse. The contrast between Ohers life of poverty and the overwhelmingly wealthy, white world is stark.
There is clearly prejudice in the social circle in which Leigh Anne inhabits. In one of the most striking scenes, Leigh Anne is shown passionately defending her relationship with Oher and her decision to ultimately take him into the family home. Although Leigh Anne is a somewhat overdressed Southern belle, an interior designer who wears beautiful, fashionable clothing, she is depicted as having a good heart. She finds a sense of purpose helping Oher she lacked before. Ohers life in a dark, miserable foster apartment watching football on the couch, and his academic struggles at the prep school are only healed through her kindness.
Oher is portrayed as almost mute, struggling in school, and having no possessions other than what can be carried in a plastic shopping bag before meeting the Tuohy family in one scene. Walking through a playground, he appears to have no idea to behave, and looks almost menacing as he moves through a playground filled with small children, unable to understand the impression he is making or how strange he appears. Two small white girls run away from him, holding hands as if in fear. Oher clearly means no harm, but the scene makes him seem pathetic. He strikes a similar, shuffling, hunched over posture when he is walking in the rain and Leigh Anne and Bill pick them up in their shiny new car.
The film does show that Oher is struggling in his new environment because of its whiteness, as seen in a heartfelt essay he writes that is found crumpled up in the garbage and read aloud. Again, however, the fact that white characters are shown as discovering these words and giving Oher a voice is extremely problematic. Ohers size (he is called Big Mike), his clumsiness off of the field, and the fact that his own mother describes him as a runner underlines the fact he is a childlike individual who needs to be saved. The end of the film shows his triumphant graduation from the prep school, having finally improved his academics.
Leah Annes passionate concern for Oher is even shown in a scene in which she goes to the apartment to confront his mother. Her beautiful dress, light-colored hair and clothing, makes the poverty, lack of light, and the miserable circumstances of his clearly depressed and overwhelmed mother very apparent. The films underlying message is that without the intervention of Leah Anne and Bill, along with the support of the preparatory school, Oher would not be in the position where he is today. The effect is to suggest that rather than Oher being commendable for his talent and resilience, his luck in finding a white family to take care of him was more important.
Of course, some people might protest that The Blind Side is based upon a true story. However, given that the film is heavily fictionalized, combined with the fact it is strategically presented to emphasize the success of the white individuals in helping a Black young man, its message is particularly damaging. It is tempting to assume it tells the whole truth, rather than simply a version of the truth. In white savior-themed films, what ends up happening is that they perpetuate an idea that is essentially a historical banner of colonialism: People of color need white people to save them (Roisin, 2017, par.3). It denies both the real and the fictional Michael Oher the ability to articulate his own story, and frame his own narrative of struggle from poverty to success. Even if it may be technically true that he was in foster care and was taken care of by a white family while he went to prep school, this is only one facet of his success. The choice to solely focus upon the white foster family seems to pander to a presumably white audience (Ash, 2015). Although it was commercially successful, this does not mean it is ethically successful.
Thus, The Blind Side is a very problematic film, in terms of the way it frames the discourse on race. The film presents the world of its white characters as far more appealing and attractive than the one in which its real life Black protagonist comes from, and as necessary for him to move forward in life. Finally, it denies him the ability to tell his story and be the focus of his own biographical film.
Ash, E. (2015). Racial discourse in The Blind Side: The economics and ideology behind the
white savior format.Studies in Popular Culture,38(1), 85-103. Retrieved from: www.jstor.org/stable/44259586
Hancock, J. H. (2009). The blind side. Warner Brothers.
Roisin, F. (2013). Why Hollywoods white savior obsession is an extension of colonialsm. Teen
Vogue. Retrieved from: https://www.teenvogue.com/story/hollywoods-white-savior- obsession-colonialism
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