“The Blind Side” is a movie about football that had its own broken field running challenge. It is the true story of Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Michael Oher, a homeless black kid adopted by a wealthy white family. So, it could so easily have been syrupy, or condescending, or downright offensive. At worst, it could have been a cross between the Hallmark channel and “Diff’rent Strokes.”
There have been too many “magical Negro” characters in movies, the non-white character whose role in the story is to give some white people a spiritual or ennobling experience. And there have been too many of what my friend Tim Gordon calls “mighty whitey” movies, where some needy non-white person is helped by some saintly white person. And there have been way too many movies where someone says, with a catch in his or her throat, that “he helped me more than I could ever have helped him.” This movie risks failing in all three of these categories and somehow it manages to deftly come together to make the story genuinely touching. You may find yourself with a catch in your throat, not to mention a tear in your eye.
It helps that the story is true. The wealthy Touhey family did take in and then adopt a homeless black teenager whose life had been so chaotic that there was almost no record of his existence. He happened to go along with a friend who was applying to a private school on an athletic scholarship and was seen by the coach who recognized his ability. He is enormous and he is fast, both valuable in an offensive lineman. And this happened at just the time that the role of the offensive lineman was becoming one of the most critical positions on the team. Leigh Anne Touhy (Sandra Bullock, in her Oscar-winning performance) explains at the beginning of the film, based on the Michael Lewis book of the same name, that New York Giants lineman Lawrence Taylor changed the game. He went after quarterbacks like the Washington Redskins’ Joe Theismann, who received a career-ending injury because Taylor came after him in his blind spot. Hence the increased focus on protecting the quarterback, and that is the job for which Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) seems to have been designed.
It isn’t just that his is very big and very fast. It is another quality, the one that was identified when he was given a battery of tests as the only stand-out ability in a long list of failures. Tests showed that he had an extraordinary level of protective instinct and experience showed that he had an extraordinary ability as well.
She was never tested, but Leigh Anne is probably off the charts for protective instinct as well. It is this quality they share that makes us believe in their connection.
And it is another of Leigh Anne’s qualities that keeps the story from getting too sugary. She is kind of obnoxious. Girl-next-door Sandra Bullock shows us Leigh Anne’s determination and passionate dedication to her family and her ideals and makes us understand that she has a bit of a sense of humor about herself. When she has to admit her husband was right about something, she also concedes that the words taste like vinegar. She has no problem telling pretty much everyone from her condescending friends to the high school coach what they should do. But it is her vinegary spirit that makes the situation and the movie work. She does not cry over Oher’s trials and she does not act like he is her St. Bernhard puppy. She is just someone who has a strong sense of justice fueled by her faith, a quality too rarely portrayed in the media. And she has that protective instinct. Oher is not the usual gentle giant, which helps as well. He has a sense of humor and self-respect that makes clear that he is a full partner in becoming a member of the family, giving as much as he gets.
So this movie is smarter than it had to be, which gives its emotional core even more of punch. You’ve seen the highlights in the trailer. But the quiet moments in between and lovely performances by Bullock, Aaron, and Tim McGraw as Leigh Anne’s husband make this one of the best family films of the year.