Will the highly anticipated motion picture The Blind Side become the Rudy of the new millennium? Could a 6-8, 380-pound actor win an Oscar? With The Blind Side hitting theaters November 20, mainstream media outlets are asking some good questions, but they may be overlooking the most significant one of all: Could this movie be the catalyst that changes the way America views its homeless children and how families approach adoption and foster care?
Thanks to the conservative-yet-adventurous Christian family portrayed in The Blind Side, the movie's leading actress, Sandra Bullock (The Proposal, Crash), sure seems to think so. "Adoption and foster care haven't been on the forefront of people's minds, but it's on the forefront of my mind every day now when I get up," she says. "When I look around, I go, is he, is she? What is their situation? And it's because of this family. I think that what they're going to do for our country, in terms of being aware of that, will be profound."
Faith on the Move
The remarkable true story of Memphis, Tenn.'s Tuohy family was first told in the 2006 New York Times best seller The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis (Moneyball, Liar's Poker). As the author explains, Sean Tuohy may be the successful owner of 80 fast-food restaurants, and also be the radio color commentator for the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies, but Sean learned about poverty the hard way, having lived as a child in the projects of New Orleans. And his brilliantly assertive wife Leigh Anne? An accomplished interior decorator, she was raised the daughter of an extremely racist United States Marshal.
If only he could see her family now. The Blind Side, the movie based on Lewis' book, reveals how the Tuohys and their two children came to know and then welcome Michael Oher, a 6-foot-5, 350-pound African American teenager living on the streets, into their family. The shy son of an absent father and a mother addicted to crack cocaine, "Big Mike" had lived in various foster homes, slept on neighborhood porches and attended eleven different schools before applying for admission to Memphis' Briarcrest Christian School when he was 16. Despite Oher's disheartening 0.9 grade point average, Briarcrest welcomed him with hopes that he would apply himself as a student, and then become a standout on the football team. When the Tuohys and Briarcrest's faculty invested themselves in Oher, he not only turned his grades around and raised the school's profile among prestigious college football programs, most importantly, he showed the Tuohys how to be a family.
"Michael was a blessing for the Tuohys, because he came in at a time when they were all off doing their own thing and not really connecting as a family," explains Quinton Aaron (Be Kind Rewind, Fighting), the unusual 25-year-old actor who stars in the central role as Oher. "He brought them together. He showed them the true value of what a family really is, and they showed him a real family."
While the Tuohy's evangelical Christian faith isn't pushed on audiences in the new movie, which also stars Tim McGraw (Friday Night Lights, Flicka) and Oscar winner Kathy Bates (Misery, Titanic), The Blind Side does portray it respectfully both in the script and in how it is filmed. Thanks, in a large part, should go to veteran filmmaker John Lee Hancock (The Rookie, The Alamo), who wrote the screenplay and directed The Blind Side. Hancock, himself a believer, also emphasized the importance of finding an actor who would meet the qualifications "both physically and spiritually" to fill the main role as Oher. When Hancock finally discovered Aaron, the director scored in spades: Gentle giant? Check. Follower of Christ? Check. Played high school football in the South? Check. Experienced poverty first hand? Check. Might win the Oscar? Check back with the L.A. Times who originally posed the question.
With The Blind Side marking Aaron's first high profile role, the actor's personal life is in uncharted territory. Thankfully, the New York native, who relocated to Georgia for several years before returning home, can look to his church to help him stay grounded. "Before this, I was working alongside my pastor as an understudy at Salvation and Deliverance Church in the Bronx," Aaron says softly through an almost constant smile. "It's a way of keeping disciplined. I had a task, a responsibility to follow our leader and learn from him. I love the church. My grandfather's a preacher, and I have an aunt and uncle that are preachers as well."
As for Sandra Bullock, she loved the script but turned down the role of Leigh Anne Tuohy three times due to, believe it or not, intimidation. In a last ditch effort, Hancock convinced her to travel to Memphis to shadow the Tuohys and visit Briarcrest Christian School. "One of my biggest concerns stepping into this was how people use their faith and their religion as a banner, and then they don't do the right thing," explains Bullock. "They go, 'I'm a good Christian, and I go to church, and this is the way you should live your life.' And I'm like, do not give me a lecture on how to live my life when you go to church every week, but I know you're still sleeping around on your wife. I told Leigh Anne the banner waving scared me because I've had experiences that haven't been great. I don't buy a lot of people who use that as their shield. But she was so open and honest and forthright. And I thought, wow, I finally met someone who practices but doesn't preach—someone who blazes trails, and they do it as a family."
Bullock fell in love with the Tuohys and dove into her new role. She reveals, "I now have the blessing of having my res—," then, catching herself, the actress continues"—not a restored faith, but I now have faith in those who say they represent a faith. I finally met people who walk the walk."
To this day, the Tuohy family's inspiring story continues to unfold with one extraordinary event after another. After their adopted son finished high school, Oher went on to become one of the nation's top college football players as an All American offensive lineman for the University of Mississippi. He excelled as a student there and made the dean's list with a 3.5 GPA. Then, this past April, Oher was selected in the first round of the NFL draft by the Baltimore Ravens, who signed him to a 5 year, $13.8 million contract. So far this season, he has started every game for the Ravens, progressing at both the right and left tackle positions so much that many believe he could become the first lineman ever to win the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year Award. And his parents? Sean and Leigh Anne, who recently launched the Michael Oher Foundation to assist foster children, were summoned to Washington, DC in October and honored with the National Angels in Adoption Award by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.
Rated PG-13 for one scene involving brief violence, drug and sexual references, and one scene with moderate profanity. The Blind Side opens in theaters on Friday, November 20, 2009—the day before National Adoption Day.
For more information visit www.theblindsidemovie.com. Photos courtesy of Warner Bros.
**This interview first published on November 17, 2009.