Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing
outside, they sent to him and called him. 32A crowd
was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your
mother and your brothers and sisters* are outside,
asking for you.’ 33And he replied, ‘Who are my mother
and my brothers?’ 34And looking at those who sat
around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my
brothers! 35Whoever does the will of God is my
brother and sister and mother.’
Writer/Director John Lee Hancock’s must-see film again shows that so-called footballs films transcend the sports genre. Based on the life of All American Football player Michael Oher, it might seem like a made- up story written by a sentimental novelist were it not true—and to prove it the director provides an album-full of photos of the real characters to accompany the end-credits.
When Memphis belle Leigh Anne Touhy (Sandra Bullock) is riding home one night with her family, she sees a very large African American teenage boy (Quinton Aaron) walking along the street. Her daughter Collins says that she knows him from the private Christian school she attends. The concerned mother tells husband Sean (Tim McGraw) to stop because the boy has no coat on, dressed in shorts and a t-shirt. Without much hesitation Leigh Anne invites him to stay the night at their home, and thus begins an odyssey that will change all of their lives.
Everyone calls the boy “Big Mike.” He barely speaks, often looking down when a person addresses him, but his first request is that he not be called “Big Mike.” Leigh Anne suggests “Michael, and Michael it is. The boy has been enrolled at the Christian school on a scholarship, but the teachers on the admissions board are divided over the propriety of this. A glance at his record shows that he has been a victim of the decrepit public school system, one teacher after another passing him with a grade average of D so that they could be rid of him. Coach Cotton (Ray McKinnon) argues that it would be “the Christian thing to do” to admit Michael, but it is also obvious that he sees in the hulking frame of the lad a potential recruit to his football team.
Michael’s “just for the night” stay extends because he is homeless, his drug-addicted mother having been evicted from the slum housing project and abandoned him. And Michael’s gentle demeanor soon wins over both husband and the two children, Collins (Lily Collins) and grade school son S.J. (Jae Head). Indeed, the latter adores the big guy, relishing having a big brother, affection that Michael readily returns. Before long all think of Michael as one of the family, with Leigh Anne becoming his fierce defender and supporter. There is a tender scene in which she reads to her two sons from the children’s story Ferdinand the Bull, and as the camera pulls back, we see Collins in the hallway also enjoying hearing her mother read, but of course, too sophisticated to join the three.
Despite the loving nurture at home, Michael shows little improvement at school, until several teachers take a special interest in him. When one talks with him, she discovers that he has been listening even though never participating in class discussions. Thus he is able to pass oral tests, but not written ones. When he at last brings his grade level up, he becomes eligible to come out for football—and then the fun really begins.
However, although Michael has the bulk of a good football player, he does not have the drive of one. Assigned by Coach Cotton, because of his bulk, to protect the quarterback on his blind side, Michael is not aggressive enough to stop the defensive players. Observing this from the stands, Leigh Anne strides onto the field, bypasses the coach and tells Michael that just as in the past he has protected S.J. and would do so for her, so he must protect his team members. She actually grabs the quarterback by his jersey and pulls him to Michael, telling her “son” that his team is also family, and that when he sees his teammate attacked, he is to think of her and offer the same protection. Coach Cotton and his players seem almost in shock when she walks back to the stands. Michael’s change of attitude is almost instantaneous, as we see not only in the practice session, but also in the first game with their rivals when a cocky opponent taunts him. Not a good idea, the cock-sure boy discovers to his discomfiture.
This is one of the most heart-warming stories to be seen, again showing how family is far more than a matter of blood, or race. There are many scenes of grace; such as when Collins sees Michael sitting alone in the school library and her girl friends cast scornful looks at him. She takes her books, moves to his table, and sits down beside him. This is about the only instance in which we see the hostility of the white community, but we do learn that the children paid a price for taking in a black teenager. When Leigh Anne hears of what is happening, she asks both of them whether she should Michael to seek care elsewhere, and both eagerly affirm that Michael should stay put.
The film could be regarded as a tract for white liberal do-goodism, and some critics have attacked it as one, with whitey coming to the aid of the poor, downtrodden black boy. However, it is a true story, and I believe it is saved by the integrity of the Touhy family. When someone compliments Leigh Anne for helping Michael, she replies that he has helped her far more. And this is something that everyone who has reached out to another always discovers. The film has been compared with another new film, also about a black teenager triumphing over her past oppression. Precious unreels with the girl commenting herself on the action, but the story of Michael cannot be told this way because he is almost mute because he is so inarticulate.
1. How do you feel about the charge that the film is part of the paternalism of white (some even say “racist” ) society? How must filmmakers be careful in telling the stories of whites helping blacks? What are some past films of this nature (such as Cry Freedom or The Soloist), and do you think they rise above this charge?
2. How does the title take on more than just its football meaning? Do you see any irony in Michael’s choosing Ole Miss as his college, or that both Touhy’s and their children seem so free of racism? In other words, what happened at the University of Mississippi in the 1960s?
3. As depicted in this film do you think that it is Michael’s poverty and neglect by his parents that is more important in his lack of progress than is racism?
4. Someone says to Leigh Anne, “You’re changing that boy’s life.” What do you think of her response, “No, he’s changing mine” ? How does this reveal that she is not at all self-righteous or overly proud? What effect does Michael have on the way the family celebrates his first Thanksgiving with them? What apparently has this Christian family allowed television to do to their family?
5. Leigh Anne exclaims one time that Michael “is Ferdinand the Bull!” What do you think she means by this? How is this children’s story worked into the film, and what does it contribute to our understanding?
6. What “moments of grace” do you see in the film? What do you think of Collin’s leaving her friends to join Michael at the cafeteria table?
7. Where is the cross involved in the Touhys’ taking Michael in? These are seldom shown, but come up when a parent is ta
lking with the children, and when Leigh Anne is socializing with her circle of friends. If they were somewhat dubious concerning her taking Michael in, what must have others in their upper crust society have been saying?
8. Given the results of the assistance given by teachers, tutor Miss Sue, and the Touhys, what ought this to say about other disadvantaged student often deemed as “unteachable” ? How are so many of our youth a lost resource for our nation?
9. Where do you see God at work in the film?