Due to its strong white-savior sentiment, The Blind Side has long been a lightning rod for criticism. Now, a petition filed by Michael Oher, the man on whom the movie is based, adds new dimension to its problematic message. In court documents filed in Tennessee last month, Oher claimed that Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, the couple who allegedly adopted him, cornered him into signing a conservatorship and profited off his story for years. The Tuohys and several other entities involved in the movie’s making have denied Oher’s claims, and in September they filed a response in their defense. Here’s what both sides are saying.
Oher’s petition accused the Tuohys of manipulating and robbing him.
Oher, now a retired NFL player, wrote in the petition that the Tuohys took him into their home while he was a rising high-school football star, and in 2004 they offered to adopt him. He says they presented him with documents he was told were adoption papers, but that his signature actually made them his conservators. The alleged arrangement enabled them to legally do business — making the movie deal that eventually became the Sandra Bullock–led blockbuster, for example — in his name, even though he was 18. In court documents, Oher cited a contract where he appears to have signed his life rights to 20th Century Fox studios “without any payment whatsoever,” with the petition claiming that “nobody ever presented this document to him with any explanation.” The movie deal reportedly lists the same Creative Artists Agency representative for all of the Tuohys, while Oher’s agent is listed as Debra Branan, the same family friend who allegedly filed the initial conservatorship petition.
After the movie’s release, Oher wrote in his petition, the Tuohys and their two biological children each made over $225,000 plus 2.5 percent of net profits from the blockbuster hit. However, attorneys for the Tuohys said proceeds from the movie, which they claim came to about $500,000 in total, were split evenly between the couple, their two biological children, and Oher, with each person getting $100,000. Still, Oher claimed that he never received a cent, and started to suspect in the wake of The Blind Side’s success that the family was making more of a profit than they let on. Oher has also maintained for years that he disliked being portrayed as “dumb” in the film, and says its depiction of him hurt his career, sentiments he repeated in the new petition.
In the filings, Oher claims that after retiring in 2016, he finally hired a lawyer to look into his suspicions about the movie deal. The lawyer didn’t track down the conservatorship papers until February of this year, at which point he still believed he was the Tuohys’ adopted son. At 37, he allegedly learned his conservatorship did not amount to a formal adoption, and he was never a legal member of the family. Still, he points out in the petition, the Tuohys have consistently referred to him as their adopted son, continuing to profit off their alleged lie in promotional materials for their foundation and Leigh Anne’s motivational speaking career.
Now that Oher is pursuing legal action, he’s asked the court to end the Tuohys’ conservatorship and ban them from using his name and likeness. He’s also seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, on top of his share of the movie profits following a full and accurate accounting of the money the family earned using his name. “Discovering that he wasn’t actually adopted devastated Mike and wounded him deeply,” Oher’s lawyer, J. Gerard Stranch IV, wrote in the petition, adding that the realization “permanently fractured” his relationship with the Tuohys.
A few days after news of the lawsuit broke, Oher said in a statement to the New York Post that he felt “disheartened”: “This is a difficult situation for my family and me,” he said, asking the public to respect the family’s privacy. “For now, I will let the lawsuit speak for itself and will offer no further comment.” Shortly thereafter, attorneys for the Tuohys told reporters that the couple plans to end their conservatorship for Oher.
The Tuohys adamantly denied Oher’s claims and suggested he attempted to blackmail the family.
Responding to Oher’s filing in The Daily Memphian, Sean Tuohy said he and his family were “devastated” by its contents. “It’s upsetting to think we would make money off any of our children,” he said. “But we’re going to love Michael at 37 just like we loved him at 16.” Tuohy claimed he and his wife were under the impression that “the only way Michael could go to Ole Miss was if he was actually part of the family,” but were told they couldn’t legally adopt him at 18, so they set up the conservatorship to help Oher negotiate his recruitment deal. Tuohy also denied making money off the movie, though he admitted that Michael Lewis, the author of the book on which the movie is based, “gave us half of his share.” He claimed “everybody in the family got an equal share, including Michael. It was about $14,000 each.”
Tuohy’s biological son, Sean Tuohy Jr., also took issue with the amount of money Oher claimed the family made off the movie. “If I had two million dollars in my bank account,” he said, “it would be in my e-mail signature.” He estimated that he’s personally made “about 60 to 70 grand” from the 2.5 percent of net profits in the past four or five years alone.
“I get why he’s mad,” Tuohy Jr. said of Oher. “It stinks that it’ll play out on a very public stage.” He said he found it “hard to believe” Oher only learned about his conservatorship in February, also claiming he had family group texts where Oher said, “If you guys give me this much then I won’t go public with things.”
Marty Singer, an attorney representing Tuohy and his wife, echoed that sentiment. ET reports that Singer indicated Oher “threatened” to “plant a negative story about” the Tuohys “in the press if they did not pay him $15 million.” In a statement, the attorney called Oher’s claims “outlandish,” “hurtful,” “absurd,” and part of a “shakedown.”
“The idea that the Tuohys have ever sought to profit off Mr. Oher is not only offensive, it is transparently ridiculous,” he said. Nodding to the fortune Sean made from the sale of over 100 fast-food franchises — for a reported $213 million — Singer argued that the idea the couple would “connive to withhold a few thousand dollars in profit-participation payments from anyone — let alone from someone they loved as a son — defies belief.”
Michael Lewis backed up the Tuohys’ version of events.
In an interview with the Washington Post, the writer — whose other titles include Moneyball and The Big Short — claimed that the real villain in all of this is “the Hollywood studio system.” Lewis said he received $250,000 for 20th Century Fox’s option on his book, which he split evenly with the Tuohys. (He is, it bears noting, a childhood friend of Sean’s.) His profit on the deal came to about $70,000, he added, accounting for taxes and his agent’s cut.
Lewis and the Tuohys reportedly received another round of payments when a production company called Alcon — “backed by Tuohy’s neighbor, FedEx CEO Fred Smith,” per the Post — acquired the rights and wound up making the movie, with Warner Bros. as the distributor. Along with the movie’s cast, they purportedly got a portion of the film’s net profits, but although it made over $300 million at the box office, Lewis says he and the Tuohys only received $350,000. Lewis believes the Tuohys divided both sums between family members, Oher included, but alleged that when Oher turned down the royalties, they instead put them into a trust for his son. In Lewis’s opinion, the Tuohys “showered” Oher “with resources and love.”
“Michael Oher should join the writers’ strike,” Lewis said. “It’s outrageous how Hollywood accounting works, but the money is not in the Tuohys’ pockets.”
The Blind Side’s financial backers also denied Oher’s claims.
Just over a week after Tuohy filed his petition, the co-founders and CEOs of Alcon also came to the Tuohys’ defense. (Contrary to the Post’s information, Fred Smith appears to be an owner of Alcon but not its CEO.) In a statement circulated by Newswire, Andrew Kosove and Broderick Johnson painted their film as an underdog that “no major studio would make.” They emphasized the authenticity of the story, “regardless of the familial ups and downs that have occurred subsequent to the film.”
Kosove and Johnson also took issue with Oher’s claims about the Tuohys’ profits. “The notion that the Tuohys were paid millions of dollars by Alcon to the detriment of Michael Oher is false.” The founders estimated that their company had passed along $767,000 to “the talent agency that represents the Tuohy family and Michael Oher,” adding that both entities will continue to get “additional profits” in the years to come. They claimed to have also donated funds to the Tuohys’ charity foundation and said that Oher declined their offer to donate more money to a charity of his choosing.
“The best human characteristics displayed in The Blind Side might be easy to dismiss in the bizarro world of elitist film critique and social media cynicism,” Kosove and Johnson wrote. “However, in the real world, they form the basis of a healthy society and they ought to be celebrated. We are as proud of the film today as we were when our amazing collaborators made the movie 14 years ago.”
The Cut has reached out to Oher’s attorney, Stranch, who had no further comment beyond the content of the petition. We contacted Disney, which has since acquired 20th Century Fox, to verify the details of the contract Oher claims bore his signature. We have also attempted to contact the Tuohys and will update this post if we hear back.
Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy filed a response to the suit in court.
In September, the Tuohys responded to Oher’s claims in legal documents, reiterating that they became his conservators so that he could attend Ole Miss. While the Tuohys acknowledged referring to Oher as their son “in the colloquial sense,” they claim they never had plans to adopt him and didn’t mislead him to believe otherwise. The couple also indicated they were willing to end the conservatorship, calling Oher’s claim that he just found out about his conservatorship this year “demonstrably false” and pointing out sections of his 2011 book, I Beat the Odds, in which he allegedly talks about the arrangement.
The new filings also addressed the logistics of the family’s deal with 20th Century Fox, claiming that all deals went through Lewis and they never negotiated or signed any contracts with the studio, let alone one that was forged with Oher’s name. Per their side of the story, Lewis met with the family (including Oher) while he was selling the book, and everyone agreed that the movie’s subjects would each get 20 percent of the author’s proceeds, which turned out to be “something less than $225,000” in total — and Oher has already received his share.
Responding to the new documents, Oher’s lawyer told People that he and his client are “confident that the truth will prevail.”
This article has been updated.