the feel-good adoption movie I don't want to see

Lately I've been hearing a lot about the movie The Blind Side. It's coming out next month, and it's the story of a wealthy white family that adopts an African American teenager. Trailers are being passed around on adoption message boards, and many people have mentioned it to me, assuming I am excited about it, too.

I'm really not thrilled about this movie, for a number of reasons. For full disclosure, probably the number one reason is that it just isn't the type of movie I usually enjoy. I'm not big on the feel-good, tear-jerker genre of movies (unless there is singing and dancing). I tend to gravitate towards movies that are a little dark, a little brooding, a bit dysfunctional, and that don't wrap up with a happy bow at the end. You might be thinking that this is because I am cynical and prone to merriment at the misfortune of others. And to that I would say, you are right.

The part of this movie that troubles me on a philosophical level, though, is that it reinforces some of the savior narratives about adoption. The first thing I noticed when I watched the preview was that, with the exception of the main character, every black person in the movie is bad, and every white person in the movie is good. We see a female black relative who appears to be an addict, several thugs who threaten the mom, and even a sassy black social worker who further plays into stereotypes. Then, on the Great White Hope side, we see sacrificial parents, concerned friends, loving coaches, and encouraging tutors. The subtle message: if we can just get some of these kids away from BLACK PEOPLE, then they might have a chance.

I don't think I need to expound on the problem in that message. Do I?

And then there is the overt message that this teen is being saved by his adoptive parents. I can't remember where I saw this quote, but it has stuck with me: You can only save a child once. After that, it's called parenting. Adoption is not something people should do out of some sort of messiah complex. And of course, the main character gives the ubiquitous line, "We're not saving him, he's saving me." I might be guilty of having said something like this a time or two - but it's putting adoption into a simplified, quid-pro-quo kind of light: You take a kid out of the ghetto, and the kid will change your life and become a hero and shining star for the family. Parents who expect their kids to redeem them are in for trouble, adopted or not.

Ugh. And the football scholarship. So more people can look at transracial adoption as a way to get themselves a pro-ball player. Because, you know, all black people are naturally good at sports. Right, Spencer and Heidi?

Now, obviously, this movie is based on a true story, so I can't really criticize the plot, but I'm annoyed with the glossed-over presentation. I guess I just wish that a mainstream adoption movie could present the full picture in a more realistic light. Like the fact that many adoptive couples are not wealthy. Like the fact that continuing ties with the birth family are important. Like the fact that older adoptees will have some serious issues with bonding that don't go away with a hug and a pep talk. Like the fact that adoptive parents are not heroes, they are parents, and adoptive children don't owe them any more gratitude than bio kids do. Like the fact that bringing home a troubled homeless teen off the side of the road, when you have a teenage daughter and a young son, is a risky idea no matter how selfless and heroic it may seem.

For me, the best transracial adoption movie I've seen is a quiet little film called Lovely & Amazing, that takes an honest look at the identity issues an adoptee feels being raised in a loving yet typically dysfunctional family.

I haven't seen The Blind Side yet, so maybe I'm wrong. Maybe this movie does delve into the complex issues of attachment and race that doesn't end with a "love will solve everything" message. But I somehow doubt it.

EDITED TO ADD: When my husband read this post he said I was being too harsh. Probably true. And then he accused me of being biased just because it looks cheesy. Also true. I do think a pro-adoption movie is a good thing overall. I'm mostly balking at the savior narrative and the racial stereotypes. Also, I don't think it's unwise for people to adopt older children. I think it is a HUGE need. Just the whole "pick a person up off the side of the road and bring him home" scene bugs me, since they have no idea what his story is, haven't gotten a pyscho-social background or an idea of his mental health, etc. Maybe the movie explains that they knew more about him. That's the beauty of writing movie reviews on movies I haven't seen. I get to judge without being informed. But I don't want to give the impression that I think it's unwise to adopt older children. Couldn't be further from the truth. Just maybe use an agency instead of picking them up roadside?


  1. Oh I want to see Lovely & Amazing now! I think we have the same taste in movies. I don't expect much from Sandra Bullock (alas) but am sad to see Kathy Bate in that one. You've probably seen this Mad TV skit, right?

  2. i love movie reviews of movies not seen - they are my FAVE :) i agree wholeheartedly btw.


  3. Well, I do see your points. However I have been that "stupid" person. :) My husband and I took in two CC boys 12 and 14. Fostering older children is NOT even in the same ballpark as fostering/adopting babies. It's not something I would do again, but it is so so so needed. There aren't enough homes for these kids. There is not enough love anywhere for them. So if this movie wants to paint a positive image then I’m all for it. Sunday, October 18, 2009

  4. I just saw the trailer for this movie over the weekend when we went to see "Where the Wild Things Are" and I have to agree with you.

    Painting a pretty picture of adopting a homeless older child of a different race, can't be wrapped in a pretty bow. And Sandra Bullock sucks.

  5. this is cheesy as

  6. I went ahead and read the book this is based on (it's a true story and the student in question now plays in the NFL, though his voice is pretty much absent from the book) and I keep meaning to write a post about how explicit the family was about wanting to teach him white privilege. Even though the story has a happy ending, reading it gave me the creeps in a lot of ways.

    I gather the white family didn't actually adopt this boy legally, just managed to become his legal guardians. But one of their goals is to set up a "home" for black athletes, adopt them and teach them white privilege and, like with this boy, figure out how to circumvent NCAA rules to get them into colleges so they have a chance at pro careers. There was just layer upon layer of problematic stuff, and the young man himself was presented as almost literally a black box -- apparently he couldn't reasonably speak for himself, and so he NEEDED white people to tell his story for him.

    And yeah, the movie will almost certainly be more messy than the book because everything will be tied up in nicer and prettier and more self-satified bows. Sigh.

  7. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I was so irritated when I saw trailer in the theatre. How many times can Hollywood make the same movie? Dangerous Mind, Freedom Writers. They all have the same premise with a white woman swooping in to save a disadvantaged ghetto youth because their drug addicted (most likely minority) mother can't take care of her our kids.

    This movie gets a thumbs down from me. BTW, I love Sandra Bullock

  8. I love these kind of movies. Call me the cheesemeister. That said, I can understand the concern over the overt messages a movie like this can send. It is rare that you see a movie that embodies positive black stereotypes instead of all the negative ones!

  9. I saw the trailer for this and wanted to throw rocks for precisely the savior/stereotyping you noted. I think movies like this one do more harm than good. :(

  10. Anonymous6:52 PM

    i'm currently reading the book (warning: it's a LOT about football... my boss asked me if i wanted to read it, and i couldn't say 'no' because, well, he handles the promotions and raises, duh) and while i can see what you and others mean by "white privilege", i don't think that is their intent at all. that's how they live. that's what they know. they want to give him the best. were they naive and "stupid" at many points? yes. but holy crap has this story ended well so far (he plays for the baltimore ravens and is having an excellent rookie season.)
    as another person has said, it wasn't a technical adoption, but it is hard to fault a family for wanting to do good. and we live in a society where this is what people want to see in the theater. i loved "lovely and amazing" but it doesn't feature tim mcgraw.

  11. Anonymous6:42 PM

    The family has said they are not the saints here but that Michael was an amazing kid before he moved in. As Sean Tuohy said, "The best thing we did was not screw him up."

  12. We went to see "Blind Side" today, and frankly, we LOVED it.

    While Sandra Bullock usually doesn't seem to have a knack for picking films that do much to forward her career, she was fabulous as Leigh Ann Touhy, the real-life matriarch who took Michael Oher under her wing.

    We would agree that white privilege and racial stereotyping are valid concerns in any popular film featuring transracial adoption (ex: Losing Isaiah, et al).

    However, the "savior complex" is really not a prevalent theme in this movie; in fact, the movie seeks to depict circumstances in which the Tuohys themselves sought to dispel such misconceptions.

    While this is not actually an "adoption movie" given the fact that the Tuohys did not apparently legally adopt Michael (only seeking legal guardianship, reportedly due to the fact that he was 18 at the time), it is a film that depicts the power of family.

    (And just as pointedly, it dispels the argument we've heard so many Memphis adopters raise over the year, when they insist theirs "is not a community in which white people can take in children outside their race... much as we wish we could.")

    Not everyone can do what the Tuohys did. Not every child can adapt as Oher did. But for those who can and for those who do, it is a story worth celebrating, and aptly released during National Adoption Month, this movie does just that.

  13. I'm in the "whole-heartedly agree" camp, without ever having seen it. I posted a similar review on my blog. The White savior theme really chaps my hide!

  14. thoughts...almost everything you quoted or mentioned in your "review" of this movie was inaccurate. jamie and i saw it tonight, and thought it was a good movie. there was not an overwhelming "great white hope" side of things. actually, there were equal numbers of white teachers, friends of family, etc that were rooting against the kid. and the family didn't have a "savior mentality." they even address that as one of the main questions from the family in the end, "are we doing this for him or for us?"

    i understand being disgruntled with how easily adoption (and other justice issues) is painted as risk-free or easy in our current culture. BUT, i don't understand how we can knock a true story. or knock someone that did see a need in front of them (a boy walking down the road that didn't have a place to sleep or live) and responded to it. i don't understand how that's a bad thing to make a movie about a real story that involves difficulty AND a happy ending?

    impossible to review a movie without seeing it.

  15. I have not seen the movie yet but I did see a clip of the "real" story on ESPN GameDay some time ago. I cannot wait to see this film. I have not been a part of any adoption process so I cannot speak for that. However, I also do not believe that all adoptions must go through and agency and be formal. Part of what I absolutely love about this story is the notion of someone who has love to give taking a chance on someone who needs it. Sometimes people just take a chance and it works. Would it have been better if this family had not taken him in? Who does that help? I realize that it is not all sunshine and roses but I applaud anyone who sees someone in need, knows that they can help, and does so.

  16. This post is probably really old and you will never notice my comment now, but I have to say that while the movie is indeed cheesy in a way, it did not ever occur to me that white people were rescuing the boy from black people. I saw poverty as the problem in his life, not race. However, I may be incredibly naieve because I have almost 0 experience with racism and stereotypes like you mention. So I saw the movie/storyline a little differently than you. Interesting post/review, it's good to think about such things.

  17. I dont know. I am going to be the weird one here and disagree. I mean I see your point, but I didnt get that feeling from the movie at all. First of all the instances are based on a true story so much of it isnt meant to make something look a certain way... i dont think.

    There are plenty of bad white people in the movie. The snotty rude friends she has lunch with. The ignorant relative calling to ask if they knew there was a black boy in their family picture. The teachers who wished Michael wasnt in their school and complain about his aptitude. And lets not even talk about the evil men he was playing football against who said ignorant things. Also the coach initially seemed like a jerk.

    And Michael wasnt the only "good" black person they showed. For example his brother who they see working in the restaurant trying to make a better life for himself and to me seemed like a sweet loving guy. Also the man who let Michael sleep on his couch, and then fought for them to let him into the school. We also got to see a sweet side to Michaels mom when mrs toohey went to talk to her. and michael tells about how his mom tried to protect him from seeing things. the lady grilling him about his football career actually turned out nice in the end when he started answering questions honestly. And lets not even talk about how awesome Michael is, and I think the focus was much more on him than the family. Michael rising above his circumstances (not financially) but becoming more than what the kids on the block did.

    When the movie ended I was in love with Michael Oher not the Toohey family. I am an avid Michael Oher Ravens fan now (much to my husbands chagrin). The movie showcased his ability to shut out the bad things that happened and turn his energy into love and protection for those he loves. I thought the movie was much more about how Michael made something of himself and chose to work hard and study hard rather than turning into a drug dealer like his friend.

    I mean I definitely see where you are coming from but I am not so sure I saw the movie that way. But then again i cant stand dark heady films and love a good feel-good any day. LOL.


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