Why do we still have white savior movies? June 12, 2020
So I’m a pretty liberal person but I don’t agree with everything progressives say, mostly in regards to movies. But there is one thing I do agree on…why do we still have white savior movies?
The Blind Side.
The Last Airbender.
By that, I don’t mean movies where black and white people team up and help each other out.
I mean movies centered moreso on the white person that has them saving the person of color or other type of minority (or the analogue for people of color or other type of minority) from being oppressed in one way or another.
If these narratives were from movies from 50 years ago, it would be one thing. But there are movies that are only a few to ten years old that have these narratives.
The Blind Side is based on a true story. But the movie makes it look like Michael Oher was completely useless, did everything people told him to do, and had no ambitions of his own until he was adopted by Sandra Bullock and she and her family convinced him to get into Football.
In real life, yes, Michael Oher was adopted by a white family but he was a much more independent, extroverted person than the movie portrayed him as and he got himself into Football. You can read more about how the movie fumbled Oher’s story here: https://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/blindside.php https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-blind-side-michael-oher_n_7608988
They took the inspirational story of a real man, a famous football player, about how he himself worked hard to get out of poverty and turned it into a story about how white people saved him from being poor. In 2009.
And unfortunately, this trend hasn’t really ended.
In 2017, Hidden Figures was mostly able to subvert the white savior narrative and had the three main ladies as much more extroverted, intelligent, independent women who were not afraid to fight for their rights to be treated as equals at NASA. And, mostly, the movie shows them enacting change.
BUT the movie kinda flirted with having a white savior character in the form of Kevin Costner’s character, who was shown having to be the one to give permission for them to use the bathroom and watch the spaceship landing in the control room. If this was true, it would be one thing, but his character didn’t exist. Katherine Johnson basically used the whites only bathroom herself one day and she nor her team were ever able to go into the control room.
While the movie wasn’t a complete white savior narrative, it’s kind of sad they had to have a white guy be the one to save them in albeit just two scenes, rather than just show the events as they existed, which would’ve been much more impactful.
And, of course, there’s The Greatest Showman, where circus performers that are a mix of physically disabled people and people of color are shown as basically having a shitty life and are only able to get the respect they deserve when they are employed by…P.T. Barnum?
And, like The Blind Side and, to a lesser extent, Hidden Figures, that movie made its characters seem a lot more reliant on P.T. Barnum than they really were. In real life, some of these performers, like Tom Thumb/Charles Stratton and Chang and Eng, the two conjoined twins, actually managed to find success outside of Barnum’s management. Look it up. Hell, remember the scene in that movie where the circus burned down? Remember how Zac Efron, whose character, like Kevin Costner’s, didn’t even exist in real life, was the one to pay for a new building? Well in real life it was actually Tom Thumb, who had become so successful he used his fortune to be able to pay for the damages and get a new building for Barnum.
Weird how a movie that claims to promote body positivity can’t possibly imagine someone who doesn’t look like Zac Efron being able to save the day. Even when it’s true.
Now granted this is technically more an example of an abled savior than a white savior, given both men are white, but still, no matter who it is, it’s one thing to be historically inaccurate. But it’s another thing when you take both the struggles or achievements of one person and either erase them or give said achievements to another person entirely. Yet when it’s the achievements of an actual person who is considered a minority, be it they are people of color, they’re not a man, they have a disability, what have you, and not only give it to someone else but someone who else is not considered a minority, like Kevin Costner, Zac Efron, or even Sandra Bullock despite being a woman, it gives off the feeling that the filmmakers themselves think general audiences can’t possibly imagine someone who isn’t a good looking white person, usually a man, being the savior.
It’s even worse when they take a true story that kind of comes off as a bit white savior-y and make the person white.
Look at Freedom Writers. The character Hilary Swank played was actually Latina. However, they made her white. And the plot is a teacher inspiring her students, thus kind of making her a white savior. Especially when, in real life, it was more a Latina woman saving a class filled with people of color not a white woman.
Of course, white savior narratives have also popped up a lot in fiction as well.
People could point to Avatar as a movie where a white guy saves a bunch of aliens that are obvious stand-ins for Native Americans.
But there are also two anime adaptations, Dragonball Evolution and The Last Airbender.
In Dragonball Evolution’s case, most of the main characters were Asian but Goku was changed to a white guy. And, remember, he’s supposed to be the guy that’s going to save the world in this movie.
The Last Airbender really doubled down on the white savior narrative as most of the supporting actors and extras were of either Southeast or East Asian descent yet the three main characters, the three characters that were going to save everyone, were played by white people.
This movie is only 10 years old.
And of course, anime adaptations are hardly the only examples. The Help is technically a fictional movie. Granted they might have stolen the likeness of a real woman for one of the characters (https://abcnews.go.com/Health/lawsuit-black-maid-ablene-cooper-sues-author-kathryn/story?id=12968562) but most of it is fictional.
And, while I can’t say I’ve read the book, I have seen the movie. And Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer’s characters are depicted as intelligent, independent women not afraid to call out their employees on their bullshit, even before Emma Stone steps into the picture.
Hell, remember the poop pie scene? That happened pretty early in the movie.
But nothing they say or do has much in the way of social change. It’s only when Emma Stone writes a book about their experiences does any sort of social change starts, as it becomes a bestseller, and people become more aware of the abuse the maids are facing.
And the movie ends with the implication that big changes are going to start thanks to Stone’s book. I love Stone and all but, if it wasn’t for her character, racism would’ve still been utterly and completely alive and well where she, Octavia Spencer, and Viola Davis, amongst others, live.
Emma Stone pretty much starts a Civil Rights movement. Think about that.
I don’t think the filmmakers mean anything when they portray the white person as basically saving minorities or anyone else considered a social outcast. Many of the movies I mentioned paint themselves as feel-good movies about how racism or prejudice is bad.
But it comes off as condescending. I think they’re trying to portray these issues as “we can work together, no matter what race we are”. But when you paint one member of a certain race, gender, etc. as the savior in the scenario, it comes off less as equality and more as if you’re saying that it is up to one race, gender, to pretty much save the day. And, saying this as a white person, when that happens to be a white person (albeit a cognitively disabled one), it gives off really unfortunate implications considering we are right now the majority of the population.
And when these narratives are fictional, it’s bad enough. But, again, when you are taking the stories of a real person and giving their accomplishments to an abled, white person, it does come off like they can’t think the audiences could stand seeing someone who isn’t a white, abled, good looking person come out on top once in a while.
And, well, this is bullshit because we have been getting more stories with people of color where they don’t need white people to come in and save the day but rather are able to save themselves. Or we just get movies where they’re portrayed as people and they are able to save the day.
Black Panther didn’t need a random white guy to save Wakanda.
Crazy Rich Asians didn’t need a random white guy to bring Constance Wu and Henry Golding together.
Girls Trip didn’t need a random white guy to…umm…bring the ladies to Vegas?
Point is there are plenty of examples of successful movies starring people of color where they have plenty of agency and are able to help themselves out. So the fact that there are still filmmakers today out there who think they need someone from the majority race to help save them from racism or poverty or what not is kinda sad honestly.
The same thing is true for anyone, not just people of color. Again why does The Greatest Showman, a movie where disabled people have to be saved by two white guys exist when literally the same year brought us Wonder, a movie where a physically disabled kid (albeit one played by a non-physically disabled child) was able to fight for equality mostly by himself, with only minor assistance from his family and teachers?
It’s just not necessary.
Again, as a white person, I have no problem having white people and people of color being portrayed as working together to fight racism or help each other out with whatever situation they are in. This is true for any minority population. As long as they are portrayed as equals, of course that is a-okay with me. But when the movie presents someone as a “savior”, it doesn’t come off as equality.
And many times it comes off more as a white person acting as a “savior” than it does true equality. It says something that Blazing Saddles, a movie people keep saying is “too racist to be made today” (despite the fact that all the white people saying the N word are the bad guys) has a more respectful way to show a black guy (Cleavon Little) and a white guy (Gene Wilder) fighting racism as they fight racism together rather than Wilder being seen as the hero.
Also, the white savior trope is just a really dated narrative device that, honestly, we should’ve stopped using decades ago.
chris-lang says: June 14, 2020 at 2:03 am I tend to agree. When we see lots of movies where minorities are able to take the lead and save themselves, the ‘white savior’ trope no longer makes sense. It might have made sense decades ago (just as rose-tinting the old American South might have made sense back in the days of Gone With the Wind and Song of the South), but it certainly doesn’t today.
Of course, the Oscars have been especially insulting. In a year where there were several movies (including ‘Black Panther’) where the black people save themselves, it was a white savior movie (‘Green Book’) that won Best Picture. Seemingly, keeping a condescending trope alive won it the extra points needed.
mraspiringactor says: June 14, 2020 at 2:33 am Here here! I agree with everything you said!