If you’ve been to the movies in the last half-century, you know the White Savior genre well. It’s the catalog of films that features white people single-handedly rescuing people of color from their plight. These story lines insinuate that people of color have no ability to rescue themselves. This both makes white audiences feel good about themselves by portraying them as benevolent messiahs (rather than hegemonic conquerors), and also depicts people of color as helpless weaklings — all while wrapping such tripe in the cinematic argot of liberation.
This, of course, is the backbone of Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” As historian Kate Masur recently wrote in the New York Times, it is yet another “movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States” but one in which “African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them.” The result, she writes, is a film that ignores actual events of the 19th century, “helps perpetuate the notion that African Americans have offered little of substance to their own liberation” and thus reinforces “the outdated assumption that white men are the primary movers of history and the main sources of social progress.”
Coming from Spielberg, this isn’t particularly surprising. He is, after all, the creator of one of the most unself-consciously archetypal White Savior movies of all time: “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” In that cartoonish adventure, a whip-wielding white archaeologist drops from the sky into India and quickly becomes the only person able to save destitute peasants from the rein of a tyrannical human-sacrificing cult.
Spielberg’s Abraham Lincoln is certainly a more nuanced character than Dr. Jones, just as his latest film is more sophisticated (if not as exciting) than the second iteration of his 1980s archaeologist-superhero franchise. In return, he has been rewarded with an Oscar nomination — but probably not just because “Lincoln” plays to the academy’s general love of historical drama. It also plays to Hollywood award organizations’ specific affinity for the White Savior.
Indeed, in the last quarter-century, 10 White Savior films have received major Hollywood award nominations, with fully half of those coming in just the last five years. In chronological order, here’s a look at them, and how they channel the same old story of white people saving the day for people of color who supposedly cannot help themselves.
Cry Freedom (1987)
Major Academy Award Nomination: Best Actor (Denzel Washington)
Richard Attenborough’s “Cry Freedom” purports to be the story of South Africa’s black anti-apartheid leader Steven Biko. However, as the Miami Herald noted at the time, it devolves into “a movie about black suffering in which the hero is white.” Specifically, the film focuses far more attention on white journalist Donald Woods (Kevin Kline) and his gradual appreciation for the anti-apartheid cause, ultimately culminating in his flight from the country in order to expose the atrocities to the world.
“This movie promises to be an honest account of the turmoil in South Africa but turns into a routine cliff-hanger about the editor’s flight across the border,” wrote Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert at the time. “It’s sort of a liberal yuppie version of that Disney movie where the brave East German family builds a hot-air balloon and floats to freedom. The problem with this movie is similar to the dilemma in South Africa: Whites occupy the foreground and establish the terms of the discussion, while the 80 percent nonwhite majority remains a shadowy, half-seen presence in the background.”
Mississippi Burning (1988)
Major Academy Award Nominations: Best Actor (Gene Hackman), Best Supporting Actress (Frances McDormand), Best Director (Alan Parker), Best Picture
Like “Cry Freedom” the year before it, “Mississippi Burning” uses the very real history of black struggle as a vehicle to promote the White Savior narrative. In the latter’s case, the struggle is that of civil rights organizers in the South, but the story is nonetheless about the white FBI agents who investigate the murder of those organizers, one of whom was black.
“Mississippi Burning” stands out in the White Savior catalog for two key reasons.
First, as the Chicago Reader noted at the time, it reimagined J. Edgar Hoover’s lily-white FBI as a heroic force for good in the civil rights struggle, rather than what it often was: either dreadfully inept or complicit in civil rights crimes.
Second, unlike many other directors who refuse to comment about their motivations, “Mississippi Burning’s” director, Alan Parker, was very open about why he deliberately White Savior-ized his film. As he told Time magazine:
Because it’s a movie, I felt it had to be fictionalized. The two heroes in the story had to be white. That is a reflection of our society as much as of the film industry. At this point in time, it could not have been made in any other way.
Whether or not you blame Parker for his decisions, the New York Times was correct in noting that his choice represented a larger — and self-fulfilling — consensus in Hollywood.
“Movie people seem to believe that whites would be alienated by serious dramatic films with black principals, no matter how compelling the story lines,” the Times’ Brent Staples wrote, in a perfect summary of why the White Savior genre persists.
Major Academy Award Victory: Best Actor (Denzel Washington)
In a sense, “Glory” was the ancestor of Spielberg’s “Lincoln”; sub in Capt. Robert Gould Shaw for President Lincoln, set the film right on the blood-soaked battlefield, and actually give a few African-American characters some personality, and you have Edward Zwick’s 1989 classic.
But while “Glory” is a far better film than “Lincoln” in no small part because it gives people of color some real screentime, the underlying White Savior message is the same: namely, that black people were only able to fight back against slavery thanks to the benevolence of some enlightened and privileged white people. The big difference is that in “Glory,” the White Savior succeeds only in harnessing the martial power of black soldiers, but not in actually winning those soldiers’ liberation. In the end, the entire regiment is sent to their graves in the battle to take Fort Wagner.
Dances With Wolves (1990)
Major Academy Award Nominations: Best Actor (Kevin Costner), Best Supporting Actor (Graham Greene), Best Supporting Actress (Mary McDonnell)
Major Academy Award Victories: Best Picture, Best Director (Kevin Costner), Best Adapted Screenplay (Michael Blake)
One of the major sub-categories of the White Savior genre is the “going native” narrative, and 1990′s “Dances With Wolves” is the modern era’s emblematic example. It is the story of a white Union soldier who fully embeds himself in the Sioux tribe and quickly becomes its primary protector. First, he leads the tribe’s defense against its hostile Pawnee rivals, then he helps them attempt to evade the Union army in which he once served.
Among the defining characteristics of “Dances With Wolves” — as it is with most “going native” stories — is the prominence of what has been called the Noble Savage. As TV Tropes describes it, that is a typically Native American “character who is, due to their race or ethnicity, a member of a barbaric or savage tribe (or a group simply perceived as such by others), who is nevertheless portrayed as nobler or of higher moral fibre than the norm.”
Because it portrays a few people of color in a positive light, the use of the Noble Savage caricature often preemptively blunts criticism of the underlying White Savior story. The idea is that a film like “Dances With Wolves” cannot be bigoted or overly white-centric if it at least shows Kicking Bird and Chief Ten Bears as special and exceptional. This, even though the whole story is about a white guy who saves the day.
The Last Samurai (2003)
Major Academy Award Nominations: Best Actor (Ken Watanabe)
Directed by “Glory’s” Edward Zwick, “The Last Samurai” is yet another film presenting the white Union army official as personally embodying the North’s Civil War effort to liberate people of color (see a pattern here?). In this iteration, the story is transferred to Japan, where Capt. Nathan Algren, scarred by his role killing off tribes in the American West, goes native with a band of old school samurais and leads them as they resist the repressive imperial government in Tokyo.
As if deliberately underscoring the White Savior notion, the official poster of the film is just a single picture of Cruise with the title “The Last Samurai” under him: a not-so-subtle message encouraging audiences to (wrongly) perceive the white guy — and not a Japanese person — as the last great leader of the ancient Japanese culture.
Gran Torino (2008)
American Film Institute Award: Movie of the Year
Clint Eastwood’s 2008 film pioneered a White Savior mythology that previously seemed impossible to render: a mythology whereby an old-school racist can simultaneously cling to his bigotry while also becoming the venerable protector of the people of color he insults.
If that seems oxymoronic, absurd and altogether shameless, that’s because it is; but that didn’t stop Eastwood from trying to pull it off. In the process, he delivers a film that hints at the bizarre fantasies of his fellow aging conservatives. Indeed, he seems to be arguing that we should not demand that bigots discard their overt prejudice because for many of them, underneath the coarse racism there is supposedly an honorable warrior who believes in truth, justice, the American Way — and racial fairness.
If only we would better understand these aging warriors, suggests “Gran Torino,” they might all miraculously turn into White Saviors.
The Blind Side (2009)
Major Academy Award Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress (Sandra Bullock)
Major Academy Award Victory: Best Actress (Sandra Bullock)
AfterElton.com calls this Sandra Bullock vehicle nothing short of “the most astonishing, egregious, most White Saviory White Savior Movie” in recent history. The label seems pretty accurate. As Complex.com notes:
In 2006, writer Michael Lewis’ book ‘The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game’ presented an in-depth and honest look at the tough road to success taken by Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Michael Oher….As written by Lewis, Oher’s story could make for one hell of a sports biopic.
And we’re still waiting for it. Director John Lee Hancock’s 2009 adaptation of Lewis’s book certainly isn’t that; no, ‘The Blind Side’ is actually a movie about Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock), the football-loving, white mother of two who took Oher into her home and looked after him during his high school and college years. Why? Because Hollywood loves a good white savior story, and ‘The Blind Side,’ which depicts Oher as little more than the black version of Lenny from ‘Of Mice And Men,’ is arguably the film industry’s most egregious example of reductively color-bland storytelling.
Major Academy Award Nominations: Best Director (James Cameron), Best Picture
“Avatar” is such a stereotypical White Savior flick that it earned the nickname “Dances With Aliens.” That label is well deserved, as the film offers up almost every lazy meme in the genre.
Tribe of nature-loving Noble Savages? Check. White spy who “goes native” with said tribe? Check. Spy has an enlightened epiphany and a subsequent change of heart, aligning him with the tribe against their evil enemies? Check. White guy unifies disparate tribes to fight their collective oppressors in a more powerful way than they ever have? Check.
But it goes even deeper than that. As The Progressive magazine put it:
Jake Sully, played by Sam Worthington, is the white hero who enters the Na’vi’s land, learns, in three months, all their secrets, becomes a super-Na’vi and is able to return and save them from the attack of his crazy nation’s warmongers. Jake is Cameron’s version of Tarzan, the white man who will save the “savages.” Jake is the only one who can successfully pray to the Na’vi’s mother goddess (Eywa). She hears him, not her own people’s prayers and grief.
District 9 (2009)
Major Academy Award Nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay (Neill Bomkamp, Terri Tatchell), Best Picture
At one level, “District 9″ is a stereotypical White Savior film much like “Avatar”; basically, it’s the story of a white government strongman with roots in South Africa’s apartheid culture going native with his country’s victims of apartheid. Only instead of those victims being black people, they are extraterrestrials known as “prawns.” Eventually, the savior helps free some of those victims so that they can escape, and the rest is history (well, until the expected sequel).
That said, io9′s Annalee Newitz identifies an important substantive distinction between James Cameron’s 3-D blockbuster and “District 9″ (emphasis added):
Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege. Jake never really knows what it’s like to be a Na’vi because he always has the option to switch back into human mode.
Interestingly, Wikus in District 9 learns a very different lesson. He’s becoming alien and he can’t go back. He has no other choice but to live in the slums and eat catfood. And guess what? He really hates it. He helps his alien buddy to escape Earth solely because he’s hoping the guy will come back in a few years with a “cure” for his alienness. When whites fantasize about becoming other races, it’s only fun if they can blithely ignore the fundamental experience of being an oppressed racial group. Which is that you are oppressed, and nobody will let you be a leader of anything.
This no doubt makes the latter a much more serious and harrowing film. Unlike so many other White Savior film, the savior in this picture never chose to become a part of the non-white minority. That is, he never reached some moment of benevolent enlightenment whereby he made a moral choice to help the group. On the contrary, even at the end of the film, he is motivated by his desperation to regain his white non-alien privilege (or, at least, body).
In this, “District 9″ courageously refuses to give white audiences the psychological satisfaction of moral superiority. That’s not to absolve the film of its White Savior roots, of course, but it is to suggest that it at least offered a more nuanced look at privilege than the typical White Savior schlock.
The Help (2011)
Major Academy Award Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress (Viola Davis), Best Supporting Actress (Jessica Chastain)
Major Academy Award Victories: Best Actress (Octavia Spencer)
Following in the footsteps of 1987′s “Cry Freedom,” 2011′s “The Help” refuses to just focus on black working-class struggle and instead makes the film a tale of the white writer/journalist’s quest to tell that story. As The New York Times’ Nelson George wrote, its “narrative is driven by (the white writer’s) journey from oddball college graduate to rebellious neo-liberal muckraker.”
It’s a subtle pivot, but it is important: By focusing as much or more on the white writer’s courage, talent and perseverance, it effectively turns her into the savior. It also makes a distinction between good White Saviors and bad White Bigots, thus forwarding a falsehood about how racism operates on a systemic level. As University of California professor Patricia Davis wrote in the New York Times:
There’s a problem, though, with (the movie’s) message. To suggest that bad people were racist implies that good people were not.
Jim Crow segregation survived long into the 20th century because it was kept alive by white Southerners with value systems and personalities we would applaud…(It is) a troubling falsehood: the notion that well-educated Christian whites were somehow victimized by white trash and forced to live within a social system that exploited and denigrated its black citizens, and that the privileged white upper class was somehow held hostage to these struggling individuals.
But that wasn’t the case. The White Citizens Councils, the thinking man’s Ku Klux Klan, were made up of white middle-class people, people whose company you would enjoy. An analogue can be seen in the way popular culture treats Germans up to and during World War II. Good people were never anti-Semites; only detestable people participated in Hitler’s cause.