It’s time to take the white savior out of slavery narratives

Did Brad Pitt really have to save the day in "12 Years a Slave"? We need a fuller, more complex view of history

Topics: 12 years a slave, white saviors, Race, slavery, brad pitt,

It's time to take the white savior out of slavery narrativesBrad Pitt in "12 Years a Slave"

In December of 1836, black abolitionist David Ruggles boarded a Portuguese slave ship in the New York harbor, freed its captives and had the white captain arrested. Tensions still ran high in the city from two years earlier, when whites had launched coordinated attacks against black businesses and neighborhoods in lower Manhattan. As the trial of the captain proceeded (he was never convicted), Ruggles barely escaped a kidnap attempt by a gang of slave traders in retaliation for his activism.

The story of Solomon Northup, which “12 Years a Slave” chronicles in heartbreaking detail, comes from a similar moment of American tumultuousness: White slave traders kidnapped Northup, a husband and father of two, and sold him to a Southern plantation. Northup languished for 12 years before secreting a letter to his people in Saratoga with a benevolent white man and securing his freedom.

“12 Years a Slave” is a stunning cinematic achievement. Director Steve McQueen attacks the brutality of slavery with an unflinching eye, spares us no detail of the degradation that white America inflicted on the people it considered its property. The performances, particularly of Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita N’yongo, are breathtaking; we feel the depth of each character with a few simple cinematic strokes.

About three-quarters through the movie, Brad Pitt suddenly shows up and, essentially, saves the day. Never mind that Pitt is also one of the film’s producers (an interesting contrast to Quentin Tarantino, who cast himself as an Australian slave trader in “Django Unchained.” But that’s a whole other essay). In this otherwise monumental and groundbreaking film, written and directed in the age of stop-and-frisk and “stand your ground,” of Trayvon and Aiyanna and Marissa and Renisha, did we really need yet another white savior narrative?

We absolutely did not.

Some have pointed out that it’s simply being true to the historical record of Northup’s life. But the creative process begins with selection: which narratives we decide to privilege over others matters. Our myths reveal mountains about who we are as a nation. Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” erased Frederick Douglass, reinforcing the tired notion that a singular white man, through the sheer force of his moral conviction, brought slavery to an end. In “Lincoln,” as in “12 Years,” this cliché not only hobbles the film’s cultural relevancy, it is a narrative failure as well. The story begins with Lincoln already having formed his opposition to slavery. Without the history of his relationship to Douglass, we have no idea how this president is willing to risk so much to pass the 13thAmendment. There is no inciting incident, no motivating factor: We are left with just a determined man. And the story suffers for it.

I agree with dream hampton that we need more, not fewer, narratives about slavery. As Roxane Gay writes, so much of these films’ cultural commerce depends on the spectacle of black suffering. The few victories we’re shown come almost exclusively at the deus-ex-machina-like intervention of a white savior, a painful irony considering the historical context. “12 Years” was brilliant in part for the depth and scope it afforded particularly the female characters. The film leaves you with the haunted feeling of having glimpsed shreds of so many stories, most tragic, some triumphant. This makes the final twist of more of the same all the more painful.

What would a cinematic aesthetic of American history look like without the white savior? Perhaps the myth of white American exceptionalism would begin to crumble. Filmmakers would have to struggle to find new ways of getting people of color out of tight situations. Unpredictability might ensue; creativity would thrive. Maybe we’d finally see a Harriet Tubman biopic, instead of a cheap joke video at her expense.

David Ruggles, whose audacious opposition to slavery covered decades and included direct action, legal recourses, community organizing and journalism, has all but disappeared in the shadows of history. His house was the newly escaped Frederick Douglass’ first stop upon arriving in New York City. A decade later, Ruggles saved Sojourner Truth’s life at a clinic in Northampton, Mass. He spoke about the sexual subjugation of black women and solidarity across the fault lines of gender and race, topics we wrestle with to this day. These are historical crossroads and struggles we need to know about and celebrate.

The U.S. culture machine has found the temerity to show our ugly history with brutal clarity. What resonates about slavery narratives is not just that mainstream white culture has worked so hard to avoid dealing with them; it’s that the mentality of subjugation persists in American culture. We’re still picking up the pieces, still moving from crisis to crisis. Unraveling today’s tragedies will always depend on a multilayered, intersectional understanding of our past. It’s time to let go of the same played-out savior game and unearth the lost heroic narratives of black freedom fighters.

Daniel José Older is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor and composer. Following the release of his ghost noir collection, Salsa Nocturna, Publisher’s Weekly declared Daniel a rising star of the genre. He has facilitated workshops on storytelling, music and anti-oppression organizing at public schools, religious houses, universities, and prisons. His short stories and essays have appeared in The New Haven Review,, PANK, Strange Horizons, and Crossed Genres among other publications. He’s co-editing the anthology, Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction From The Margins Of History and his forthcoming urban fantasy novel The Half Resurrection Blues, the first of a trilogy, will be released by Penguin’s Ace imprint. You can find his thoughts on writing, read his ridiculous ambulance adventures and hear his music at and @djolder.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...