Oh Come All Ye White Saviors

machine gun preacherLast week, Salon magazine’s David Sirota penned an article titled, “Oscar Loves a White Savior.” In it, Sirota noted that “If a movie features white people rescuing people of color from their plight, odds are high an Oscar will follow”–singling out current Oscar contender Lincoln and showing ten others in the past three decades that have done much the same. On some sites, and even CNN, the article was met with surprise, shock and (of course) spasms of denial. However, if anyone is unaware of the white savior motif, which has become a Hollywood staple, it’s only because of its troubling normalcy.

I knew white saviors when I saw them, even before they’d been properly named. My parents were the ones who awakened my criticisms. They’d taken me to see Cry Freedom and left grumbling that a film ostensibly about Steven Biko and apartheid South Africa seemed oddly focused on a white journalist. They left equally annoyed at Mississippi Burning, a movie about the Civil Rights movement where the FBI–notorious “negrophobe” J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI no less–were the heroes, saving wide-eyed and frightened colored folk from the local corrupt constabulary. In fact, it seemed much of my youth was filled with white saviors–whether it was Kevin Costner “going native” in Dances With Wolves, Dennis Quaid saving Zammis and the other Dracs from galactic slavers in Enemy Mine or Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones swashbuckling about the globe and using a whip (a white man with a friggin’ whip!) to strike fear and awe into the darker hordes of the world.

And, even more frustrating, after all these years, this trope hasn’t ended. In fact, it’s only increased!

David Sirota in his article goes through ten films, because they were recent Oscar contenders. But all one has to do is look up the term and you’ll see lists that run into the dozens throughout the interwebs. They even have sub-genres. There are Civil Rights White Savior films–Mississippi Burning, the Medgar Evers Story and The Help are a few examples. There are the Save the Natives White SaviorsDances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, Avatar, etc. There are the time-tested Urban White Teacher SaviorsDangerous Minds, Finding Forrester, The Principal, Freedom Writers, etc. And let’s not forget the Great White Saviors of Slaves, who have graced every major Hollywood film on American slavery–Glory, Amistad, Lincoln, and Lincoln with vampires. Even the absurdist fantasy Django Unchained, can’t help “chaining” its “one-in-ten-thousand-nigga” to a white savior, in the form of the wily Dr. Schultz. No place on earth however seems to have more white saviors per square inch than Africa, who dot the continent, flitting on their fairy white gossamer wings from crises to crises. Bruce Willis leads army troops in a near-future Africa to protect civilians in Tears of the Sun. Even unscrupulous white guys can transform themselves into white saviors in Africa according to films like Blood Diamond. As if trying to top this theme of ridiculous, Gerard Butler runs around Sudan, gun in hand, as the Machine Gun Preacher.

machine gun preacher

seriously. this happened. and we let it happen.

And let’s not delude ourselves that these notions of white saviors are confined to the celluloid screen. Taking Africa as an example, there is an entire movement based on an ideological strain in the West that the continent is in need of “saviors.” You see it in well-meaning but wince-worthy images of celebrities in face-paint declaring “I am African,” or journalist Nicholas Kristof’s never-ending crusade of paternalism that has earned him the derisive nickname, the Great White Savior. The aforementioned Machine Gun Preacher is based on the alleged “true” life story of Christian nationalist biker gang member and former drug dealer Sam Childers, who found Jesus, journeyed to East Africa to build homes, and then picked up arms to fight local militias as a white Tarzan vigilante–though the veracity, morality and exaggeration of his claims and tactics has come under fire.The most recent and flagrant offender was the related exploitative Kony 2012, part of what writer Teju Cole dubbed “The White-Savior Industrial Complex.” (This complex bleeds over onto POC who live in the West as well; the “I Am Africa” campaign was started in part by Somali-born model Iman).

So what gives? Why do white savior films seem both so prevalent in Hollywood and resistant to criticism? David Sirota is certainly not the first person to write on this topic. People of color have been groaning over such films for decades. Articles, blogs and tumblrs bemoaning the trope dot the interwebs. Academics and media critics have written entire articles and books on it. The answer is–you. And by you, I mean white people.

Yes. You random white person who has stumbled upon this blog. You are to blame for this never-ending onslaught of white saviors. Wait. Hear me out…

Thedor Adorno in his Marxist-derived writings on the culture industry, posits that much of what we term popular culture, in its sameness and repeated tropes, is not a matter of mere coincidence or chance. Rather, Adorno suggests that we live in a world where media, and the technology to develop it, rests in the hands of a few elites, who thus use it to manipulate the masses. There are valid criticisms to Adorno’s theories, most notably in perhaps over-stating the hegemonic control of these elites and not taking into account resistance; yet at its base, Adorno’s premise lays out an understanding that the images and symbols that we consume from mass media are rooted in both politics and economics. In the case of films, especially those produced through Hollywood, there are political and economic motives to securing both funding and distribution. You don’t just walk up and say, “I have an idea for a film” and someone hands you a bag of money. Films often reflect what the industry believes will drive profits; what the industry believes the audience wants; and this in turn is all filtered through what many of those gatekeepers often “group think” themselves into believing people want to see.

White Saviors are on the top of the list. We keep on seeing them, because Hollywood believes that is what the majority of moviegoers want to see. And who do they think of as the majority of moviegoers? White people, I’m talking to you again. Hollywood works on a built-in mechanism that says it has to please its large white movie going audience. In earlier days, this could mean cutting out a scene of black actor Bill “Bojangles” Robinson dancing up the stairs with a pre-adolescent Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel, because it might upset white male Southerners weird psycho-sexual hangups. Whole entertainment scenes were sometimes filmed with black figures who could be easily spliced out and left as disembodied singing voices, simply to conform to the varying regional sensibilities of white movie goers. This trend, which keeps Hollywood’s cast majority white with a few splashes of color, generates white saviors often to either give white audiences a reference point they are comfortable with, or to soothe white guilt when addressing a touchy subject.

Can’t have a Hollywood film about the Japanese or Native Americans without some white savior figure. How can white audiences possibly be expected to sit through a whole film with swarthy people and their strange customs and dialects if there’s no white interlocutor? Nobody wants to hear about what some black or Latina kids did–unless there’s a white teacher who braves this fierce Blackboard Jungle to save them, from themselves. How can we possibly touch on topics as controversial as slavery or Civil Rights or South African apartheid if there’s no noble white savior with who white audiences can wash away all their angst and guilt? Why we’d need fainting couches and smelling salts in all the theaters, what with white folk fainting away from their troubled consciences!

Of course, the rebuttal usually is–“well aren’t some of those movies true?” And the answer is, no. There is no noble savage blue-skinned Afro-Native-American-Pacific Islander race called the Na’vi in which a white man (who at first betrayed them and near got their civilization destroyed) returns to lead them against his one-time (mostly) white brethren, manages to talk to their God AND disrupts their entire cultural traditions by running off with the native girl…managing to conveniently have her intended husband plunge to his death in a hail of gunfire. No white man has ever taught and led some “native” colonized group of people to overcome their oppressors (who also happen to be white) in the history of colonized people struggling against their oppressors. THAT, is a pure fantasy of the highest white savior order.

And guess what, it’s still a “no” when it did kinda happen. That is, of course there have been white people who have been allies of POC in varied struggles–from abolitionists to well-intentioned missionaries to Freedom Riders. But the larger story, still isn’t their story. And the very choice (because make no mistake, it is always a choice) to focus on that white person, or bring in their perspective as central to the story, is a bias in favor of whiteness. And it is a bias predicated on this notion that these stories must be told from the white savior’s point of view. Lincoln was a pivotal figure in ending American slavery; no denying that. But he didn’t do it alone. In fact, he had to be pushed by numerous other people–from black abolitionists and activists to slaves who ran in droves to Union lines. The creators of Lincoln were well aware of this. It took them twelve years to come up with a script that could have focused on any aspect of Lincoln’s life. One of those would have been greatly focused on the relationship between Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. A choice was made not to go with that perspective. Instead, a film was made about the inner-workings of Lincoln’s political wrangling of the 13th amendment; as only white men held political office in Washington DC at the time, the film became inherently one about great white men. Historical whiteness translated into cinematic whiteness, giving us a great white savior, with black bodies idly waiting, by-and-by for deliverance–convenient both politically and economically for mass white consumption.

In fact, even when a white savior should not appear at all, Hollywood yearns and pressures its creators for one. Director Haile Gerima says that when he was making his indie slavery-based film Sankofa, he could get no Hollywood distribution because the execs kept asking him where was the white figure to “open up” the story for mainstream (white) audiences? When Melvin and Mario Peebles went seeking funds for the movie Panther, they were urged repeatedly to create a white savior out of whole-cloth–a young Tom Cruise type figure who could play a professor from Berkley who “taught” the Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton their political know-how. Actor Danny Glover, in his several decades quest to make a movie on the Haitian Revolution, stated he was turned down by Hollywood producers because his film pitch lacked “white heroes.”

This is not to say that there are no Hollywood films that buck this tradition. A precious few do–but they are often relegated to being movies geared toward certain ethnic groups. So films like Stand and Deliver are billed as a “Latina movie;” or those like The Great Debaters, are “black movies.” Meanwhile, white savior films of the same ilk are meant for all-American mass consumption–and distributed that way.

Let’s try some alternate history. Imagine for a moment every white savior film you’ve ever seen, and picture it as told from the point of view of the POC who were so in need of rescuing. Imagine it with the white people, whether real or imaginary, either in the background or gone altogether. Imagine instead films focusing on the untold numbers of black or Latina teachers who work in those same urban schools, rather than some well-intentioned white savior. Imagine a major Hollywood story set in Africa or with Native Americans or any “others” where all the POC are the main actors, and white people aren’t. Imagine what dynamic stories would be told! Imagine what new voices we’d hear! Imagine me not writing another one of these damn blogs about this same issue over and over again!

Do you like what you see? Then YOU white people, YOU should do something about it. Stop supporting these movies. Speak up about them if you haven’t. Convince Hollywood that continuing in the tradition of white savior films will not make them money. Convince them that you are not all frail daisies that might wilt away without this ridiculous trope. Convince them that you want to see something else, something new and refreshing.Yes, in the ultimate irony of this post, I am asking you to be the white saviors Hollywood says you are–and save us all from these damn movies!

Meanwhile, at indie and alternative film festivals from ABFF to AAIFF to FESPACO, POC will be screening our own indie films–nary a white savior in sight–because you can’t expect us to just wait on you to save us.

*Note- I have no idea where Oscar winner Argo–a story of a white savior saving white people from hordes of shouting and angry exotic “others–fits into this trope. Just too much going on there.

Update- from youtube, a remix of white saviors and exotic others–from Avatar to Amistad to Blood Diamond and beyond–done by Craig Saddlemire and Ryan Conrad. Thanks NinaG for putting me on!


16 thoughts on “Oh Come All Ye White Saviors

  1. Fainting couches and smelling salts though! LOL!!!
    I absolutely agree that white folks need to do some reflection about this and take action. I remember when Avatar came out. I watched the trailer with a friend (who is a white male and a Marxist). We had completely different reactions. I rolled my eyes so damn hard while he cheered on the idea of an anti-imperialist movie coming to mainstream audiences. Without even knowing the phrase, It was so clearly a white savior movie to me. He resisted my viewpoint until some of his comrades argued a point similar to mine and even then I don’t think he took the critique very seriously. It’s so frustrating when progressive white folks don’t even get it.
    Have you seen Avatar Remix? It’s a 5 minute video on YouTube that places several white savior moments in film in one reel.

    • Okay, first, just watched that Avatar Remix–one of the most awesome damn things I have ever seen. Updating this blog with that. Thank you!

      On Avatar, I think the issues about some “not seeing” what was so obvious is part and parcel of the way the white savior trope has been normalized. In Avatar’s case, James Cameron crowed and sang and patted himself on the back for making a film that was anti-colonial. And sure, that part of the film is hard not to root for. But Cameron, in his assurance that he has done something “good” for the poor natives, can’t see past his own role as a white savior; can’t bother to wonder what stories those poor natives might tell rather than telling the story *for them;* can’t even imagine that the poor natives might be able to organize and struggle on their own; can’t see a world where some Occidental savior doesn’t play a role. I think you can apply these preconceptions and remarkable bouts of navel-gazing for the prevalence for this trope throughout varied genres in Hollywood. Add in these economic concerns about the frail sensibilities of white audiences, and you have a perfect match.

    • Yeah, lots of white people recognize this nonsense and do not think these movies are Oscar worthy. I remember seeing Dances With Wolves and thinking how ridiculous it was in the end when he basically out Indianed the Indians. The trope is definitely in one too many movies and it doesn’t do anything to help bridge racial divides. I can’t help but wonder if non white people think white people buy into the shit or if they think white people are just OK with it since it paints us in a powerful light. I don’t know. Just boycott Hollywood, that’s what I do

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  3. Aaah …. So *that* explains why on earth Morpheus needed Neo to save the world; I’d wondered why someone with his displayed abilities would need to recruit some twerp to save everyone

    • yes. of note, Will Smith was first offered the role of Neo. makes you wonder, would the studios have greenlighted a film with two black lead male roles? or might they have needed a white Morpheus? might they have felt the need to turn Trinity into a POC, which wold have then given us three POC as the main role? would the movie have been advertised and distributed the same way? would it have done as well? when we think of the complexities of race in our society in a political sense, and marry that to economic incentives, i’m not sure what the answers to those questions might be.

  4. We tend to blame directors and screenwriters for continuing this rubbish, but the positive reinforcement they get from mainstream society pretty much makes it a given that the genre of white savior films is not going away. How much has Avatar made so far? These pictures seem to rocket to the top of the box-office whenever they appear lifted up by all the positive critical acclaim they recieve. This in a culture where a P.O.C. as a protagonist generally means being relegated to minority film hell regardless of the nature of the film, at worst it means a film that always seems to garner harsher criticism than other films of its type, as if it’s hardwired into the mainstream to start picking apart any film that doesn’t “follow the rules. ” If it’s not about white people, then it can’t be good.” seems to be the consensus. I don’t know what the solution is except for p.o.c. filmmakers to just take the hit budget-wise until a generation of film viewers of educated enough to appreciate non-stereotypical entertainment, and to see the Hollywood stuff for what it is.

    • well said. it is a conundrum. on the one hand it seems naive to wait for Hollywood and society to create a regular series of major films with POC as the main characters, devoid of white saviors or interlopers. yet on the other hand, we know such films are being made by POC filmmakers–but they get such little distribution or acknowledgement (beyond the insular indie world of film) they have little chance of altering the dynamics on a significant level. i think in the end a mult-pronged approach is needed, that use both tactics.

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  7. Yeah, lots of white people recognize this nonsense and do not think these movies are Oscar worthy. I remember seeing Dances With Wolves and thinking how ridiculous it was in the end when he basically out Indianed the Indians. The trope is definitely in one too many movies and it doesn’t do anything to help bridge racial divides. I can’t help but wonder if non white people think white people buy into the shit or if they think white people are just OK with it since it paints us in a powerful light. I don’t know. Just boycott Hollywood, that’s what I do

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