Ok, let’s face it. Hollywood loves the white savior narrative. It's a trope that has been used countless times since the '50s. The typical backstory of a white savior movie involves a white (usually male) protagonist saving a person of color (or sometimes tribal extraterrestrials) from some horrific plight - a plight that the person of color was unable to get out of by themselves. In the cases where a film represents true events, the film ends up oversimplifying and giving people of color passive roles in history. In essence, this trope is incredibly limiting and stale. Also, the whole white-person-as-mentor-sensei-to-a-person-of-color-who-can't-take-care-of-themselves narrative is almost nauseating at this point.
Seriously, how many times is the storyline of a white teacher motivating inner-city youth going to be used? How do I reach these kiddddsss?
So, below you have a list of the worst examples of white saviors in film history. Try not to roll your eyes, and be warned, many spoilers are ahead. Though these films are probably spoiled enough for you anyway.
While The Blind Side is a true-story, it’s on screen portrayal is almost sickening with its endless amounts of clichés. In the film, Sandra Bullock plays Leigh Anne Tuohy, a trophy wife who, out of the kindness of her southern belle heart, took in an enormous, homeless black teenager named Mike Oher.
The infuriating thing was that the film was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 2010. Sandra Bullock also won Best Actress for her role in it. But the film was simply not good. Mike Oher was too timid and too thankful to the Touhys. Leigh Anne was too loud, in both appearance and demeanor. It all seemed like a bad sitcom.
“Blind Side the movie peddles the most insidious kind of racism, one in which whiteys are virtuous saviors, coming to the rescue of African-Americans who become superfluous in narratives that are supposed to be about them,” said film critic Melissa Anderson from The Village Voice.
Been spending most our lives living in a... world of cheesy bad movies, and that is Dangerous Minds to a T. The acting was bad (Pfeiffer was okay); the dialogue was vapid; and it got a lousy 1.5 stars from Ebert. But what's most annoying is how overused the “how do I reach these kids” narrative is. This is another true story, based on the 1992 book by ex-marine turned rebel teacher, LouAnne Johnson: My Posse Don’t Do Homework. The real LouAnne Johnson had a problem with how the makeup of the class was portrayed in the movie.
“In my class, the kids were evenly mixed: black, white and Hispanic,” she told The Guardian. “In the movie they made it all minority kids with a token white kid here and there. That perpetuates this myth that only minority kids are at risk, and that white kids don’t have any problems.”
At least we got one good thing out of it: Coolio’s "Gangsta’s Paradise." Oh, and also maybe the best parody song in the world out of that.
#38 on The Best Fictional Teachers
You may not think about Avatar as being a white savior film right off the bat, but it most certainly is one. A disabled, white marine by the name of Jake Sully infiltrates a tribal alien society with an avatar and all of a sudden he is more Na’vi than the actual Na’vi on Pandora. The film was breathtaking, but it doesn't just produce a white savior; Avatar gives viewers a white messiah. Jake is “the one” who has tamed wild beasts even the most experienced Na’vi warriors haven’t been able to overcome. He then goes on to save the entire race of Na'vi from the very people he conveniently chooses to not identify with anymore. He’s like the Rachel Dolezal of outer space.
David Brooks, writer at the New York Times, explained how films like Avatar strip away the accomplishments of others: “[the movie] creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration,” he said.
How would Arabs defeat the Ottoman Empire if it weren’t for a tall gangly blond haired blue-eyes super savior? Lawrence of Arabia completely perpetuates the idea that non-white people simply cannot do things as well if it weren’t for the help of people like Lawrence, a very heterosexual white male in a position of power. Lawrence and Jake Sully from Avatar actually have a lot in common. This largely stems from the fact that Lawrence begins to show disdain for his own race and nationality. There comes a point in the film wherein he doesn’t just want to save the Arabs, he wants to be them. He wants that oriental mysticism to encapsulate his life. But at the same time, Lawrence still feels superior and is not shy about passing judgment on the Arabs who he has called “cruel and barbarous.”
But there is a big difference between Sully and Lawrence. Lawrence eventually realizes he can no longer live the lie. He realizes that he may have brought more destruction on the people he admired than he actually brought good.