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.
#39 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.
Blood Diamond director Edward Zwick has an obsession with the white savior narrative. You just need to look at his films Glory or The Last Samurai to understand that people of color can’t attain their goals without the help of a hardened white man, who in the process of freeing the oppressed, discovers he’s changed his outlook on life. Yeah, that's also Blood Diamond in a nutshell.
Set during the 1999 civil war in Sierra Leone, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Danny Archer, a pretty racist diamond smuggler. When he meets Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), a local fisherman who has found a massive pink diamond, he agrees to help locate Vandy’s kidnapped son. Initially, Archer’s interests in Vandy were solely monetary. But, as the characters in Zwick's films tend to do, Archer has a change of heart and risks it all - including his very life - for Vandy.
The film got mixed reviews, with some critics commenting on the savior complex of the movie.
“Much like Zwick’s Glory and The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond strives to be an ‘important’ film while stopping well short of being genuinely provocative and artistically chancy. Basically, Zwick attaches a well-meaning, self-congratulatory message to a cardboard action movie in which Africans are reduced to noble sufferers or collateral damage,” said a critic from A.V Club.