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15 Of The Whitest White Saviors In Film History

Updated August 20, 2020 6k votes 1.7k voters 123.2k views15 items

List RulesVote up the most cringe-worthy white saviors.

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.

  • 5

    Coach Harold Jones In 'Radio'

    Photo: Columbia Pictures

    The movie Radio is uncomfortable to watch on so many levels. For one thing, you never go full-on mentally disabled in a film because of the extremely likely chance that you're going to trample all over real, complex people with cognitive issues with your bad acting. But Cuba Gooding Jr. really, really went for it. It’s almost hard to tell who the film is most insulting to. Yes, the film tears at the heartstrings, but its whining, melodramatic sap becomes unbearable after a certain point.

    The film come from a Sports Illustrated article by Gary Smith that's based on a real-life story. The article was written about the true Coach Jones and his buddy James “Radio” Kennedy. It’s hard to say how true to the real story the film is. But in the film, Jones, played by Ed Harris, is portrayed like a total saint for looking after Radio.

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  • Photo: Columbia Pictures

    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.

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  • 7

    Sebastian In 'La La Land'

    Photo: Summit Entertainment

    The 2016 film La La Land received a ton of backlash for its white savior narrative. In the film, Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, a jazz musician who falls in love with an aspiring actress. But, the film has been heavily criticized for Sebastian's mission to “save jazz,” a genre he thinks is deteriorating. The film has also been accused of trying to take credit for Black musicians' accomplishments.

    In the film, singer John Legend played Keith, Sebastian’s buddy and bandmate. Legend had a pretty different take on the white savior trope of the film.

    “Sebastian was stuck in that traditionalism. The film doesn’t necessarily approve of how traditionalist he is. The film agrees with Keith when he says, ‘How are you going to be a revolutionary when you’re such a traditionalist?’ I don’t think Sebastian is seen as the savior people are saying it is. He’s a flawed character that is a bit dark and stubborn, but he’s also an interesting guy,” Legend told Newsweek.

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  • Photo: Columbia

    This is another one of those educator-turned-mentor white savior narratives that Hollywood cannot get enough of. In the film, Sean Connery plays William Forrester, a grumpy and reclusive novelist. Forrester takes Jamal Wallace, played by Rob Brown, under his wing after Wallace breaks into Forrester’s home on a dare. In a scurry to get out of the house, Wallace leaves his backpack behind, which contains some of his writing. Forrester goes through his bag and reads his work, which impresses him.  

    Naturally, Wallace’s writing improves under the tutelage and guidance of Forrester. Forrester, having helped Wallace find his voice, in turn finds himself, hence the lame and obvious title. Perhaps the most annoying thing is that no one believes that Wallace could actually have the talent to write as well as he does, and only at the end of the movie does Forrester come out of hiding and clear Wallace’s name.

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