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A Brief List and Analysis of White Savior Films
A White Savior Film (WSF) is a movie that features a white person coming into the lives of a person or people of color (POCs) who are often low-income, troubled, and/or severely oppressed. The troubled times that the people of color are in can be a product of oppression from other white folks, or their own doing. Either way, the White Savior comes in, quickly sympathizes with the problems of the people of color, learning what needs to happen to solve their problems, and in doing so, wins their favor and becomes their hero. Here is a list of some of these films:
- Gran Torino
- Avatar (Jake Sully literally becomes the Messiah of the Na’vi)
- The Blind Side*
- The Ghosts of Mississippi*
- Glory Road*
- Dances With Wolves
- Finding Forrester
- The Principal*
- Music of the Heart*
- To Kill a Mockingbird (slightly on the fence with this one because the savior Atticus Finch does not save Tom Robinson from being convicted)
- Cool Runnings*
- Dangerous Minds* (This film was based on the true story of a Latina teacher, yet Michelle Pfiffer played the teacher, thereby turning this into a WSF)
- The Last Samurai
- Freedom Writers*
- Black Rain
- Sunset Park
- District 9 (Also slightly on the fence with this one since the white protagonist mainly follows the plan of the oppressed alien that stands for a POC, and he is more of an anti-hero)
- Mississippi Burning*
- The Last Airbender (the TV series composed of all Asian characters, but the film’s three main heroes were cast as white people, while everyone else was of color)
- The Ron Clark Story*
- The Help
- Atlantis: The Lost Empire
- The Road to El Dorado
There are a few different kinds of WSF. The most popular kinds include the white teacher/administrator that helps the students of color realize their true potential and help them overcome their own prejudices (The Principal, Freedom Writers, Dangerous Minds, etc.), and the white sports coach leading his or her team filled with usually poor and troubled people of color to victory (Glory Road, Cool Runnings, Wildcats, Sunset Park, Hardball, etc).
The more epic, and true “savior” WSF that many sci-fi films also fit into feature a white person who is often an oppressor happening upon a culture of people of color or aliens that are POC stand-ins. The white hero eventually assimilates into their culture, and he even proves to be more skillful than them as learns the culture. He becomes their leader and savior in the battle against their enemies (Avatar, The Last Samurai, Dances With Wolves, Dune, District 9, etc.) Particularly for the “epic” WSF, the saviors are male, heterosexual, and very masculine.
So what are the problems with these films? Well, they portray people of color as too desolate, too hopeless, too overcome by their own prejudices and circumstances to help themselves, so they need someone to help them. But not just anyone, no, this helper must be a White Savior. This Savior inspires the people of color, teaches them how to be a better them, and makes their lives better when the people of color couldn’t do it themselves. These films ignore the stories of people of color helping their own communities and helping themselves.
Hollywood, and many white people, eat these WSF up because white audiences can identify wanting to be the “savior” in POC’s lives, to be the one who rescues the poor POCs from their circumstances, to be the hero in their lives. They help alleviate feelings of white guilt by projecting white people not as the oppressors, but as the heroes who can save people of color from their circumstances, and often, the oppression that whites in the past have caused. Essentially, these films capitalize on the stories of people of color, yet instead of telling the film through their eyes, they are presented as stories of the white people who help them. The people of color in these films function as catalysts for the White Savior to learn his or her lessons and reach the end of his or her own journey.
* You’ve probably noticed that many of these films are inspired by true stories. People who defend WSF often bring up the fact that several of these are “based on a true story,” however, that doesn’t necessarily mean that all WSF are valid as a group. Rather, it shows that Hollywood has a greater interest in the stories of heroic white people saving people of color than stories of people of color helping their own communities or people of color helping white people out of bad situations. WSF stories are being used to support the status quo.
Is it racist to enjoy these films? No, it’s not. You can still watch these films and like them, but they are part of a trend that chooses to ignore the perspective of people of color, and feed into the White Savior Complex that really shows what Hollywood, and unfortunately, many white people have, so choose your films well and watch them carefully.