The White Savior complex has been present in human history long before the invention of film, but continues to find a home in motion pictures. The most prominent and explicit form of White Saviorism is the idea of mission trips where a group of white do-gooders travel to foreign, non-white- requently in Africa or South America- and provides services with little regard to the community they are helping. Often, a heavy focus of these journeys is the white figure inflating their sense of self or ego. This mindset is inherently problematic, as it sets the white mission trip participants as lead character and the indigenous/non-white peoples as their insufficient counterpart, humbled by these outsiders who solve their problems while they remain passive.
Likewise, the White Savior trope has undeniably been incorporated into films regarding race issues in the United States. In times like these, with Black Lives Matter protests occurring in every state and people calling upon the reduction/defunding of police power, it is important to recognize the types of “Black” narratives that do not serve to represent Black stories, but rather focus on the chronicles of White Saviors. The way in which this white archetype manifests in film is not at all different from reality: a white lead character aids a non-white supporting character and gets credit for vastly improving their life, thus diminishing the autonomy and jurisdiction of the person of color.
Right of the bat The Blind Side comes to mind. This 2009 football biopic on Michael Oher absolutely surged with popularity when it came out and, for a while, it seemed to be the only film that people in mostly white populated suburbs could talk about, telling the story of an upper-middle class white woman (Sandra Bullock) who takes in a seventeen-year-old orphan, Michael, after her son befriends him. Michael does not fit in with the rest of white community, being a large, black young man whose family history is riddled with poverty and addiction problems. The white mom, Leigh Ann, teaches Michael to play football, a skill which earns him the opportunity to play for multiple colleges. In the end, he decides to play at his white-adoptive parent’s alma mater.
The Blind Side does not really do anything to assert Michael as in charge of his fate or his life- all of that seems to fall into place after his new white mother “fixes” him and his trajectory. It is due to the kindness of Leigh Ann’s heart that Michael is accepted into colleges, that he has the motivation to even try to get into these schools, and that he is even considered a candidate for the university’s recruitment team. Michael thus owes the goodness in his life to the white family that took him in, neglecting the possibility that Michael could have found goodness on his own, without their charity.
Another film with similar problems is The Help, which also happens feature a “Black narrative” and received high acclaimed by white audiences upon its release. The Help tells the stories of various Black maids in Mississippi towards the end of the Jim Crow era, in 1963. However, it doesn’t recount these stories from the Black women’s perspectives. Instead, it places Skeeter, a non-racist white young woman and journalist as the voice of the working-class black women and gets their stories published.
The film makes it quite clear, that without Skeeter’s help, these Black maids would simply be silent victims of their oppression, helpless to the cruelty of their white employers. This is exactly what makes the film so problematic- it sets up the true substance of the film, the narrative of various Black women, as a resource that could only be tapped into with the aid of a white ally. In reality, there’s no good reason that a white person had to be the mediator for Black women’s voices, as these characters are obviously capable of telling their own truths. Many people blame the white author of the The Help novel, which the film was based on, for its “black” narrative being completely overwhelmed by a White Savior.
Last, but not least is our most recent addition to the White Savior hall of fame: Academy-Award Best Picture winner Green Book. This is an interesting entry because Green Book seemingly tries to reject the white savior motif and play off its story of white Tony Lipp and black Don Shirley as a feel-good buddy flick. It does not succeed. The film sets up the character’s dynamic as contrary- Tony is a low class, uneducated white man who works as the bodyguard and driver of Don, a wealthy, refined musician, while he tours the country. It seems that the filmmakers hoped this reversed power dynamic of a poor white man versus a well-off Black man would offset the conventions of White Savior tropes.
It did not. Rather than have the white character lend their resources, wealth, opportunity, or intellect to their Black counterpart, like the previous films did, the White Savior in Green Book instead teaches Don humility and humanity. As much as the film tried to avoid the trope, it ended up just feeding into it. Don needed Tony to soften him to the world and make him long for human connection. It’s a poor lesson and, much to the chagrin of the film community, beat out more complex non-white stories like Roma and Blackkklansman for an Oscar win.
An honorable mention goes to Damien Chazelle La La Land which, despite not having a focus on Black characters (minus a John Legend cameo), still contains problematic underpinnings. Although its primary story is romance between two white characters, La La Land still talks about how white lead Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) wants to “save” jazz music in Los Angeles. Many have criticized this film for its erasure- as it tells the story of a Black music genre without including much focus on Black culture. Additionally, the notion that jazz needs to be or even feasibly could be rescued by a white man in Southern California is inherently offensive to the Black artists who have kept this music alive for so many generations.
An interesting quality of each of these films is that, save for La La Land, they are all meant to be biographical. However, it each falls short of retelling reality by presenting the skewed perspective of a white person. All these films were directed by white men, which kind of proves that there is not really a productive way to tell Black stories through a white lens, regardless of how well-intentioned, hopeful, or educated that white lens (director) presents itself. These are not representations that exist to help Black people or educate audience about black trauma, these are representations that exist to make white people feel good.
That is the most important point that one should take away from the White Savior complex- that it has nothing to do with actually saving or helping people in need, but rather establishing a colonizer God complex in white audiences. That’s what these films effectively accomplish. They are not the same as participating in a mission trip, but their intent is to make their white viewers feel good about their race and relation to Black people in America. Hence, White Savior films work to directly exonerate individuals from White Guilt and our role in upholding systemic racism in modern power structures. These stories help resolve this feeling, little by little, each time, as the white viewer can convince themselves- “White people weren’t/aren’t all bad! See, we even helped Black people out! We made their lives better!,” when this is clearly not the case.
To keep yourself from being blinded by the shiny and promising forgiveness offered by White Savior narratives, watch and support Black-made Black films! These are the only true depictions of the Black experience not distorted by white guilt, which creates a biased narrative to relieve white viewers from their self-condemnation, albeit at the cost of presenting Black characters as flimsy and one-dimensional. Black voices are the only ones that can tell Black stories, so hopefully something in the industry shifts so that they have the platform to make those stories mainstream.