Last week, I got a message on my Tumblr page from someone who said ever since I talked about ‘white saviors” in films, they have started noticing it a lot more in movies. This sparked a conversation about movies with white saviors and many cringe-worthy roles came flooding back to me. I realized that almost every movie I watched growing up that had any non-white person, was a white savior movie.
If you’re not familiar with the ‘white savior complex’ it’s basically is when there’s a person or community of color facing some hardship and some white figure swoops in on their kale carpet to save us. Obviously, no person of color can succeed without a pale hand of whiteness reaching down into our broken lives. It frequently occurs in Hollywood but it also takes place quite often in real life in forms such as missionaries and VERY frequently in adoption. If you want a more in-depth definition of the topic, you can read up here.
Anyways, this whole ordeal inspired me to rank my top 5 most cringeworthy white savior films/roles. To be honest, it was really hard to rank these and there are so many others that deserve to be on this list, but these are the ones that I watched a lot growing up, and make me roll my eyes the most.
Starring Patrick Dempsey and Hillary Swank, this film is based on the story of real-life teacher Erin Gruwell who was assigned to teach low-performing students at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California. The vast majority of these students are, of course, black and latinx. The film is filled with eye-rolling cliches and stereotypes that would make anyone cringe. From the one black male who was just so determined to be aggressive and loud to her, to kids passing notes about how said black students lips are and her interjecting to lecture everyone on how that’s racist. Then she swoops in with her books and perky clap-backs to the other teachers and saves all the under-performing negros. Swank’s performance in this along-side the over-dramatized white saviorism is really what makes this movie annoying to me. Swank is so upbeat and “well actually” about the whole situation and they take small things that happened with the real teacher and completely overdo it for the sake of dramatics. Really all that was missing was a “nuh huh girrrrrl” with a neck roll and z-formation snaps to complete this captain save-a-thug story.
La La Land
Oh yes, I’m coming for y’alls beloved La La Land. You’re probably wondering “how can La La Land be a white savior movie when it’s all white people?” Therein lies the problem my friend. I knew this film starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, would be garbage before I watched it Watching it have it’s “bitch you thought” moment against “Moonlight” at the Oscars, confirmed that for me. Because I ain’t no hater, I decided to watch it, just to make sure my hate was valid — and it was. To be fair, it’s just Ryan Gosling’s character, Sebastian, that is a white savior in this movie. Sebastian entire goal in this movie is to “save jazz”. Those are his exact words. Save jazz? Save from whom? Yourself? We need to save it from mediocre white boys like yourself, sir. Negros are doing just fine in jazz. Jazz is a black genre. The roots come directly from black people, from slaves actually. What the hell is privileged white man Sebastian going to do to save OUR genre? And who are you saving it from if not white people? White people are the reason jazz is deteriorating in the first place. Jazz was commercialized and reinvented into other genres to profit at the expense of black people (who they often didn’t credit or pay btw), by white men. If you’re going to make a movie about “saving jazz” and returning to its BLACK roots, then the main character had better be a black person…preferably a black woman, if you want to get all the way funky with it.
Yikes…”Radio” — starring Cuba Gooding Jr, and Ed Harris. It is cringe-worthy on so many levels. I am actually uncomfortable just thinking about this movie. Who on earth wrote this script and again what is with the white savior sports films? I don’t know if this movie is more offensive to black people or to people with disabilities. The film is (once again) based on a true story about T. L. Hanna High School coach Harold Jones and a mentally challenged black man, James Robert “Radio” Kennedy. You can probably guess how quickly this goes downhill. “Radio” spends his days pushing around a shopping cart and is interested in the football team coached by Harris character, eventually whiteness acts and soon enough Harris, is taking young challenged Radio under his wing and teaching him the football, bringing him home for Christmas and helping him enroll in and graduate high school. Again the over dramatization of everything in this film makes me so uncomfortable. Just look at the picture above…look at it. *shudder*. From the score to the script the whole film was created around this narrative of “aww, look at the adorably slow man doing great things” and I’m not interested.
The Blind Side
I spend 3-days debating on if this should be number one or two, but I hate my number one pick with such a fiery passion that I settled on making this number 2. Another sports movie, very loosely based on a true story, starring Sandra Bullock and Quinton Aaron. Let me just start by saying, I hate everything about this film. I hate how they portray this young man as a stupid black man incapable of doing anything without being cradled in the white bosom of this lady who kind of forcefully takes pity on him and brings him into her home. They also made many changes from the actual story to portray Michael Oher, as helpless and make Bullock’s character, Leigh Anne Tuohy, seem even more like a hero.
Side note: why are white women so eager to save broken black folks but be out here calling the police on us minding our damn business or clutch their purses and lock doors when we walk by?
Anyways, they really went to the extreme with the white saviorism, so much so that the actual man this film is based on, Michael Oher, wrote a whole book telling his version of the story because he was upset at how they made him look stupid and incapable.
I felt like it portrayed me as dumb instead of as a kid who had never had consistent academic instruction and ended up thriving once he got it. Quinton Aaron did a great job acting the part, but I could not figure out why the director chose to show me as someone who had to be taught the game of football.
— Michael Oher, NPR
You can read his full interview on NPR. Like I said, garbage.
Y’all are going to have to excuse me because I’m about to go into full rant mode. I hate this movie, book, author and anything related to this shitty white savior story with a fiery passion that is housed deep within my soul.
I first heard this story when my white aunt handed me the book and said she cried reading it and thought that I would enjoy it too. Anytime white people tell me they enjoyed something, crying, about black folks and/slaves (because really The help is just post-slavery, slaves), I’m skeptical. As my suspicions are always correct, I opened the book at made it maybe 8 pages before I threw the book out the window (literally). The way it was written sounded like a white person wrote it. The overexaggerated slang and “Harpo beat me” narrative was so obvious that a black person did not write this. So, I did some research on the author and of course, a white woman wrote it. A white woman, wrote a book, from the perspective of a black woman in slavery…let me repeat that for you. A WHITE WOMAN IS SPEAKING AS A BLACK WOMAN IN SLAVERY. This is like literary blackface. Not only does this white, middle class Becky who grew up extremely privileged (I checked) and never dealt with race or racism get to write a book posing as a black women but she also is raking in millions of dollars from OUR pain and suffering. Then to top it off, gets a film deal. Fuck that and everyone who bought this garbage. Why do we need a story about slavery or “house maids” which is just a fancy word for slaves, from a white persons narrative? And then the whole story is about white people making peace and everyone coming together singing “Kumbaya” with the “The Help”. If you don’t get the whole fuck outta here —
White people, particularly women, LOVE this book and movie. I mean they LOVE it. The only people I hear about this book.movie from is white women. And they all go on and one about how moving it was and how they cried for 7 days and 7 nights, and they now understand the black struggle but still yell “all lives matter” out the window when they see a black person. White people get to have their moment of feeling bad for negros but also get to feel good about themselves because a white person saves the day and everyone lives happily ever after. If you want to know what it was like to be the black help why not just ask actual black people? Do you know how many of our very much alive grandparents and even parents, were (or still are) the help? This wasn’t very long ago. Because you know what miss author Kathryn Stockett, didn’t tell you about? How the white husbands would rape the help, how black families have intentionally ripped apart and sent the help’s children and partners away from them so they couldn’t be together, or they just killed the black men in the family all together. She didn’t talk about how the help were wet nurses for y’alls white babies or how the help and their families often found themselves publically lynched while white families gathered around with picnic baskets to watch. No she didn’t talk about those things, she talked about all the mild manners stuff like being looked at sideways or a being called a slur once. Because the real experiences that black women dealt with would upset the white audience and force them to admit they ain’t shit.
Melissa Harris-Perry summed it all up for me nicely when she live-tweeted the film saying it “reduces violent racism, sexism and labor exploitation to a cat fight that can be won with cunning spunk.”
You get the point, I hate this book and the movie is just as bad. Yes, the cast is great, but it’s still a horrid movie with a terrible storyline that comes from an awful book. Even Viola Davis, who stars in the film, came out and said she had a problem with the film because it is garbage (my words, not hers).
I want to say I hope we move on from white savior films, and I will admit I feel like I have seen them less than I used to, but they’re still around. They’re just getting better and hiding the white saviorism, or they make the role subtle. See:Kevin Costner in Hidden Figures. As long as white people continue to ignore the realities and violence of racism and pretend like they’re doing something by crying at slave movies, white savior films are never going to stop being made.
Honorable Mentions: Hidden Figures, The Great Wall, The Soloist, The Last Samurai, Finding Forrester, Blood Diamond, 12 Years A Slave, Music of the Heart and To Kill A Mockingbird
Originally published on www.onlyblackgirl.com