We’ve seen it all before. A white “savior” is placed into an ethnically diverse environment and must rescue the minority characters from whatever plight they are suffering from—all while learning something about himself/herself in the process. This idea of a “white savior complex” genre has existed for quite some time, but it has only recently become a common staple in the average moviegoer’s diet. Films such as “Avatar,” “The Blind Side,” “The Last Samurai,” and the recently debuted “McFarland, USA,” are popular examples.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with telling a story authentically. Both “The Blind Side” and “MacFarland, USA,” are based on true stories, and on principle alone, it’s commendable to resurrect an encouraging story that will leave everyone feeling inspired. The problem does not lie within that concept itself, but rather the frequency in which it is used with a white person as the focal point.
While these films aim with positive intent, they often miss the mark: falsely glorifying the heroic, white leader instead of the resilient community the movie is based upon. The viewer sees the tale unfold through the lens of a white (and often male) protagonist, meaning that there is a far greater emphasis on the white individual’s internal struggle, which usually pales in comparison to the cause that they are tasked with solving.
“The Last Samurai” is a perfect example of this. Tom Cruise plays a war-hardened American who sympathizes with the Samurai, a class quickly crumbling under the rise of Imperial Japan. These proud warriors cling tightly to their sacred past, but are ultimately wiped out by the Imperial Japanese Army. However, it is not from them that the movie derives its “Last Samurai” title, it’s from Cruise’s character. It falsely portrays Cruise, instead of an actual Japanese person, as the memorialized protector of traditional Japan.
Not only is the white savior trope an overused narrative, it’s fairly predictable and boring. It would be fascinating to shake things up and see the perspective of people actually in the struggling community, for example. After all, they are the true instruments of change in these types of stories. It’s insulting to suppose that people of non-white status have any kind of dependency on a white leader to aid them in their fight.
Why these flicks are churned out at such a high rate can be attributed to one major factor: Money. In fact, it has been statistically proven that white heroism is what many people want to see, according to Matthew W. Hughey, author of The White Savior Film.
“There is a host of sociological research that demonstrates how people identify whites (when compared to nonwhites) as more deserving of resources and leadership because they are assumed more naturally intelligent, innocent, and hard-working,” Hughey said in an interview with Temple University. “Given our current racialized worldview, it should be no surprise that stories about white redeemers carry so much purchase.”
An unwillingness to depart from the status quo could be another contributory factor. No movie producer in their right mind would intentionally set out to be racist, but it is plausible to assume that they’re more inclined to stick with a formula that works and generates revenue. Senior film major Nolan Tashjian believes the issue has been deep-seated in our culture for a long time.
“I think it’s because we made that narrative system a long while ago in our history and it just kind of stuck in our culture whether we were conscious of it or not,” Tashjian said.
There are movies in which a character of a racial minority is the primary help to a community, but they often lie few and far between. “Remember the Titans,” for instance, chronicles black coach Herman Boone’s battle to unite a recently integrated football team, and he isn’t even “saving” a solely white community. It’s hard to think of films in which African-American, Latino, Asian, or Native American saviors enter a white community and are glorified for their monumental impact.
Only recently did a film come out (“Selma”), that celebrated the life of the greatest African-American civil rights leader in history, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. David Oyelowo, who plays Dr. King in the film, recently expressed his agitation at the immense challenges that black glorification films have in passing through the Hollywood filter.
“Those films are so hard to get made,” Oyelowo said at the Santa Barbara Film Festival this past January. “People have often said to me, ‘Why has it taken so long?’ I mean, [King] was assassinated almost 50 years ago. There has been no film where Dr. King has been the center of his own narrative until now.”
The “White Savior Complex” film is a derivative of the larger issue of a white dominated media. One must only look to the Oscars this past weekend to see the discrepancy in exposure equality. In the most coveted categories, Best Actor and Best Actress, no person of color was even nominated. The last non-white woman to win a Best Actress award was Halle Berry in 2001.
If 2015 is any indication, this trope isn’t going away anytime soon, which is a shame, because heroes come in every color, not just one.
Griffin Guinta can be reached at Griffin.firstname.lastname@example.org.