The Help. Freedom Writers. The Blind Side. Hidden Figures. To Kill a Mockingbird. The list could go on and on. These are just a few examples of the “White Savior” movies that have taken over Hollywood and have been made out to be inspirational successes. However, as many Americans continue their fight against police brutality and systemic racism, it is imperative to understand why “White Savior” movies are problematic.
Now you might be asking yourself this question: What is a White Savior movie? White Savior movies typically feature a person of color forced to overcome an obstacle. What makes it a “White Savior” movie however, is the fact that there is always a prominent White person, who enters the screen and helps the person of color overcome their conflict.
For example, The Help came out in 2011 and was an adaptation of a 2009 novel by Kathryn Stockett. The Help is about African Americans working in white households in the 1960s. Huge movie stars like Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Viola Davis, and Emma Stone starred in it. It even went on to received multiple Oscars. To many, it may seem like an empowering movie about overcoming racism though The Help is simply an example of showcasing a white character as a hero, while their black counterpart is seen as weak and in dire need of saving.
The film follows an African-American maid by the the name of Aibileen Clark and a recent-college graduate/writer, Skeeter Phelan. While the story contains intricate relationships and drama amongst different social circles, the important thing to focus on is how Skeeter, a white woman, informed the life of Aibileen and other Black maids. In attempts to boost her writing career and after witnessing the awful working conditions of the maids around her, by the end of the film Skeeter is able to ascertain enough stories and details to develop of book that casts a dark shadow on the rich, white, and entitled employers. Eventually, we see Aibileen leave her toxic job for a retirement that urges a sense of relief, joy, and agency. The film makes clear that Skeeter’s book has allowed for an air of transparency, which led to Aibileen’s retirement. And while the film depicts moments of happiness, humor, and suspenseful drama there is no escaping the white savior trope. There shouldn’t always have to be a Skeeter to tell the story of marginalized people, there should not be a Skeeter that presents an ahistroical fix-all, and at the end of the day there should not be stories that underscore lived experiences by missing wide open opportunities to depict nuances.
Another prime example of a “White Savior” movie is Freedom Writers. When I first watched this movie, I cried at the end. I loved the movie and I remembered thinking about how amazing the teacher was. The movie is based on a true story, and I felt inspired. I was moved. It focused on a teacher at a California school whose atmosphere was heavily influenced by violence and racial tensions. The teacher, Erin Gruwell, uses compassion, care, and trust to mobilize change amongst her at-risk students affording them with the ability to be immersed in an environment that is actually conducive to learning and helping them to achieve goals and overcome adversity. However, looking back now, I understand how twisted it is that I focused so much on the teacher, rather than the surplus of gifted students. The notion that people of color need white people to help them tap into their own potential and talents is offensive and inaccurate.
These movies are harmful because they promote the idea that White people are necessary tools for people of color to achieve their goals and become successful. These movies support the idea that White people are naturally “better” or “superior” to other races. If our country wants to make any progress in addressing the brutal, systemic racism that exists, we must all come to the understanding that these “White Savior” movies do nothing but push the narrative that White people are heroes and that people of color are always in need of their help, whether it be in a small or large form.
It is also equally important to analyze what teachers and school systems are doing to educate students on systemic racism. For instance, take black history month, in February. To celebrate, most teachers put on a movie and call it a day. However, what this passive teaching does is it neglects to sufficiently educate youth on how to be anti-racist.
Instead of watching “White Savior” movies, here is a (small) list of movies to watch instead:
- Malcom X
- Freedom Riders
- The Trayvon Martin Story
For kids and teens:
- A Ballerina’s Tale
- The Hate You Give
- When They See Us
Racism continues to plague the United States. Every single day, people of color, especially black people, are being targeted and killed for the color of their skin. With this in mind, we must address where racial stereotypes stem from and have an honest conversation about how people of color are depicted in the media. This is just the beginning.