White savior narrative in film

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The white savior narrative is a cinematic trope in which a white character rescues people of color from their plight.[1] The trope has an extensive history in cinema of the United States.[2] The white savior is portrayed as messianic and often learns something about himself or herself in the process of rescuing.[1] The trope reflects how media represents race relations by racializing concepts like morality as identifiable with white people over nonwhite people.[3] White saviors are often male and are sometimes out of place in their own society until they lead minorities or foreigners. Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness labels the stories as fantasies that "are essentially grandiose, exhibitionistic, and narcissistic".[4]

Types of stories include white travels to "exotic" Asian locations, white defense against racism in the American South, or white protagonists having "racially diverse" helpers.[4] Kathleen Fitzgerald, associate professor of sociology, said, "While a successful film genre, this image is problematic because it frames the person of color as unable to solve their own problems, as incompetent." A common storyline in white savior films is a white teacher or white coach helping students of color. Fitzgerald said the storyline was not problematic on its own but that it "sells" in Hollywood despite thousands of teachers of color helping students of color and despite communities of color having their own leaders.[5] Noah Berlatsky in The Atlantic said the white savior narrative is frequently seen in slavery films, including award-winning ones. The films are variations of a single narrative where black people "are oppressed by bad white people" and "achieve freedom through the offices of good white people".[6]

List of films[edit]

The following films have been described as containing the narrative:

Film Year Description
12 Years a Slave 2013 In the historical film set in 1841 onward, free-born African American Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is kidnapped and sold into slavery. In the film's denouement, a white Canadian (played by Brad Pitt) rescues Northup from enslavement.[7] While 12 Years a Slave focused mainly on Northup's resilience, and a Canadian did in reality rescue Northup, the film was identified as a cinematic representation of slavery that depicted a white savior.[6]
Air Up There, TheThe Air Up There 1994 A disgraced white basketball coach (played by Kevin Bacon) travels to an African village in Kenya to recruit a prospect.[7]
Amistad 1997 In the 1830s, a group of African slaves who commit mutiny are captured by the U.S. military, and a legal battle ensues in which the white lawyer John Quincy Adams (played by Anthony Hopkins) defends their right to be freed.[6]
Avatar 2009 In the science fiction film, a white former Marine (played by Sam Worthington) goes to another planet and becomes part of an alien tribe, ultimately leading them to victory against his people's military.[8]
Blind Side, TheThe Blind Side 2009 A white woman and football fan (played by Sandra Bullock) takes a black teenager (played by Quinton Aaron) into her home, and he plays football with her support through his high school and college years.[7]
Blood Diamond 2006 A racist white Rhodesian mercenary (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) rescues a black Sierra Leonese (played by Djimon Hounsou) and his son from black villains.[9]
City of Joy 1992 A white American doctor (played by Patrick Swayze) travels to India to find enlightenment. He sets up a free clinic to serve the poor, and though reluctant at first, he decides to stay with the people.[4]
Conrack 1974 A white teacher (played by Jon Voight) is sent to an island off the coast of South Carolina, where he teaches children of poor black families.[10]
Cool Runnings 1993 In the comedy film, black Jamaicans who want to form a national bobsled team are helped by a disgraced former bobsledder (played by John Candy).[7]
Cry Freedom 1987 The film features white journalist Donald Woods (played by Kevin Kline) who learns to appreciate the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and its black leader Steven Biko (played by Denzel Washington). Woods leaves the country to report the apartheid system to the world.[8]
Dances with Wolves 1990 In the 1860s, a white Union soldier (played by Kevin Costner) becomes part of the Sioux, a Native American tribe. He leads the Sioux against their rivals the Pawnee and later helps them escape the army he once served.[7]
Dangerous Minds 1995 A white teacher (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) teaches African and Hispanic American teenagers at an inner city high school.[7]
District 9 2009 A white South African government official (played by Sharlto Copley) works to relocate extraterrestrials to a new internment camp. When he is infected by a fluid and gradually changes into an extraterrestrial himself, he fights against the transition and is motivated to free extraterrestrials so they can provide a cure for his condition.[8]
Django Unchained 2012 In 1858, black slave Django (played by Jamie Foxx) is freed by the white German bounty hunter Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz), and they work together to free Django's wife.[6]
Elysium 2013 In the science fiction film, a white assembly worker (played by Matt Damon) from a mostly nonwhite community travels to a space station to find a cure for radiation poisoning, sacrifices himself so medical devices could be used to heal people on Earth.[11]
Finding Forrester 2000 A white reclusive writer (played by Sean Connery) sees potential writing skill in a black high school student and helps him with his writing.[12]
Freedom Writers 2007 In the mid-1990s in Long Beach, California, a white teacher (played by Hilary Swank) strives to educate nonwhite high school students despite their neighborhood conditions.[13]
Glory 1989 During the American Civil War, a regiment of black Union soldiers serve under the white Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (played by Matthew Broderick). Through Shaw, they are able to fight back against slavery.[6]
Gran Torino 2008 A racist white Korean War veteran (played by Clint Eastwood) helps a Hmong American teenager and ultimately protects him and his family from a Hmong American gang.[8]
Green Berets, TheThe Green Berets 1968 The Vietnam War propaganda film depicts a white U.S. Army Special Forces commander (played by John Wayne) who fights for the South Vietnamese.[4]
Half Nelson 2006 A white teacher with a drug addiction (played by Ryan Gosling) teaches at an inner city middle school, and befriending a black student, learns to overcome his addiction.[10]
Hardball 2001 A white gambler (played by Keanu Reeves) is required to coach a baseball team of black children from Chicago's ABLA housing projects to pay off his gambling debts.[13]
Help, TheThe Help 2011 In 1963 in Jackson, Mississippi, a young white woman (played by Emma Stone) strives for a career in journalism and encourages black maids to share their personal experiences despite the racism prevalent at the time.[7]
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom 1984 White archaeologist and adventurer Indiana Jones (played by Harrison Ford) rescues Indian peasants from a cult that sacrifices them.[4]
Last Samurai, TheThe Last Samurai 2003 In the 1870s, a white former Union Army officer (played by Tom Cruise) travels to Japan and ultimately joins a group of samurai, helping them to resist corrupt advisers to the Japanese Emperor.[7]
Lawrence of Arabia 1962 The white British Army officer T. E. Lawrence (played by Peter O'Toole) leads Arabs in a revolt against the Turks.[14]
Lincoln 2012 The historical film focuses on the efforts of President Abraham Lincoln (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) and other white figures to win the American Civil War and end slavery.[6]
Machine Gun Preacher 2011 A white ex-convict (played by Gerard Butler) travels to South Sudan to rebuild homes and finds himself having to save its residents from soldiers involved in a civil war.[13]
Man Who Would Be King, TheThe Man Who Would Be King 1975 Based on a story by Rudyard Kipling, two white British adventurers (played by Sean Connery and Michael Caine) in the 1880s are crowned kings in a non-white country (Kafiristan). While the narrative is depicted as ironic, the natives are portrayed in a cliched manner.[4]
Matrix, TheThe Matrix 1999 In the science fiction film, a white computer hacker (played by Keanu Reeves) is rescued from being plugged into a computer system and becomes a messiah figure who confronts all-white villains. Black characters serve him as disciples.[4]
McFarland, USA 2015 A white coach (played by Kevin Costner) trains an all-Latino high school cross country running team. The Atlantic said, "[It] has invoked some groans among critics who recognize its 'white savior' premise. Some say it transcends its paradigmatic trappings—others have claimed it's a film about about easing white people into a more diverse America."[15] Director Niki Caro said, "We were very conscious of not making a white savior movie, and you could have with the material, but it was really important for us that he be a flawed guy who was ultimately redeemed by the community. You see him become a better coach, a better father and a better man through his interaction with this place and these people."[16]
Mississippi Burning 1988 In 1964, two white FBI agents (played by Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe) travel to Mississippi to investigate the murders of civil rights organizers, one of whom is black. They are depicted as heroes in the black struggle. Director Alan Parker said of the casting, "Because it’s a movie, I felt it had to be fictionalized. The two heroes in the story had to be white. That is a reflection of our society as much as of the film industry. At this point in time, it could not have been made in any other way."[8]
Music of the Heart 1999 A white music teacher (played by Meryl Streep) teaches nonwhite students at an inner city school.[7]
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest 1975 A white protagonist (played by Jack Nicholson) is in a mental hospital and confronts its cruel nurse, ultimately inspiring a Native American patient to escape the hospital.[4]
Principal, TheThe Principal 1987 A white teacher (played by James Belushi) teaches nonwhite students at an inner city school.[7]
Radio 2003 A white high school football coach (played by Ed Harris) helps a mentally handicapped black football fan (played by Cuba Gooding Jr.) become more involved with the team.[13]
Ron Clark Story, TheThe Ron Clark Story 2006 A white teacher (played by Matthew Perry) moves from a small town to New York City to make a difference in the lives of nonwhite students.[17]
Soloist, TheThe Soloist 2009 A white man (played by Robert Downey Jr.) helps a black mentally handicapped and homeless man (played by Jamie Foxx) revive his passion and skill in music.[13]
Stargate 1994 In the science fiction film, a white Egyptologist and linguist (played by James Spader) and a white military colonel (played by Kurt Russell) rescue a nonwhite population on an alien planet from their extraterrestrial slavers.[4]
Sunset Park 1996 A white physical education teacher (played by Rhea Perlman) who coaches a basketball team of black players and succeeds in taking them to the city championships.[10]
Three Kings 1999 The white leader of a United States Army team (played by George Clooney) has the respect and loyalty of his racially mixed team and the Iraqi rebels.[4]
To Kill a Mockingbird 1962 A white attorney (played by Gregory Peck) fails to successfully defend a black man falsely accused of rape but is applauded for his noble effort.[12]
Wildcats 1986 A white woman (played by Goldie Hawn) becomes the coach of an inner city football team and leads them to a championship.[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Matthew W. Hughey: The White Savior Film". temple.edu. Temple University. Retrieved October 1, 2014. 
  2. ^ Nygreen, Kysa; Madeloni, Barbara; Cannon, Jennifer. "'Boot Camp' Teacher Certification and Neoliberal Education Reform". In Sturges, Keith M. Neoliberalizing Educational Reform: America's Quest for Profitable Market-Colonies and the Undoing of Public Good. Springer Publishing. p. 116. ISBN 978-94-6209-975-3. 
  3. ^ "Interview with Matthew W. Hughey". temple.edu. Temple University. Retrieved October 1, 2014. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Vera, Hernán; Gordon, Andrew M. (2003). "The Beautiful White American: Sincere Fictions of the Savior". Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. pp. 32–33. ISBN 978-1-4616-4286-2. 
  5. ^ Fitzgerald, Kathleen (2014). Recognizing Race and Ethnicity: Power, Privilege, and Inequality. Westview Press. p. 364. ISBN 978-0-8133-4931-2. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f Berlatsky, Noah (January 17, 2014). "12 Years a Slave: Yet Another Oscar-Nominated 'White Savior' Story". The Atlantic. Retrieved May 14, 2014. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Goff, Keli (May 4, 2014). "Can 'Belle' End Hollywood's Obsession with the White Savior?". The Daily Beast. Retrieved May 14, 2014. 
  8. ^ a b c d e Sirota, David (February 21, 2013). "Oscar loves a white savior". Salon.com. Retrieved May 14, 2014. 
  9. ^ Lacy, Michael G. (2011). Critical Rhetorics of Race. New York University Press. p. 13. ISBN 978-0-8147-6529-6. 
  10. ^ a b c Hughey, Matthew W. (Summer 2010). "The White Savior Film and Reviewers' Reception". Symbolic Interaction 33 (3): 475–496. doi:10.1525/si.2010.33.3.475. 
  11. ^ Metz, Jessie-Lane (August 21, 2013). "A Future Without Me: Matt Damon is the Great White Hope in 'Elysium'". Bitch Magazine. Retrieved August 24, 2014. 
  12. ^ a b Barber, Mike (December 3, 2009). "White Man's Burden Redux: The Movie!". The Huffington Post. Retrieved May 14, 2014. 
  13. ^ a b c d e Barone, Matt (September 20, 2011). "The 10 Lamest White Savior Movies". Complex.com (Complex Media). Retrieved May 14, 2014. 
  14. ^ Gehlawat, Ajay (2013). The Slumdog Phenomenon: A Critical Anthology. Anthem Press. p. 83. ISBN 978-0-85728-001-5. 
  15. ^ Kilkenny, Katie (February 25, 2015). "The Troublesome Rebirth of the Kevin Costner Everyman". The Atlantic. Retrieved February 28, 2015. 
  16. ^ Abrams, Bryan (February 23, 2015). "Director Niki Caro Finds her Place in McFarland, USA". The Credits (Motion Picture Association of America). Retrieved February 28, 2015. 
  17. ^ Kivel, Paul (2013). Living in the Shadow of the Cross: Understanding and Resisting the Power and Privilege of Christian Hegemony. New Society Publishers. ISBN 978-1-55092-541-8. 

Further reading[edit]