How to Avoid the 'White Savior Trope' in your Writing
Never fear, the white savior is here!
Maybe you, as I, noticed that as Green Book took the stage to collect its Academy Awards, there was an anger in the room. The movie had undergone its share of controversy. From Viggo Mortensen using the "N" word in a press conference to the screenwriter tweeting anti-Muslim sentiment, the family of Don Shirley being outraged, and the general malaise people had for the portrayal of race relations. One of the loudest arguments I heard over and over again was that the movie played into the worst of "White Savior" tropes.
It's been brought to my attention that outside of Hollywood, this trope is not often recognized by regular moviegoers.
I want to bring the idea of the White Savior trope to the forefront of today's screenwriting conversation and talk about how we can all be better if we acknowledge this trope exists and steer clear from using it by broadening our horizons and consulting other points of view.
Now, given the general even-keel of the online community here at No Film School, I think we can have a civil and logical discussion about how the 'White Savior' trope needs to be retired in favor of more interesting, complex, and nuanced portrayals of film friendships and relationships. If you have something hateful to say...go to Twitter. Tag me @JasonHellerman.
For now, let's jump into the 'White Savior trope' and talk about why it's problematic and how we can save Hollywood by eliminating it.
How "white savior" movies hurt Hollywood pic.twitter.com/LJw9N4gy1Z— INSIDER (@thisisinsider) March 6, 2019
What's a 'White Savior' Movie?
A 'White Savior' movie is a movie where the story is about a white character stepping in to help a person or people of color from their struggles. While a lot of these stories are period pieces used to talk about racism, some of them are contemporary stories meant to be about deeper understanding, but actually, enforce whiteness as a sort of "Messiah" to a class considered to be an "Other." Often, these saviors lead people of color against white antagonists, proving that they never could achieve their goals without a white person's help.
In his essay on #OscarsSoWhite and the whiteness of Oscar night, sociologist Matthew Hughey had this to say:
"A White Savior film is often based on some supposedly true story. Second, it features a nonwhite group or person who experiences conflict and struggle with others that is particularly dangerous or threatening to their life and livelihood. Third, a White person (the savior) enters the milieu and through his or her sacrifices as a teacher, mentor, lawyer, military hero, aspiring writer, or wannabe Native American warrior, is able to physically save — or at least morally redeem — the person or community of folks of color by the film’s end."
These stories are so common in Hollywood and popular culture that Seth Meyers made an incredible spoof on the topic.
'White Savior' Movie Examples
There are hundreds of 'White Savior' movie examples. Wikipedia has a great list of them that you can view, but I wanted to go over a few here to cement home what we're talking about. First, let's start with one that I think a lot of people mention early on, Dances with Wolves. This movie sets out to show how a white settler comes to lead a Native American nation against not only their native enemies but also the army coming to take their land.
Through the movie, we get a lot of different tropes, including the "Noble Savage," where Costner's character learns that the spiritual and simple ways of the Native Americans somehow deepen his outlook on life. This gets mirrored in the mega-hit Avatar.
Avatar leans into the 'White Savior' trope pretty hard. In the movie, Jake Sully is a wolf in sheep's clothing, sent there to pacify a race. But he becomes so indoctrinated into the tribe that their God allows him to pass into one of their bodies permanently. While there is no actual Na'vi to be upset about this movie, I think the story sets up a dangerous example of how we should "pacify" those different than us, and ultimately how maybe the social morays and lessons we have are the only things that can save their nation.
While the first two are overt examples, let's look at some more subtle White Savior tropes.
Gran Torino was a huge hit when it came out. It marked the return of Clint Eastwood as a director and actor and thrust him into the spotlight. I have to admit that I loved it when it came out. But as I got older and watched it over and over, I realized that this movie is pretty terrible. First off, we're forced into a place where we are rooting for a racist old man. And we're only given justifications for his racism.
While the movie does an okay job building him into less of a racist, it never really confronts who he is or why he was that way. We barely get the point of view outside of Eastwood's. And when we do, it seems to justify his actions. In the end, he dies for his neighbors. Sure, it's cinematic, but what's the actual lesson he leaves to the kids?
It's okay to be racist and a bigot as long as you'll die for your friends?
Finally, the most common 'White Savior' trope we see is the righteous person coming in to confront their inconsistencies. There's almost no better example of this than the movie Mississippi Burning.
The movie is about white cops who head to Mississippi to get justice for murdered African-Americans when the white police force down there won't do anything to help. Again, this movie contains well-intentioned characters, but look at the execution of the story. We're consistently in a white point of view. The movie is told through a "can you believe these people think like this?!" lens. That's a giant problem because there are people living in Mississippi who CAN believe that. And they're being murdered. Instead of even approaching what it's like for those people, we stick with the white cops as they come to their convictions about race relations.
I hope these examples help point out an ongoing theme. Now let's look at the even deeper issues behind the 'White Savior' narrative.
Why are People Mad About 'White Savior' Movies?
People are upset about the 'White Savior' narrative because it ignores the valid point of view and experiences of people of color. Those ignored experiences create a shallow understanding of our world and have repercussions outside of mainstream film and television. It can lead to unconscious bias, an inaccurate view of other cultures, and racism at every level.
One of the biggest things Hollywood is trying to change right now is representation. For the past 100 years of cinema, we've been getting a disproportionate amount of stories coming from the white perspective. This means that we're looking at history through only one side of the story, and that side doesn't always have the best story to tell, even if it has the best intentions.
If cinema is truly an empathy machine, then we need to make sure the camera is pointed toward the places that need empathy or understanding, not shot through the filter of one person's experience.
Audiences are growing tired of watching the same story over and over.
When you lack representation, what you're doing is censoring a point of view. Since these projects are usually solely written or seen from the white point of view, you're missing the depth of the other side of the story. That means that the characters of color can seem underwritten and stale.
This affects who gets nominated for awards, who becomes a star, and who can sell a movie.
But it all goes deeper than just the business. There are sociological repercussions to the 'White Savior' narrative.
For most of the country, the cinematic experience is escapism. And I bet that's true for the elderly members of the Academy and across the globe. When they see a movie like Green Book, they can truly pretend that inequality and awfulness are over when the credits roll. After all, those characters in the past solved it. Right? No.
Since, at its core, Green Book is a movie that wants you to think anyone can play their part in the change, as long as they figuratively "listen," I'd assume the Academy thinks its also full of "listeners."
If the movie had been scored with bookends like Blackkklansman, which shows that racism goes way back beyond just the South and continues today, I think it would have been more accurate and also have a more positive impact. The moral of Blackkklansman is action.
While you can argue that Green Book's intention was not apathy, you cannot argue that there are unintended sociological consequences to audiences raised on the 'White Savior' narrative.
Check out this interview with Gugu Mbatha-Raw from The Daily Beast. She talks about her role in Belle, and how important it was for her to change the perspective of audiences watching the movie: “For me, this point of view is so refreshing. I’d never seen a period drama like this with a woman of color as the lead who wasn’t being brutalized, wasn’t being raped, was going through this personal evolution but was also in a privileged world and articulate and educated. I just hadn’t seen that on film before.”
So what can be done to alter this point of view and get things onto the right track?
What Can Be Done About The White Savior Narrative?
First and foremost, we, as writers, need to do a much better job gathering multiple perspectives and getting outside of our echo chambers. As far as working on your story is concerned, I think the best possible scenario for you is to reach out to some college professors and people who have interacted people from other cultures. From there, maybe there’s a way to speak with some of the people who lived the events or a version of the fictional experiences. Or find books where people share, firsthand, their relationship with outsiders, colonialism, race, and experiences.
What about stories on colonialism?
Colonialism is, by definition, the direct implications of buying into the white savior trope. Sure, there are many historical accounts of people visiting tribes and coming to great nations whether missionaries or explores but as you now history always has two sides - and just because one party went somewhere and thought they were doing something good doesn't what happened there was good.
This point was brought to my attention by filmmaker, Ligaiya Romero.
She directed me to the poem White Man's Burden, written by Rudyard Kipling, which was supposed to convince the U.S. to extend its imperial and colonial power toward places like the Philippines. Romero also encouraged me to look into "the work of missionaries and the non-profit industrial complex in former (or current) colonies is 100% rooted in white savior narratives. And to bring it back to filmmaking, keep an eye out for white saviors in the documentary world (both in front of the lens and behind), " and I'm really happy she chose to contribute these thoughts and observations to the post.
I think as storytellers we are responsible for accruing every point of you we can and then telling the story from what we perceive to be the truth. Sure, this is harder than anything else, but it’s why we do the job and the responsibility we have to the audience. And to history. When we get things wrong it can have far reaching consequences.
The white savior is a white fantasy and a trope that won’t help you get ahead in Hollywood. Does it still occur in movies, sure, but unless you’re a director who has a ton of clout I wouldn’t suggest trying to break in with one especially since gatekeepers get younger and younger and more socially conscious and aware day by day.
But none of this is good enough.
Let's take a step back first and talk about culture. Without going into an in-depth analysis like Guns, Germs, and Steel on the subject of race, colonialism, and inequality in the modern world, let's just take a look at the movie business. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization responsible for voting and choosing who is nominated for an Oscar, is comprised of over 7,000 members across 17 branches of film.
In 2015, people of color made up only 8% of total Academy membership. That number has now jumped to 13%.
While 13% is a higher number, it still doesn't reflect an actual shift in the way we evaluate and laud movies.
It also means the stories being delivered to audiences are lacking diversity and enforcing old stereotypes. Let's go back to Matthew Hughey for a beat. Here are some stunning statistics he reported in a 2016 interview with UConn Today:
"Nearly 90 percent of suburban whites live in a community where the black population is less than 1 percent, and whites are the most likely racial group to experience extreme segregation – little to no intimate contact with people of other racial groups. In that context, approximately two out of three moviegoers are white, and popular films about race and racism offer people, especially white folks, narratives for experiences they are likely not to have in real life. In fact, in the absence of lived experience, films are often understood as “authentic” reflections of real life and become our very own historiographers, framing what counts as history and collective memory for the greatest number of people."
So the way to combat the 'White Savior' narrative is to get more people of color making films and television shows. We have to buck the system. And the honus for bucking the system lies within those who are privileged or in power paving the way for others. Not as White Saviors, but as hiring entities paying for work from other points of view.
If we want things to change, we have to acknowledge this trope and deal with it head-on, like Ava DuVernay did while making Selma. When the movie came out, some critics were upset by the film's portrayal of Lyndon Johnson. They wanted him to look more like a hero who extended an olive branch.
They wanted it to be more like the 'White Savior' narrative they had grown used to. Lucky for us, DuVernay had other ideas. In speaking to Rolling Stone about the criticism, director Ava DuVernay stated:
I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie; I was interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma. You have to bring in some context for what it was like to live in the racial terrorism that was going on in the deep south at that time. The four little girls have to be there, and then you have to bring in the women. So I started adding women. This is a dramatization of the events. But what’s important for me as a student of this time in history is to not deify what the president did. Johnson has been hailed as a hero of that time, and he was, but we’re talking about a reluctant hero. He was cajoled and pushed, he was protective of a legacy — he was not doing things out of the goodness of his heart. Does it make it any worse or any better? I don’t think so. History is history and he did do it eventually. But there was some process to it that was important to show.
What if That's the Way it Happened in History?
Outside of this being a straw man argument, as storytellers, we are responsible for considering the best way to tell a story. That means, when we're approaching a true life event or a part of history, we should consider all the people within the context of the story. It also means getting outside your comfort zone and talking and researching to make things as authentic as possible.
You can tell one version of events, marginalize people, and I can't promise you won't be rewarded because...Green Book...but I can tell you that history won't look kindly on you.
So what's a movie that does well in dealing with history and race while still being mainstream Hollywood?
Take a movie like Remember The Titans, which was based on actual events.
What I think this movie does wonderfully is finding a way to tell the story via Denzel Washinton's character. He's the lead here. While it would have been easy to dramatize the story of the white coach who stepped away to make that the central plotline, instead we follow Coach Boone and his family as they try to deal with the pressure of moving to a segregated school. We juxtapose this against coach Yoast and his family. Instead of there being a noble savage or anything of the like, we find out that everyone has a lot in common.
The movie and screenplay manage to do this by actually digging into the diverse points of view at the center of this story. It honors the facts, takes liberties on both sides, but still manages to not delve too badly into the White Savior tropes. Sure, there are moments when white players and coaches have to stand up for their friends, but the movie is not solely about that. Or about the white experience. Part of that has to do with having a diverse writer as well.
Summing Up the White Savior Trope in Film
I am aware of the inherent irony in a white person trying to lead the charge in dispelling the 'White Savior' trope, but I stand by the research in this article and the need to improve. That starts with me and my writing.I hope it makes its way to you and your writing too. I genuinely wish that in reading this you were able to understand the trope, the history, and why things have to change.
A lot of this goes back to my desire to see better movies and TV. Hollywood was built at a time when America and, frankly, the world had some backward ideas on race and gender. While I know this post only examines the tip of the iceberg in terms of the problem, there is a problem. Creators have to be the first in line to fix it.
By broadening our horizons and knowing the trope exists, we can flip that trope on its head and work together to put better, more conscious entertainment out into the world. As you read, this can have positive societal changes and sociological implications. So it's incredibly important that we push forward.
If you're reading this and think I missed a key point, please reach out via email (Jason@Nofilmschool.com) or in the comments!
Challenge yourselves to be better.
I'm looking forward to reading what you write next.