Hollywood’s White Savior Complex

“it’s disappointing that in a movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States, African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them…Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” gives us only faithful servants, patiently waiting for the day of Jubilee.”

This from an article by Kate Masur in the NY Times. I’m not entirely sure the movie was devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery. It was called “Lincoln” after all, not “Emancipation”.

I have a difficult time saying that any particular film is a “white savior” film. No single film should bear the burden of collective problem in the industry. The white savior complex is meaningful only when seen as a pattern.

White saviors can be found in many places but thrive in the following environments:

  • inner city schools
  • American courtrooms
  • anywhere in Africa
  • sporting grounds
  • battlefields

By themselves, these movies do not portend any significant ideas on the depiction of race in movies. Seen together, the pattern is undeniable.

The settings may change but invariably, Hollywood is in love with stories of white people going out of their way to save the “others”. You will notice that many of the themes repeat over the years.

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You would be correct in noticing that several of these movies are based on historical events. Is it the film maker’s fault that it was a white lawyer who defended the captured slaves in Amistad? That a white man was actually the head of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry as depicted in Glory? While these may be based on actual events, it’s no coincidence that Hollywood chooses to make such heroic movies, only if the savior is white.

There are of course some who go out of their way to insert white saviors and deserve ridicule. The Last Airbender took existing anime characters who were Asian and made them white for the feature film version. The film also took the liberty of departing from the original by making all the bad guys brown skinned.

Original anime characters up top and their movie versions below.
Original anime characters up top and their movie versions below.

But surely there must be black savior films as well. Don’t be fooled. When Will Smith beats up the aliens in Independence Day, he’s saving the world, not just white people (it should also be noted that it was the white scientist who cracked the alien code and the white farmer who finally blew up the alien space craft). When Denzel Washington coaches the football team in Remember the Titans, he is coaching an integrated team, not a white one. In other words, white people on their own never need help from others – only in those instances in which everyone needs help.

There are certainly black heroes (very few Latino or Asian though) in the movies but when a member of one group saves someone from another, it’s always whites doing the saving. I could only find two movies with clear black saviors, and unlike all the white savior movies, one of them is a comedy, as if the idea is in and of itself laughable.

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5 thoughts on “Hollywood’s White Savior Complex

    1. I know you used quotes and all, but Antonio Banderas hardly qualifies as a brown guy. If anything, Hollywood got tired of the same ole white savior story so they imported a more exotic kind of white guy.

      And I totally agree with you – I don’t think there’s anything malicious going on at all. I think it would be unfair to ever point to one movie and blame it for promoting white saviors – each movie has its own calculus and a million factors go into it (except for Airbender – wow indeed). I’m not in the position to say what was in the minds of the producers when they did casting.

      I was just surprised by the sheer quantity of white savior films and the lack thereof of others.

      1. re: your first paragraph… I disagree. Would white people say Antonio Banderas is white? White ain’t a color man…neither is black. It counts (shoutout to ‘watsap mah ninja’)

    2. You are absolutely correct mexindian in saying that white as a color is not race. But that just furthers my point. If it was just a matter of color, then Banderas could be mistaken for a Mexican or something, but the producers of the film specifically chose someone from Spain (sorry, but anyone from Europe is white in my book). Coincidence? I think not. Racist? no I don’t think so in the micro sense, but it fits right into the white savior complex.

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