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The White Savior Trope, Explained

Why do so many stories about racism revolve around the White Savior? In 2020, as the Movement for Black Lives grew in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, The Help experienced a resurgence in popularity, becoming one of the most-streamed movies on Netflix. The 2011 film about a white woman confronting racism may be well-intentioned, but—like Green Book, The Blind Side, and other White Savior movies before it—The Help centers its story on benevolent white characters, rather than on firsthand black perspectives. How did this trope become so persistent? Here’s our Take on the dangers of the White Savior, and how we can change our own narratives and conversations to become more anti-racist ourselves.

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Tony Lip: “Tonight I saved your ass, so show a little appreciation maybe.” - Green Book

In June 2020, while all eyes were on the Movement for Black Lives, following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, The Help — a story about a white woman writing a book to confront racism — became one of the most-streamed movies on Netflix, even reaching number one in the US. The 2011 film’s resurgence in popularity was met with a strong backlash because The Help is widely considered a white savior narrative: in other words, a story about people of color that centers the benevolent actions of a white character.

Andre Allen: “In every civil rights movie there’s two heroes. There’s the black hero and the white person who’s ‘equally’ as important.” - Top Five

Looking at the “white savior” character onscreen over the decades, we can see a common profile:

They’re a strong-willed, often optimistic non-traditionalist, who courageously risks being ostracised by their more prejudiced community in order to help a person of color.

Hilly Holbrook: “Believe it or not there are real racists in this town. If the wrong person caught you with that you’d be in serious trouble.” - The Help

They frequently star in a period piece, where this character appears ahead of the curve and stands in contrast to blatantly racist peers in their era.

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw: “You really think you can keep 500 union soldiers without proper shoes because you think it’s funny?” - Glory

The white savior tends to be the main focus of their story — so, while movies featuring this character may eloquently advocate for unity and fairness, they can also end up sidelining the black and POC characters.

Jake Brigance: “You can not hold Carl Lee Hayley responsible for my shortcomings.” - A Time to Kill

Perhaps most jarringly, the white savior features in feel-good movies with happy endings, which almost comfort viewers with a false sense that the ongoing, complex problem of racism is essentially “solved” by the end of a 2-hour movie.

Tony Lip: “Come on, make some room, get this man a plate!” - Green Book

As well-intentioned as many of them may be, the sheer ubiquity of these narratives (which are overwhelmingly created by white writers and directors, and frequently recognized by awards) detracts from other stories grounded in black perspectives and their firsthand experience of racism. So what makes this trope so persistent? Here’s our Take on the dangers of the white savior trope, and how we can shift our narratives and conversations to become more anti-racist ourselves.

Emmanuel Acho: “It’s not enough in 2020 to be not racist, not racist meaning ‘I am passive when it comes to racism’...If you see it you have to speak on it and call it out.” - Interview on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

Anatomy of a White Savior

The white savior complex in Western history can be traced as far back as the beginning of European imperialism, which was largely justified by the idea that white people were civilizing indigenous populations, who were amoral by nature. The popularity of this trope on film really took off during the 1950s and ‘60s during the rise of the American civil rights movement. While calls for change were being led in the streets by black activists the mainstream films produced in this era explored how white men related to these tensions. And this reflected the prevailing assumption among studios that white audiences would not be able to relate to stories about race unless they could see them through the eyes of a white person.

In the 1962 film adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Southern white lawyer Atticus Finch attempts to save a falsely accused black man from conviction in the ‘30s, and while Atticus is unsuccessful, his bravery makes him a hero to the black community (and a role model to his daughter).

Atticus Finch: “I’ve been appointed to defend Tom Robinson. Now that he’s been charged that’s what I intend to do.” - To Kill a Mockingbird

As admirable as much of their writing and ideas were for the time, staples of American film and literature like To Kill a Mockingbird helped to establish a norm of stories about black history being told through the lens of noble white protagonists. In the late ‘80s through the 2000s, acclaimed movies like Mississippi Burning, Glory, and Amistad all articulated inspirational messages of freedom and equality, but they did so while foregrounding the experiences (and hardships) of white main characters. 2011’s The Help—which explores racial tensions between black domestic workers and their white employers during the civil rights movement—chooses as a protagonist not the maids, but the young white woman who wants to write a book about them.

“Skeeter” Phelan: “I’d really like to interview you Aibileen, I know it’s scary.” - The Help

The volume and popularity of white savior films to this day show how committed our culture remains to centering white characters in stories about civil rights, black history, and racism. These movies—usually made by white writers and directors—continue to receive top awards over films depicting the same themes made by black filmmakers (Green Book vs BlacKKKlansman and Driving Miss Daisy vs Do the Right Thing). So the most fundamental issue is that white creators continue to dominate a conversation where it’s vital that black voices are featured most of all.

Agent Rupert Anderson: “If I were a Negro, I’d probably think the same way they do.”

Agent Alan Ward: “If you were a Negro, nobody would give a damn what you thought.” - Mississippi Burning

Meanwhile, these movies can frequently lack three-dimensionality in their portraits of black and POC characters. While the white protagonists often get love stories and complex character development, the non-white characters tend to be reduced to their negative experiences.

Michael Oher: “It’s nice I’ve never had one before.”

Leigh Anne Tuohy: “What a room to yourself?”

Michael Oher: “A bed.” - The Blind Side

Black and POC characters also risk being portrayed as passive in their own stories. In The Help, it is Skeeter’s revelation that her childhood maid has been fired that leads her to want to expose racism on behalf of the other black maids in her community, while in reality, black people were eager to tell their own stories and had been doing so since before the abolition of slavery. So this simplified narrative centered on a white woman suggests that without Skeeter’s bravery, these women would never have encountered the ongoing black struggle for equality.

Aibileen Clark: “My boy Treelore always said we gon have a writer in the family one day. I guess it’s gonna be me.” - The Help

Focusing primarily on the experiences of white characters also elevates their brushes with racism almost to the point where they’re equated with actually being victimized by racism.

Scott Casey: “I just wanna live my life and not feel bad about it.”

Erin Gruwell: “I’m not trying to make you feel bad.” - Freedom Writers

Of course, it’s important to note that the white savior trope is not limited to stories about Americans or black people. The British film Lawrence of Arabia (released the same year as To Kill a Mockingbird) similarly centers a white male protagonist in a story of Arabic people’s struggle for independence,

Jackson Bentley: “They hope to gain their freedom.”

T. E. Lawrence: “They’re going to get it, Mr. Bentley. I’m going to give it to them.” - Lawrence of Arabia

In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana is the only person capable of finding the missing children and a sacred stolen stone of an Indian village. In Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski becomes the savior of the Asian family who lives next door, while his unapologetic racism is dismissed as a forgivable personality quirk, or even played for laughs.

Walt Kowalski: “How ya doing Martin you crazy Italian prick?... You see kid, that’s how guys talk to each other.”

Thao: “They do?” - Gran Torino

Even in movies based on true stories, filmmakers often engage in significant historical omissions or rewrites in order to frame the material around a heroic arc for a white character. 2007’s Freedom Writers recast the Latina Erin Gruwell as a white woman. More recently, 2016’s Hidden Figures invents a scene in which a fictional white boss, who’s a composite of real NASA executives courageously tears down a woman’s bathroom sign. When the film’s director Theodore Melfi justified this addition by saying, There need to be white people doing the right thing,” his words revealed that the assumption underlying earlier civil-rights movies that white audiences can only relate to movies with white characters is still very much alive today.

Some of the people “white savior” films are based on have even criticized them for being misleading or oversimplified. Ablene Cooper—a black woman who worked for the family of the author of The Help—is suing the author for using and distorting her likeness without her permission in a way she says is “embarrassing.” And the real-life family of Dr. Don Shirley has condemned Green Book’s portrayal of him as completely estranged from both his family and black culture to a degree that the movie even suggests he requires the help of his white driver to connect with his blackness at all.

Tony Lip (to Shirley): “I live on the streets, you sit on a throne. So, yeah, my world is way more blacker than yours!” - Green Book

Most fundamentally, Green Book reduces Shirley’s life to supporting material for a narrative about a racist driver, when the life story of this queer black composer would by all accounts have made for a remarkable (and more unusual) movie on its own.

Introducer (of Don Shirley): “He holds Doctorates in Psychology, in Music, and in the Liturgical Arts and he has performed at the White House twice in the past fourteen months.” - Green Book

The Individual and the System

One of the most central problems with white-savior narratives is that—while we know racism to be deeply systemic—these movies often explore it solely on the individual level. In 1957’s 12 Angry Men, as one white juror tries to convince his peers to act fairly in the case of a young man of color accused of murder, the film’s focus is on each of the white men trying to confront his own personal prejudice. In The Help, most of the racism we see takes the form of prejudiced remarks between white individuals.

The problem with the individual focus of the white savior trope is perhaps best illustrated in two particular subgenres of this story: the white savior sports movie and the white savior education movie. A number of iconic sports movies feature white coaches rehabilitating black sports teams to lead them to victory.

Adolph Rupp: “What kind of statement are you trying to make by playing all these coloreds?”

Don Haskins: “That I’m a basketball coach who don’t make statements.” - Glory Road

Likewise, in the white savior narrative featuring teachers and education, an energetic white teacher is frequently inspired to “clean up” a black school or change the lives of students for the better—often against the advice of more prejudiced or cynical members of their community.

LouAnne Johnson: “Don’t you think that finishing high school will be valuable to their future?”

Mother: “That’s not in their future.” - Dangerous Minds

Both of these subgenres can depict compelling and inspirational black and POC characters, and they might feature real racial violence and trauma experienced by their black characters. Still, they rarely spend much time investigating the underlying systemic structures that lead to these characters being disenfranchised, underserved, and victimized in the first place. And the result is that audiences usually aren’t presented with concrete ideas for structural change, but instead left with vague messages of ‘unity’ and ‘kindness.” We’re made to feel that complicated, deeply entrenched problems can be fixed by an individual who simply cares enough.

Student: “Why do you care anyway? You’re just here for the money.”

LouAnne Johnson: “Because I make a choice to care. And, honey, the money ain’t that good.” - Dangerous Minds

The hyperfocus on racism at the individual level also creates the illusion of good and bad white people who either choose to be racist or choose not to be. This oversimplified framing offers an easy scapegoat for white audiences while handing them an admirable, non-racist white figure they can relate to.

Another key feature of the white savior narrative is that it tends to be set in the past. This allows viewers to comfortably look back on how far we’ve come from this period setting when prejudice was more egregious and overt. And it avoids making white viewers feel excessively implicated in the ongoing racism of the society they’re still a part of.

Writer Teju Cole, who coined the term “white savior industrial complex” to describe white-centered intervention in the African continent, describes white saviorism as “a big emotional moment that validates privilege.” In other words, the myth of the white savior is that in showing compassion to a non-white person, white people can absolve themselves of their privilege.

In the end, while the white savior is positioned as relatively selfless, the resolution almost certainly involves them being rewarded with some sort of personal fulfillment.

Erin Gruwell: “When I’m helping these kids make sense of their lives, everything about my life makes sense to me.” - Freedom Writers

This trend in white savior films echoes the ‘magical negro’ trope which has long been criticized for treating black characters like counselors in the white character’s journey to self-actualization. Crucially, many white-savior narratives wrap up with a heartwarming resolution. While the world may still not be perfect at the end, the implicit message is that progress at large is possible and on its way, because of what we’ve seen these individuals are capable of.

By contrast, in movies about racism made by black filmmakers (When They See Us, Malcolm X, Do the Right Thing, 13th), the emotional takeaway is frequently the opposite: audiences leave feeling challenged, confused, even confronted. And when Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman ends by cutting from its civil rights era story to 2017 footage of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally and Donald Trump, Lee reminds viewers that the fight is very much still ongoing, these films force us to reckon with the reality that racism is not some distant past, but a pernicious reality that continues to be part of all of our lives.

Michelle Alexander: “So many aspects of the old Jim Crow are suddenly legal again once you’ve been branded a felon.” - 13th, (author of The New Jim Crow)

How Do We Talk About Racism?

Tellingly, the hallmarks of the white savior narrative—a central white character, interracial reconciliation, or an employer-employee relationship that blossoms into friendship—rarely feature in the work of black and POC filmmakers. On the contrary, it’s striking that in films made by black creators, white characters are very often on the sidelines. In Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, they’re either grotesque villains, distractions, or simply irrelevant.

White woman: “I just wanted to ask you…what can a white person like me, who isn’t prejudiced…what can I do to help you and further your cause?”

Malcolm X: “Nothing.” - Malcolm X

While many classic white savior narratives frame the divide as being between “racist” and “not racist,” in the words of Angela Y. Davis, “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.” When it comes to creating or watching film and TV, being anti-racist means seeking out narratives that challenge us, instead of ones which make us feel more comfortable. It means actively looking to confront our own bias, understand ways that we’re involved in racist systems, and hold ourselves and others accountable.

Ava Duvernay: “There are many educated Caucasian folk who are talking to each other about it. They need to continue to do that, so that we can save our energy for survival and thriving.” - Interview with CBS News

On Insecure, Frieda, Issa’s co-worker at her all-white non-profit, embodies the transition from being non-racist to anti-racist. When we meet Frieda, she is well-meaning but can be patronizing in her attempts to help black children; however, over time we see her make a concerted effort to become more aware of how she and her organization carry implicit biases that hinder their work.

Issa Dee: “We’re not about to waste time on white people, no offense.”

Frieda: “No, we’ve given white people enough time.” - Insecure, 3x3

The 2018 film Blindspotting and the series Dear White People highlight how even well-intentioned white people can endanger their black friends if they’re not cognizant of their privilege. These stories force their white characters to face that they cannot disavow their whiteness.

Gabe Mitchell: “Joelle, I called the cops the other night…I thought it would keep things from getting too out of control. I thought I was doing the right thing.” - Dear White People, 1x7

In Little Fires Everywhere, Reese Witherspoon’s Elena Richardson starts out the story fashioning herself as a “white savior” who’s self-satisfied after she does a favor for Mia Warren, a single black mother who appears to be in need. But when Mia not only fails to show gratitude but also brings challenging chaos into this wealthy white woman’s life, Elena is increasingly forced to confront her deep-seated biases and privilege, and because the audience at times can empathize with her, her story pushes viewers to look critically at themselves.

Mia Warren: “You didn’t make good choices. You had good choices! Options that being rich white and entitled gave you.” - Little Fires Everywhere 1x5

Another complex series starring an antiheroine, Mrs. America, cleverly subverts the white savior trope to depict a self-righteous protagonist-on-a-mission who’s not very relatable and who, far from saving anyone, causes tangible setbacks to the rights of women, the LGBTQ community, and people of color.

Phyllis Schlafly: “If we pull this off, Houston will be the death knell of the women’s liberation movement. Let’s blow it up.” - Mrs. America, 1x7

All these narratives represent a step forward from the reductive racist-versus-not-racist binary from white savior films of the past. Meanwhile, as more black and POC filmmakers have gained a platform to reach large audiences, films like Black Panther, Get Out and Sorry to Bother You have been able to show black people grappling with how best to exist in a racist society, sometimes clashing with each other in their views on this complex question.

Killmonger: “It’s about two billion people all over the world that looks like us. But their lives are a lot harder.” - Black Panther

Crucially, black and POC filmmakers increasingly have the opportunity to tell stories that include the challenges of racism but are not just about that (Crazy Rich Asians, Insecure, Blackish, Ramy). Movies and shows about people of color must reflect a diversity of individuals and stories, in which confronting prejudice is one part of a complex lived experience.

Margaret Sloan-Hunter: “Like the white population, we are diverse within ourselves…There is not a monolithic black experience.” - Mrs. America, 1x5