White Saviour Complex / Syndrome / Trope in Film Part 2

Activity 1

What I would like you to do is think of as many films as you can where the lead character is BAME or GM (Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic or Global Majority).

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Is that more difficult than it seemed at first? Now I would like you to discount any films where the main character is aided by a white character to fulfil their narrative.

With films like ‘Django Unchained’, Django is the protagonist. However, there is an addition of a white saviour character (ironically who is named Dr King). In the trailer below note who actually speaks through most it. These additions mean that this film and many others fall victim to the ‘white saviour’ trope.

Hidden figures is based on a true story. During the film, a white man, Al Harrison, hammers down a ‘coloured only’ sign above a women’s toilet and exclaims:

‘Here at NASA, we all pee the same colour’

Al Harrison

Later in the film, he brings Katherine Johnson to the control room so that she can watch the rocket launch that she helped bring into fruition. What’s the problem, Pran? This is a good thing surely. Yes, allyship is important. The problem is that Katherine Johnson actually had to watch the launch from her desk because that great white man, Al ‘I’m pivotal to the plot’ Harrison, didn’t actually exist. Remember black people are rarely portrayed as doing amazing things without having white people there to help.

More Examples

Film White Saviour Narrative
Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom White man liberates Hindu holy relics and uses their power to defeat savage impoverished indigenous people.
Avatar White man saved the day through becoming a Na’vi, he actually ends up being more Na’vi than the original Na’vi
To Kill a Mockingbird White man represents falsely accused black man, he loses, the black man is killed by the police but all is well as the white man wins the respect of the community.
Game of Thrones White elite woman liberates the nomadic people (Dothraki horde, *sigh*) and leads them on a mission to take over the world for her.

Back to your list. I’d like you to now discount any film where the main character is bestowed with any special powers or referred to as (extremely) special. This trope is referred to as the ‘magical negro’ trope.

In the film, Django is often referred to as ‘one negro in a million’. Black (or people of colour) people in films cannot be normal people who work hard and change the world, but rather they have to be bestowed by magical powers (this is also common in computer games but this for another day).

In films such as the Green Mile and Ghost, the magical negro character has rarely anything but a fickle back story and their primary role is to serve white people.

The act of saying Django was the ‘one negro in one million’  discounts the slave revolutions which happened up and down the length of the United States of America as well as globally. How many of us are taught or are aware of the work and achievements of Zumbi dos Palmares, the last king of Quilombo dos Palmares or  Toussaint L’Ouverture in Haiti where the slave revolution overthrew French colonialism and liberated the whole country.

Some of you may be questioning the above words. However, I would like you to cast your mind to traditional stories such as Tarzan. Let’s deconstruct Tarzan; a privileged white rich middle-class male crashes into a jungle, where the boy grows up in the jungle and learns to speak to the animals. This is problematic and an example of veiled racism. The native people in the jungle have been living there for thousands of years but have not gained this power, it took a white man to do this. Also, I want you to think about how the native and indigenous people are always portrayed in these films, rarely as anything other than uncivilised savages.

If there is any doubt about white saviour in films, I would direct you all to the two most common films shown in schools I have worked in (ironically in London). Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers. White teachers leave their middle-class upbringings to save those poor pupils of colour.

If there is any doubt about white saviour in films, I would direct you all to the two most common films shown in schools I have worked in (ironically in London). Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers. Click To Tweet

Dangerous minds was actually a true story and the author of the original book said:

In my class, the kids were evenly mixed: black, white and Hispanic. In the movie, they made it all minority kids with a token white kid here and there. That perpetuates this myth that only minority kids are at risk, and that white kids don’t have any problems.

The climax of the film ends when Emilio is killed in a criminal gang-related subplot. But people die, Pran, crime is real. Well, let’s look at what actually happened.

‘The real Emilio joined the Marine Corps and settled down with a wife and kids.’

This whole white saviour narrative is false, maliciously false, and worse than that it’s ultimately damaging. This is indoctrinated within society. We have to recognise this first. We have to disrupt this narrative. We have to be better. As educators, it is our duty.

This whole white saviour narrative is false, maliciously false, and worse than that it's ultimately damaging. This is indoctrinated within society. We have to disrupt this narrative. We have to be better. As educators, it is our duty. Click To Tweet

In the next instalment, I discuss how white saviour can be eradicated from the implicit and explicit curriculum.

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