From “The Blind Side” to “The Help.”
In this op-ed, Fariha Róisín tackles Hollywood’s obsession with white-savior narratives and how this sidelines people of color from their own stories.
Within the first few minutes of this year’s Oscar-nominated Lion, (starring Dev Pateland based on the book written by Saroo Brierley), the audience was completely enraptured. The story centers on Saroo, a young Indian boy who loses his family. After months of loneliness, he is adopted by Australian parents — and then later finds his biological family through Google Maps.
It’s a profound story. But knowing that it was true, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the film would be eclipsed by Nicole Kidman, who plays Saroo’s adoptive, white Australian mother. And though it wasn’t so obvious, her presence within the narrative was felt throughout the movie: She was ever-present, her whiteness all-seeing, all-knowing, omnipresent.
LION, from left, Sunny Pawar, Nicole Kidman, 2016. ph: Mark Rogers/©The Weinstein
Lion ©Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection
Hollywood has a trend when it comes to these films in general. It’s most commonly seen in Oscar-bait movies; the white savior complex is a constant leitmotif. Hollywood supposedly inserts these roles for complexity, for drama. But what ends up happening is that they perpetuate an idea that is essentially a historical banner of colonialism: People of color need white people to save them. To this day, some people still latently believe what imperialists such as Rudyard Kipling said, that colonialism was important for everyone: the conqueror and, most importantly, the conquered. That without the colonizers, the colonized had no hope of survival. And by constantly churning out movies with plots in which white people “save” people of color, Hollywood reinforces colonialist dictum.
Many white people in films based on the stories of POC are often subliminally depicted as godlike saviors, heroes who are rational and judicious to the core. They are usually deified men or women — glorified and righteous — like scripture out of a Holy Book. Look at Hillary Swank in Freedom Writers. The white savior somehow always ends up usurping the narrative. And in this centering of whiteness and white characters, the POC characters end up becoming props, which only perpetuates ideas of our otherness and unimportance, which then establishes a status quo of racism. Whiteness is again normalized, and POC are decentralized. This is particularly problematic because whiteness is not only favored in Hollywood but also in society at large; white privilege is ever-present and ubiquitous.
By constantly churning out movies with plots in which white people ‘save’ people of color, Hollywood reinforces colonialist dictum.
The stories of children of color, in particular, are often used as film fodder in a bid to invoke a sympathetic appeal to a narrative — just look at Angelina Jolie’s forthcoming film First They Killed My Father, as well as Lion. Or The Blind Side, which in 2010 won Sandra Bullock the Academy Award for Best Actress. The movie was about a white mom who adopts Michael Oher, a young black boy who goes on to be an offensive lineman who played for the Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans, and Carolina Panthers in the NFL. Though there are some endearing moments throughout the film, it is, in a roundabout way, about how a white family’s belief in a black boy allowed him to become who he truly was. Without them, his full potential would never have been realized. Therefore, it still employs exploitative power dynamics of someone needing to be “saved.”
THE BLIND SIDE, from left: Jae Head, Quinton Aaron, Sandra Bullock, 2009. Ph: Ralph Nelson/©Warner B
The Blind Side, ©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection
And sometimes this happens even in POC-helmed films. Take 12 Years a Slave; in it, a Canadian carpenter, played by Brad Pitt, is so unsettled when he hears the details of Solomon Northup’s story of enslavement that he risks his life to free him. It’s momentary — there’s really just a hop, skip, and a glimpse of Brad Pitt — but his presence is known and made a significant plot point within the film. There’s a sigh of relief when you see him, because, in some way, psychologically you understand his purpose in the narrative arc. Especially against the lunacy, brashness, and pure evil of the other slave owners, Pitt’s existence in the film is light. He ushers in good tidings, and, most importantly, he is vital to the plot of Northup’s freedom. He is a classic white savior.
The film was written by John Ridley (who is black), who won a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award for it — and the film itself also took Best Picture. A few months beforehand, in response to an interviewer at the BBC, Steve McQueen, the director of 12 Years a Slave, explained, with no hesitation, “I don’t make films for white people . . .” Though that may be true, it’s clear that even with Pitt’s character being a secondary one in the film, the fact that the story depended on him for Solomon to ultimately find freedom shifts the entire lens of the film. For me, as a viewer, Pitt’s existence in the narrative of the film was memorable in a way I don’t want to remember a white character in a film about a black man’s survival.
THE HELP, from left: Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis, 2011. ph: Dale Robinette/©Walt Disney The Help, ©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection
Perhaps one of the most offensive of all depictions of white savior-ness is the Oscar-winning hit The Help. It had a considerable, hefty, and talented POC cast. The film interacts with the burdens of POC in the South by glorifying the liberal journalist who endows two black maids — Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer, who won Best Supporting Actress for this role) — with strength during the Civil Rights Movement. A “liberal” in this sense is the confluence of a person with white guilt — someone who claims to be invested in not being racist — who doesn’t engage in how they might profit off of racism and also how they might perpetuate it. The Help centers on a white journalist’s verve for justice for two working-class black women during the civil rights era; it’s the main narrative of the film. Clearly, the Civil Rights Movement didn’t have enough inspirational black folks to encourage the need for self-determination.
There are many ways that Hollywood could do better. First, it could hire more diverse writers. Representation comes through hiring trans and nonbinary writers, black and brown writers, queer and disabled writers; it’s about engaging in the problematics of a system and not hiding from the reality that perpetuating whiteness as a norm hasn’t got us anywhere, ahem. The most damning part of the white savior complex is that Hollywood is making content for us, but without us in mind, usurping our stories with a white person’s guilt. If we want stronger storytelling, we have to be willing to invest in those who have that lived experience and nurture their voices, too. Because Hollywood is reliant upon us both to make money and to survive. ■