A white savior movie is a film that portrays white self-sacrifice as necessary to “help” or “fix” a black person’s situation. In a white savior film, black characters are represented as victims who are desperately in need of the help of white people in order to thrive in society. As Chris Rock noted in the movie Top Five: “In any civil rights movie, there’s two heroes. There’s the black hero, and the white person who’s ‘equally’ as important.”
Rather than seriously confronting the massive challenges of systemic oppression, white savior movies have a self-satisfied way of claiming to take on racism when actually they 1) uphold racist stereotypes, 2) prop up historical inaccuracies that caricature oppression, 3) misrepresent white characters as the story’s hero (when usually they were either perpetrators of oppression or silently complicit), and 4) typically misrepresent black characters as desperate and weak and in need of the graciousness of a white person.
Selected here are five white savior movies and what to watch instead.
Based on a best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett, The Help is exactly the sort of tone-deaf, white savior award-bait movie you’d expect: it simplifies racial injustice to the point of caricature, it uses black characters as foils for the enlightenment of white housewives who participate in the oppression, and falsely reassures modern audiences that the gross inequalities of the 1960s are far behind us.
Two actors who star in the film–Viola Davis and Bryce Dallas Howard–have both publicly stated they were dissatisfied with the movies paint-by-numbers plot and regretted acting in the film. Davis said: “It wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard.”
Watch instead: The Butler and Black-ish
The Blind Side
This movie is so manipulative and sentimental it hurts. Very loosely based on the true story of NFL player Michael Oher, The Blind Side is the story of Michael, a homeless black teen taken in by a white couple and encouraged after it’s discovered that he has a talent for football. The film was criticized by many–including Michael Oher–for misrepresenting Michael as an incompetent and lazy young black man who needed the assistance of a wealthy white family to excel and realize his potential.
In actuality, Michael went from homelessness to the NFL on his merits and determination, not–as the movie depicts–because of the sacrifices of a wealthy white family. In 2011, while promoting his own memoir I Beat the Odds, Oher said: “You don’t have to be saved by a wealthy white family. You can do it on your own. It is possible.” Absurdly, the Academy Awards bestowed Sandra Bullock with an Oscar for her performance in the film.
Watch instead: He Got Game and Moonlight
This is a movie that argues that oppressed black high school students need the graciousness and encouragement of a white savior (Hilary Swank) in order to excel–instead of, say, a robust public school system, adequate and inclusive social services, and anti-racist policy changes. Like all white savior films, Freedom Writers ignores the systemic problems at hand and instead boasts the message that black people need educated white people in order to succeed.
Watch instead: Coach Carter, The Hate U Give, and Half Nelson
Remember when this won Best Picture at the Oscars? Don’t be hoodwinked when people try to pass this off as a movie about friendship and reconciliation. This is a dumb white savior movie that seems like a movie that’d be released in the early nineties. But, for a plethora of reasons, in 2018 the Oscar voters were thirsty for a “not all white people are bad” story. Racism? Fugheddaboudit. But hey, can you expect more from the filmmaker who brought you Dumb and Dumber?
Green Book is loosely based on the relationship between black musician Dr. Donald Shirley and his white driver, Tony Vallelonga, as Shirley is escorted through the Deep South while performing piano concerts to sold-out audiences. Vallelonga’s family was involved in the development and writing of the project and were criticized by many–including the Shirley family–for misrepresenting Donald’s legacy.
Watch instead: BlacKkKlansman and Blindspotting
The real story behind this loose adaption is so much more complicated and inspiring than the film wants you to believe. In the movie, a white supervisor (Kevin Costner) tears down the “colored” sign on a bathroom door, rips the sign apart, and proclaims to his staff: “No more colored bathrooms. No more white restrooms. Here at NASA we all pee the same color.”
In actuality, NASA scientist Katherine Johnson didn’t need the self-satisfied help of a white savior. Contrary to what the film portrays, in real life Johnson refused to use the “colored” bathroom and instead used the “whites only.” Too bad the screenwriter and director felt the need to keep that history hidden, and instead boasted the righteousness of the white colleagues.
Watch instead: Miss Juneteenth and Mudbound