How 'white saviour' films like 'Green Book' hurt Hollywood

  • Green Bookwon Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
  • The Oscar-winner has been described as a “white saviour” movie, a movie that features a white character saving people of colour from situations they couldn’t save themselves from.
  • These films often reinforce the idea that racism is largely gone today – a narrative that’s becoming tired in the wake of racism’s prominence the news.

The following is a transcript of the video.

Manny: The film “Hidden Figures” is based on a true story, and one of its most powerful scenes is when Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner, heroically rips down a “coloreds only” sign above a women’s restroom.

– Here at NASA, we all pee the same colour.

Manny: Later in the film, Harrison graciously grants Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, access to the control room so that she can watch the rocket launch that she helped bring to fruition. Couple problems here though. The real Katherine Johnson says she had to watch the launch from her desk. Furthermore, it turns out that Al Harrison never even existed. He’s completely made up! Why?

Kevin Costner’s character is what’s known as a “white saviour.” A white character who saves a person of colour from their troubles, troubles that the person of colour can’t save themselves from. The white saviour trope has been utilised since the beginning of filmmaking, but it really grew popular during the civil rights era. Offscreen, black activists were leading the fight for civil rights in America, but filmmakers turned to white characters to tell these nonwhite stories.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is about a white lawyer who defends a black man from fabricated charges. “Lawrence of Arabia” is about a British lieutenant who acts as a liaison for the Arab National Council in the Middle East. As the years went on, the number of white saviour films multiplied. “Mississippi Burning” is the story of missing civil rights activists and the white agents’ tasked to find them. “Glory” is about an all-black regiment led into battle by Robert Shaw. Fun fact, “Glory” manages to be a white saviour film despite the fact that Shaw doesn’t actually save anyone. He literally leads them to death. And the power of the white saviour should never be underestimated. In “Gran Torino,” a racist white man is heralded for saving the people of colour that he’s always racist to.

– What the hell’d these Chinese have to move in this neighbourhood for?

Manny: Hard pass. No matter how black or multicultural a film is in its content, filmmakers would have us believe that white characters are the best vehicles for the story. Characters of colour become far less important in their own stories. And yes, many white saviour films are based on true stories. But they often either oversimplify race issues or flat out get things wrong.

This is how we get movies like the 2019 Best Picture Winner, “Green Book.” The film is about Don Shirley, a black, queer musical genius with multiple doctorates, told through the lens of his…driver? The film quickly became controversial because Shirley’s living relatives say that it’s incredibly misleading. They told USA Today, “The thing that bothers our family is that the focus of the film is all about a white man who is an extreme racist and who was still a racist at the end.” Indeed, Tony “Lip,” played by Viggo Mortensen, is the main character. At one point in the film, he tells Don Shirley that he needs to connect with black culture more, going so far as to say that he’s blacker than him.

– Excuse me?!

Manny: And at one point, teaching him how to eat fried chicken. Of course, Shirley’s younger brother told 1A that Don was not estranged from the black community whatsoever, and that he had 100% eaten fried chicken before. Details aren’t the only things that white saviour films struggle with. They’re also accused of reinforcing the idea that racism is largely gone today. After being bombarded with movie after movie about how far we’ve come as a nation, white saviour films end up minimising the issues that people of colour go through today. Viewers may leave a white saviour film saying, “Thank God we are not like this anymore!” When in fact, many of us are still exactly like this. Spike Lee illustrated this point ever so clearly in “BlacKkKlansman” by tying the bigotry and hate from its story set in the ’70s to the current political climate we’re in today.

– America first.

– America first!

Manny: In a time where politicians are being outed for wearing blackface, white supremacists are on the rise, and racially motivated shootings are in the headline, these “look how far we’ve come” white saviour movies are becoming increasingly tiring. Filmmakers seem to believe that if stories about people of colour are told in a real and authentic way, then white characters would have little to no place in them. Well, maybe that’s how it should be.

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