One issue, One trope: The White Savior

Image Credit: Camera-man on Pixabay

In this first feature of “One Issue, One Trope,” Aine Cunningham delves into the insidious nature of the White Saviour trope and challenges Hollywood’s use of it as a narrative device.

If you are a cinema geek, you have certainly come across a film in which a character of colour is facing adversity, only to be assisted by another white character in overcoming this issue. This action eventually culminates in  a joyous and heartwarming ending. These feel-good movies are supposed to affirm our faith in  the kindness of others and reassure us of the importance of standing up for a just cause. Yet, why is it that so often stories are centred around white individuals fighting battles for non-white people and placing themselves in positions of authority? 

The idea that white individuals need to intervene to improve the lives of other groups is known as the ‘White Saviour’ trope or complex. The trope is derived from the notion of the White Man’s Burden first introduced by Rudyard Kipling in his 1899 poem of the same name.  The piece details how colonisation is a moral imperative for the West to ‘civilise’ other ethnic groups. This trope has been carried into cinema and has been present since the 1940s. But why is this trope so recurrent? And why are studios so reluctant to centre non-white individuals in stories that are meant to focus on their specific struggles ? 

Why is it that so often that stories are centred around White individuals fighting battles for non-White people and placing themselves in positions of authority?

Take the film Moxie! for example. This 2021 American coming-of-age comedy drama focuses  on American teenage girl Vivian Carter (Hadley Robinson) who begins a feminist magazine to tackle rampant sexism in her school. She is not the only character that this film focuses on. There are other  characters like new girl Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña), who is constantly taunted by star quarterback Mitchell Wilson (Patrick Schwarzenegger) because she is Afro-Latina, and Vivian’s best-friend Claudia (Lauren Tsai). The latter wants to be involved in Moxie! but fears both the reaction from her parents, and the academic repercussions of her dissidence. Both of these characters have objectively more interesting storylines than the main character, as well as more to overcome. When the film was released, audiences were confused as to why the filmmakers would opt to have Vivian as the main character when these other, and more interesting characters were present. 

Why would they opt not to have the more compelling characters at the forefront of the film? Although this film does show how non-white characters educate the white characters about their unique experiences, it would have been more persuasive for one of these other characters to be the hero of the story, particularly since much of the sexism faced was  reinforced by their race. 

it perpetuates the idea that a White person should be hailed as a hero for showing respect to  ethnic minorities

As mentioned beforehand, the idea that a White character deserves acclaim for not being racist,  has been prevalent in western cinema for decades. Not participating is discriminatory behaviour should be standard behaviour. Despite this, films have been using this as a metric to  determine how morally sound a white character is. In the 1942 wartime drama Casablanca, main character Rick (Humphrey Bogart) asserts that he does not deal in people when someone attempts to purchase the black piano player Sam (Dooley Wilson). As an audience we are supposed to be impressed  by the obvious moral superiority that Rick has over this man, despite him achieving the bare minimum  of treating another man like a human being. This behaviour is also depicted in the acclaimed 2011 drama The Help

This film depicts the discrimination aimed towards black housing staff in a suburban neighbourhood in Jackson, Mississippi. One woman, Eugenia 'Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone) who treats her staff more humanely than others by merely treating them with kindness and being concerned regarding their disdainful treatment, is supposed to be viewed as the picture of decency in this story. One could argue that these films perpetuate these notions because they are set in the past. Yet, that does not negate the disrespect of this depiction, as it  perpetuates the idea that a White person should be hailed as a hero for showing respect to ethnic minorities. 

These types of films enforce the narrative that the freedom of minorities can only be given to them by White people.

It is impossible to discuss the White saviour trope without including the common narrative of a white character swooping in on the life of an ethnic minority and saving them from the racial issue they are facing. Helping someone when they are enduring racism is never a negative thing. However, these types of films enforce the narrative that the freedom of minorities can only be given to them by white people. Take the Academy Award winning drama Green Book for example. This biographical film depicts Italian American man, Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), who drives famous African American piano player Don ‘Dr’ Shirley (Mahershala Ali) to his concerts across the American Deep South. Tony holds prejudices regarding the African American community. Yet, through friendship, Tony overcomes his stereotypical views and encourages Dr. Shirley not to accept sub-par treatment from racists. The critical acclaim for this drama proves that it remains easy to be swept up in the heartwarming nature of these films. Yet, this film is ultimately about a man who must befriend and sympathise with a Black man to  overcome his stereotypical vision of him. Nevertheless, it is Tony who emerges as the hero of the story, not Dr Shirley. Tony is the one who stands up for Don Shirley’s rights and forces him not to accept being treated as lesser: this does not come from Shirley himself. Not to mention Dr Shirley is portrayed as an individual who is alienated from the African-American community, and who is dependent on Tony to help him reconnect with his people. Shortly after the film was released, Don Shirley’s brother, Maurice, came forward and criticised this portrayal, describing it as a ‘symphony of lies.’ 

To sum up, it comes as no surprise that the public are beginning to reject such a narrative. It is insensitive to expect ethnic minorities to sympathise and reconcile with characters who display bigoted behaviour towards them. Studios are aware of the growing distaste for this type of film and the growing controversy surrounding them. I expect that studios will approach this topic with more consideration and sensitivity in the future. It is doubtful, however, that this trope will disappear quickly, considering the financial success and accolades that these films are crowned with.