Image from Luna Luna Magazine.
There’s no time like the present to talk about issues of race and representation in the media. The systems of oppression that have marginalized communities of color permeate all aspects of culture and society, and film is no exception. Given that the film industry has long been white-male dominated, post-colonial views have continued to be perpetuated in movies. While some progress has been made in recent years with more BIPOC voices lending their creativity and activism to their work, films about and surrounding racial issues remain largely problematic.
One crucial aspect of these films is their depiction of “white saviorism” or “white savior complex,” a term coined by Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole. This idea refers to a Western belief that the problems of people of color can be fixed by White people, i.e. people without a true understanding of their role in the roots of said problems. Examples of modern-day white saviorism include teaching trips to communities abroad and church-sponsored charity travels. White saviorism in film inserts a White, well-meaning character to help people of color in the film fight for their cause. Films such as The Help, 12 Years a Slave, To Kill a Mockingbird, and many others depict characters of color as unable to help themselves by bringing in a White character to “save” them.
Why does this matter? White saviorism aims at easing White guilt and making films about race easier for White consumers to digest. Since these films showcase the role White supremacy has in systemically oppressing and marginalizing communities of color, a “good” White character serves as a reminder for White consumers that “not all White people are bad” and reassures them of their own “goodness.” However, this dangerous depiction of the dynamic between White people and BIPOC ignores the role ALL White people have in perpetuating White supremacy by ignoring their privilege and continuing to see themselves as heroes in a story that isn’t theirs.
Films about race should, first of all, be made by non-White creators, but secondly, they should present the systems of oppression: perpetrators of White supremacy and BIPOC marginalization. Mass media plays a huge role in maintaining the White hegemony, and its impact should not be underestimated. Films, in particular, are tools used by those with resources to maintain their status in society, whether noticeably or not. Presenting White saviorism as normal and commendable ignores the systemic marginalization of communities of color in our post-colonial society.
That is not to say White people cannot be allies, but writing stories about White characters doing work that in reality is done by communities of color is an act of compliance with White supremacy, and so is praising said stories. Blindly accepting the White savior films we watch means contributing to the idea that communities of color are incapable of helping themselves, thereby maintaining submissiveness and compliance with the systems that oppress them. Change starts by diversifying the industry and giving BIPOC a platform to share their stories, no matter the discomfort they may cause to White viewers. Dismantling years of internalized White supremacy is meant to be uncomfortable. Embrace the discomfort. Do the work, and understand that if you’re White, the spotlight doesn’t belong to you.
Have you noticed white saviorism in movies?