Oscar loves a white savior
If a movie features white people rescuing people of color from their plight, odds are high an Oscar will follow
By David Sirota
If you’ve been to the movies in the last half-century, you know the White Savior genre well. It’s the catalog of films that features white people single-handedly rescuing people of color from their plight. These story lines insinuate that people of color have no ability to rescue themselves. This both makes white audiences feel good about themselves by portraying them as benevolent messiahs (rather than hegemonic conquerors), and also depicts people of color as helpless weaklings—all while wrapping such tripe in the cinematic argot of liberation.
This, of course, is the backbone of Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” As historian Kate Masur recently wrote in the New York Times, it is yet another “movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States” but one in which “African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them.” The result, she writes, is a film that ignores actual events of the 19th century, “helps perpetuate the notion that African Americans have offered little of substance to their own liberation” and thus reinforces “the outdated assumption that white men are the primary movers of history and the main sources of social progress.”
Coming from Spielberg, this isn’t particularly surprising. He is, after all, the creator of one of the most unself-consciously archetypal White Savior movies of all time: “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” In that cartoonish adventure, a whip-wielding white archaeologist drops from the sky into India and quickly becomes the only person able to save destitute peasants from the rein of a tyrannical human-sacrificing cult.
Spielberg’s Abraham Lincoln is certainly a more nuanced character than Dr. Jones, just as his latest film is more sophisticated (if not as exciting) than the second iteration of his 1980s archaeologist-superhero franchise. In return, he has been rewarded with an Oscar nomination—but probably not just because “Lincoln” plays to the academy’s general love of historical drama. It also plays to Hollywood award organizations’ specific affinity for the White Savior.
Indeed, in the last quarter-century, 10 White Savior films have received major Hollywood award nominations, with fully half of those coming in just the last five years. In chronological order, here’s a look at them, and how they channel the same old story of white people saving the day for people of color who supposedly cannot help themselves.
Major Academy Award Nominations: Best Actor (Kevin Costner), Best Supporting Actor (Graham Greene), Best Supporting Actress (Mary McDonnell)
Major Academy Award Victories: Best Picture, Best Director (Kevin Costner), Best Adapted Screenplay (Michael Blake)
One of the major sub-categories of the White Savior genre is the “going native” narrative, and 1990′s “Dances With Wolves” is the modern era’s emblematic example. It is the story of a white Union soldier who fully embeds himself in the Sioux tribe and quickly becomes its primary protector. First, he leads the tribe’s defense against its hostile Pawnee rivals, then he helps them attempt to evade the Union army in which he once served.
Among the defining characteristics of “Dances With Wolves”—as it is with most “going native” stories—is the prominence of what has been called the Noble Savage. As TV Tropes describes it, that is a typically Native American “character who is, due to their race or ethnicity, a member of a barbaric or savage tribe (or a group simply perceived as such by others), who is nevertheless portrayed as nobler or of higher moral fibre than the norm.”
Because it portrays a few people of color in a positive light, the use of the Noble Savage caricature often preemptively blunts criticism of the underlying White Savior story. The idea is that a film like “Dances With Wolves” cannot be bigoted or overly white-centric if it at least shows Kicking Bird and Chief Ten Bears as special and exceptional. This, even though the whole story is about a white guy who saves the day.
Major Academy Award Nominations: Best Director (James Cameron), Best Picture
“Avatar” is such a stereotypical White Savior flick that it earned the nickname “Dances With Aliens.” That label is well deserved, as the film offers up almost every lazy meme in the genre.
Tribe of nature-loving Noble Savages? Check. White spy who “goes native” with said tribe? Check. Spy has an enlightened epiphany and a subsequent change of heart, aligning him with the tribe against their evil enemies? Check. White guy unifies disparate tribes to fight their collective oppressors in a more powerful way than they ever have? Check.
But it goes even deeper than that. As The Progressive magazine put it: