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The White Savior In Film and History


Reading about the 1994 movie Stargate (as you do), and it's recently announced reboot, I happened upon a Wikipedia page all about white saviors in film. This particular concept was new to me, although I've heard variations of its theme before (the counterpart being the Magical Negro). In short, the white savior narrative in a film features white characters saving black characters from some sort of terrible situation or oppression.

Movies that are generally agreed to fall into the white savior category are 12 Years a Slave, The Help, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Blind Side (among many others). Interestingly, a movie I saw over the weekend, Belle, is considered by some to buck the white savior trend. The film centers around Dido Belle, a mulatto whose father was from English aristocracy. She is raised by her uncle, Lord Chief Justice William Murray, and his family.

In an article about Belle from The Daily Beast, the following passage is of note:
"Belle marks the first film I've seen in which a black woman with agency stands at the center of the plot as a full, eloquent human being who is neither adoring foil nor moral touchstone for her better spoken white counterparts," the novelist and TV producer Susan Fales-Hill told The Daily Beast.
I would agree with Fales-Hill's assessment of the character of Belle, however, I still think that the film engages with the white savior model. Of course, the term "white savior" is often meant derisively, but I don't look upon it in such a way. While it is true that Belle is quite forthright in asserting her beliefs, and may indeed be one of the agents of change within the story, it ultimately comes down to the people or privilege to save the day.

This, dear reader, is the unfortunate, tricky situation that we have been faced with throughout history. Members of the oppressive class are in-fact the ones who must end the oppression (unless there's some sort of violent revolution). This isn't always a popular opinion, but it is nevertheless an honest one. The arc of history bends toward justice in a very complicated manner, indeed.

It took the white William Murray, in his powerful legal position, to begin changing the slave trade laws of England. Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman were black people instrumental in helping fellow African-Americans during the Civil War, but Abraham Lincoln had to deliver the Emancipation Proclamation, and thousands of white Union and Southern soldiers had to fight and die to help settle the issue of slavery (there were black soldiers, too, of course).

Yesterday, in my home state of Illinois, same-sex marriage finally became legal. The bill that made this happen was sponsored and championed by openly-gay IL House member Greg Harris. That's awesome. That's a gay man looking out for his own. But, you know what? The vast majority of Illinois state legislature members are straight. In order for marriage equality to become law, it took the willingness of our heterosexual allies.

So it goes.

Years ago, when I was a teen easily swayed by trivial, cultural memes-of-the-moment, I somehow (briefly) got onto a bandwagon of putting down white people, labeling them as oppressors, etc. One day I engaged in this rhetoric in the presence of my African-American father, who stopped me and remarked, "We've been hurt by a lot of white people over the years, but the truth is, we wouldn't be where we are today without the help of a lot of good white people."

Those words have always stayed with me.

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