Decolonising Hollywood: The White Saviour Narrative
Niamh Walsh discusses Hollywood’s problematic ‘white saviour narrative’ which upholds white supremacy and colonialist ideals.
Hollywood: perhaps one of the most powerful institutions in the world. Unfortunately, it’s also an institution that continues to uphold the ideals of white supremacy. The impacts of colonialism linger as the films churned out by the ‘dream factory’ continually reinforce the self-congratulatory white saviour narrative. Films such as The Blind Side (2009), The Help (2011) and even more recently, Green Book (2018), perpetuate a harmful discourse that is essentially a banner of colonialism; black people need white people to ‘save’ them.
The white character is made the centre of the narrative, and their ‘saving’ of the black character sustains the damaging ideology of white supremacy.
The problem with producing films like these is that they nurture colonialist dictum. Despite the majority of these film’s plots being centred around black people, the white saviour narrative downgrades the black characters to the story’s background as passive objects. The white character is made the centre of the narrative, and their ‘saving’ of the black character sustains the damaging ideology of white supremacy; embedding a subconscious hierarchy of race into the viewers’ minds. This allows the film industry to conserve an idea that is fundamentally a historical placard of colonialism, whilst simultaneously profiting financially off of colonial ideas. Hollywood covertly establishes a ‘status quo of racism’, turning the black characters into ‘props’ to assist the white narrative, as whiteness on screen is normalised and the blackness is decentralized. This maintains the colonialist idea of black people being of ‘otherness’, which is particularly problematic in our current climate since white privilege is ubiquitous and ever-present, with whiteness not only favoured in Hollywood but also in society at large.
The Blind Side exemplifies the exploitative colonialist power dynamics of black people needing to be ‘saved’ in order to prosper in life. It is based off of a true story about a white mother who adopts a young black boy (Michael Oher), who then goes on to be a professional footballer playing in the NFL. The film fundamentally depicts that without the white family’s belief in the black boy, his full potential would not have been recognized and he would not have developed into the man he ‘truly was’. These ideas are further typified in another Oscar-bait film, The Help. As although it has a considerably talented black cast, with Octavia Spencer winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the film, the narrative centres on a white journalist’s pep for justice for black women in the 1960s South. The film is an excellent example of white guilt, as it is through the actions of the white character that the lives of the black characters are transformed, saved, and redeemed by the film’s end. Whilst the storyline of the white-saviour character is not racist in itself, it is culturally problematic for being racialist as it factually misrepresents the cultural and societal reality that exists.
The white saviour narrative in film is a problem that needs to be dismantled. It is an ostentatious and narcissistic fantasy of psychological compensation by whites in an attempt to revise the true historical horrors of colonialism.
There are many ways that Hollywood could do better and are doing better. More recent films such as Moonlight (2016), Get Out (2017) and Black Panther (2018) demonstrate the vitality of having black people behind the camera, breaking the moulds Hollywood had placed on black narratives within film. However, there is still a long way to go. Representation comes through hiring non-white writers and actively engaging in the problems of an institution that is systemically racist by not hiding from the reality that centralizing whiteness in films has damaged black lives. The most incriminating part of the white saviour complex is that Hollywood is making content for black people but disregarding their stories by usurping them with white guilt. They need to invest in those who have lived that experience and amplify their voices because ultimately, they’re reliant upon the black community and black culture both to make money and to survive. The white saviour narrative in film is a problem that needs to be dismantled. It is an ostentatious and narcissistic fantasy of psychological compensation by whites in an attempt to revise the true historical horrors of colonialism and its everlasting impacts on society, perpetuating white supremacy within the film industry. If there is a time for change in Hollywood, it’s now.