Save Cinema from the White Savior

White saviors are a common trope in the entertainment industry. Contributing Writer Mackenzie Dunson ’25 analyzes the problematic history and consequences of Hollywood’s reliance on white saviors, derailing narratives that should be centered around people of color.

Everywhere you turn in film and other types of media, there seems to be a white savior present. Even in films that profess to celebrate the joy and triumph of people of color, a white character is often there to solve, or underplay, the problems of Black and POC characters. The inclusion of a white savior has been used to make a film viewable, and thus marketable, to white audiences. The idea is, if there is no character for white audiences to relate to, they would not view the film, and thus the film would lose profit.

A white savior justifies the idea that white characters are welcome to insert themselves into and even control stories that center people of color. The purpose of white saviors is particularly ironic and unnecessary when a film claims to be about the joys and successes of people of color. Centering a “heroic” white main character is antithetical and trumps any other sort of meaning, making it all about the white savior. To me, it hints that the film’s purported attention to  POC voices is inauthentic, and instead the film’s main goal is to uphold a “white savior complex” narrative.

One of the most notable examples of white saviors in modern cinema is the film “The Help” (2011), which supposedly shares the perspectives of African American housemaids and the white families that they work for. Though it seems like the story should revolve around the Black women and their stories, the film ultimately focuses on the character Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), a white woman who gathers a collection of personal anecdotes from the housemaids to anonymously publish in her own novel. She does so in order to critique these white families and highlight the truths behind the racial injustices they inflict on their own housemaids. I hope it is obvious that this film holds the white savior trope as a major plot point: A white main character blatantly exploits the stories and lives of the Black housemaids, supposedly wanting to “lift up” their voices. In actuality, she uses those voices as tools for her own success, ironically supporting the very idea that the film wished to critique.

Another film that centers around POC characters but features a white savior nonetheless is “Hidden Figures” (2016), the story of three African-American mathematicians who worked at NASA during the early years of the U.S. Space program. The film follows Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), and Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) as they help propel America forward in the Space Race through their mathematical savvy. Though the film arguably presents a stronger representation of Black women than “The Help,” “Hidden Figures” hones in on the white character Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), Katherine’s supervisor. The film boils down a century-long discussion of civil rights into a workplace dispute about signs on a bathroom. In a true act of rebellion, Harrison publicly knocks down the “White Only” sign on the women’s bathroom. The film sets up Harrison to be a leader for Katherine: he is supportive to her when no other white character in the film dares to help her at all. But here’s the kicker: Al Harrison was not a person in real life. He is a fictional composite of three directors of NASA at the time. The film inserts a fictional character into the real stories of Black women in order for a white audience to have a place in a story that otherwise did not include them. Irony and hypocrisy play heavily here, because of course Harrison had to be created for the story. Otherwise, how would white audiences be able to view the story if not for the relevance of a white savior?

Now let’s look at the 2007 film “Hairspray,” a musical that tackles the topic of segregation during the civil rights movement in Baltimore, Maryland. The film highlights disparities between the white and Black communities in Baltimore, as well as the effect that these divisions have on the psyche of the young characters, who dream about singing and dancing on the American Bandstand-eque “Corny Collins Show.” Though the plot revolves around the desegregation of the television show, the film uses the white main character as the device to do so. Instead of centering the Black characters, in another cruel dose of irony, the film allows Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky), a white woman, to use the dance moves that her Black friend Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) taught her to secure a spot on the Corny Collins Show. The film seems to make amends by bringing a Black character to the center of the narrative: at the end of the film, Seaweed’s younger sister Lil Inez (Taylor Parks) wins the Miss Hairspray Beauty pageant. Yet, she was only featured in that position because Tracy intervened by breaking into the competition. Tracy dominates the narrative, from using dance moves stolen from Black characters, to violently inserting herself into a peaceful protest march, causing a large number of Black characters to be detained because of her mistake.

Finally, I would like to mention the 2009 film “The Blind Side,” which tells the story of Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), a homeless Black boy who is taken in by a white family, joins a high school football team, and becomes an All-American player and first-round NFL draft pick. Evidently, it seems like the film should center Michael’s story and his personal growth as he navigates his new life with his family. However, the film instead places a heavy importance on the character of Leign Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock), Michael’s new foster mother. Though we can credit Leigh Anne and the rest of the Tuohy family for adopting and taking care of Michael, she does so in a prevalent act of self-righteousness by “saving” Michael from his traumatic background. Similar to Skeeter in “The Help,” it is Leigh Anne who gets credited for improving Michael’s life, diminishing Michael’s own agency over his own fate in the eyes of the viewer.

Of course there are a number of white savior films that I did not discuss, such as 2009’s “Avatar,” a film where Jake Sully, a white man is the chosen savior for an indigenous race people (the movie recently received a high-budget sequel that doesn’t fare much better). The enduring question that stems from these films is: why does Hollywood constantly need a white savior to tell the story of characters of color? And why has the film industry decided that people of color are incapable of leading their own stories? This is especially detrimental to the young audiences of color. What Hollywood communicates to them is that in order to have power over their own lives, they need the influence, help, — and perhaps control — of a white person. If a film truly wants to explore and discuss racial injustices and how the characters of color can overcome them, then the presence of a white savior is not needed. In fact, it is a injustice. Without a white savior at the head, these stories can be told more accurately and inclusively.