photo: DreamWorks Studios

Every movie needs a hero. The hero is a necessary plot device: It anchors the story and gives the audience a character to root for. In Hollywood though, the heroic character is often a "white savior."

Quite simply, the white savior is a white character who saves people of color (POC) from oppression. They are almost always the movie's "good guy." The white savior may seem like another harmless trope, but it's a dangerous idea that suggests POC are incapable of saving themselves.

Your favorite movies probably include a white savior.

Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side movie
photo: Warner Brothers

"12 Years a Slave," "Freedom Writers," "The Help," "The Blind Side," "Gran Torino," and "The Last Samurai" all include a heroic white protagonist. These white saviors free slaves and inspire domestic maids to write down their experiences with racism, but they also make non-white characters seem powerless.

"Freedom Writers" is the quintessential white-savior movie. 

Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) begins teaching an English class full of poor students of color. Slowly, she convinces them to work harder so they can pass the class and change their lives. The film frames Gruwell as a selfless teacher who works two part-time jobs to pay for books, stays after school to help her troubled students, and jeopardizes her marriage to help these kids succeed.

Yet the students aren't applauded for achieving classroom success while overcoming major issues, like gang violence and poverty.

There's a reason for this, as sociology professor Matthew W. Hughey explained in his book, "The White Savior Film:" The movie industry uses the white savior trope to support the idea that there's unity between races.

Many people are exhausted with talking about race, and there is a latent desire to see evidence of interracial reconciliation and amity, films that showcase strong, kind, and messianic white characters assisting nonwhite, down-on-their-luck characters deliver just the right touch. In this light, white savior films emerge as powerful cultural devices that attract, seduce, and command the US public in a time of unsettled understandings of race, racism, and racial identity.

Viewers perceive the white character as smart, kind, and dedicated to helping underprivileged POC. As a result, characters of color become secondary in their own stories.

photo: Columbia Pictures

In "12 Years a Slave," Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free Black man who's been kidnapped and sold into slavery, asks Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), a Canadian carpenter working on the plantation, to help him escape. Bass is reluctant at first, but he finally agrees to help Northup acquire his freedom papers.

But Northup didn't just aimlessly watch a white person save him from peril. He worked for it, initiated it, and figured out how to triumph over his struggle. That's why it's problematic when "good" white characters are deemed the sole heroes of non-white stories.

A lot of white-savior films are set during slavery or the Civil Rights Movement, which makes sense because African-Americans had no rights or access to power, according to Roopali Mukherjee, a media studies professor at Queens College.

In her book, "The Racial Order of Things," Mukherjee argues that white-savior narratives are purposefully positioned in historical periods to suggest that "an individual white person is the only viable marker for social change."

She continued:

The nostalgia film returns to a historical moment in the United States' racial and gendered past in order to critique the racial and gendered transformation that occurred during the 1950s and 1960s by shifting the story away from the marginalized group's history to the salvation of the central white female character.

For example, in "Django Unchained," a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) is promised his freedom by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German dentist and bounty hunter, if he helps him complete his hit list.

photo: GIPHY

Django is now able to make his own decisions, dress how he likes, and seek revenge on some of his enemies, but the film constantly reminds us that Schultz is the one who gave Django these opportunities.

He's the one who paid for Django's freedom, trained him to be a killer, and helped him locate where his wife Broomhilda was sold to. The entire story revolves around Schultz's influence on Django's life. It's no coincidence that Django becomes the real hero of the story after Schultz dies. With him gone, the audience can finally see what should've been depicted all along — that Django is the film's hero.

Movie studios develop these white-savior movies as a way of ensuring white people are represented well. Having both "good" and "bad" white characters in a POC movie is crucial: It sends the message that not all white people are inherently racist or cruel to non-white people.

In "The Help," Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) is shocked by how her socialite friends treat their Black maids when she returns home from college, so she decides to interview the maids for a book.

photo: GIPHY

Unlike her friends, Skeeter is single, college-educated, and wants to be a working girl. The movie uses these elements to show that Skeeter is different from these women: She's the only white woman in the film who respects Black people. 

Most of that has to do with her relationship with her childhood maid Constantine. It's clear that their relationship has gone past the boundaries of employer and employee; they're more like mother and daughter. We see that tight bond when Skeeter learns that Constantine has died. She breaks down in tears, which suggests that she's capable of caring about Black people and the discrimination they face.

The major issue with films like "12 Years A Slave" and "The Help" is that good white people must see themselves in narratives about people of color in order to "acknowledge" racism, according to Hughey:

"[White savior films] are marketed as plausible and moral narratives in which whites are invited to idealize and identify with these white saviors qua role models and to take up a racial crusade.These films subtly rewrite historical events so that white colonizers, paternalistic controllers, and meddling interlopers seem necessary, relevant, and moral.

When telling a story about POC, it's vital that they have the spotlight, instead of trying to work within the experiences of white people.

White-savior films imply that certain stories are better left untold — unless they're anchored by a white character. White people are allowed to be the protagonists, the villains, the producers, and the directors, but POC are lucky if they're the lead in stories about racism. It's time for Hollywood to realize that the white savior is an outdated concept that only contributes to harmful stereotypes. 

No one should be clapping for the white savior at the end of the movie; instead, they should be cheering for the POC to save themselves.