With the start of Black History Month in February, it’s a time to recognize both past injustice while also focusing on ways that we can better our nation moving forward.
While our country has taken huge strides forward in terms of representation and equality for African Americans, we still have a long way to go to fully tackle institutionalized racism. In a month that celebrates black culture and recognizes both past and current injustice, it’s important to focus on ways that black individuals are being portrayed in media and pop culture, particularly as the Oscars are held Sunday.
\When nominations came out, #OscarsSoWhite began trending on Twitter, referencing the majority of categories that had nearly all white nominees. Along with the inequality being pointed out in awards shows, Black History Month can also be a time to reflect on black representation in movies, and whether some of these portrayals are even accurate.
The white savior complex is defined as “the genre in which a white messianic character saves a lower or working class, usually urban or isolated, nonwhite character from a sad fate.” The trope is incredibly common, and has been criticized in recent movies like “The Blind Side,” “The Help,” and even recent Best Picture winner “Green Book.”
An obvious issue with films like this is that they imply a nonwhite character needs someone to save them from their fate, and that they wouldn’t be able to achieve their major feat without a white person’s intervention.
These films can be easily identified when the story line revolves around a white character, even when the story isn’t about them.
This is especially apparent in “Green Book,” which is about a friendship formed between a white driver and an African American piano prodigy while touring the south. The film is told from the driver’s perspective, despite the fact that the musician’s character is a highly intelligent man who holds multiple doctorates. The driver comes across as the good guy in the end by doing the bare minimum to befriend his client, despite his horrendously racist actions throughout the film.
Even though this story is really about a talented black musician courageously touring the south in a time of intense discrimination, the focus in this film is on a white character.
Another issue with the white savior complex is that the films downplay racism today by making the audience feel as if we’ve overcome issues our nation has struggled with in the past. Although the U.S. has come a long way in terms of equality, films like these imply that we are far better off now. In reality, racism is still an issue our nation struggles with to this day.
Finally, some scenes in films with a white savior complex are simply inaccurate. In the 2016 hit “Hidden Figures” about female black scientists working at NASA in the ‘60s, there is a scene where a white character allows one of the women to watch the rocket launch in the control room, and another scene where he takes a sign indicating segregation off the door to a bathroom. “Hidden Figures” is based off of a true story, and the white character never existed in real life.
In this instance, an otherwise accurate retelling of an important story for black protagonists was compromised to integrate a white savior figure for no real purpose.
Moving into Black History Month, it’s important to consider black representation in media, and how stories can be improved moving forward. Supporting black screenwriters and allowing them to tell stories is important, as well as calling out inaccuracies or unnecessary stereotypes in film. While we can continue to appreciate films for what they are, being aware of what some types of representation imply is crucial for making progress and allowing all voices to be fairly portrayed.