Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
Everyone loves a film with a happy ending — the guy gets the girl, the wronged hero is redeemed, they all live happily ever after. But what happens when the ending we’re given isn’t real, instead one which suits and glorifies one group of people over another? The White Saviour narrative — a cinematic trope in which white people are portrayed as the ‘saviours’ of non-white people – gives us the wrong ending, and the wrong narrative overall. There are plenty of examples of this trope in films, yet there is one institution guilty of celebrating this trope, none other than the most prestigious institution in the film industry — the Academy Awards.
In 2010, Sandra Bullock won an Academy Award for her performance in ‘The Blind Side’. Based on a true story, the film was also nominated for Best Picture, making over $300,000,000. This monumental success completely obscured how problematic the film was, demonstrating the wider issue within the film industry of misrepresenting non-white people, exaggerating the roles of white characters to present them as ‘saviours. ‘The Blind Side’ follows Michael Oher, an African-American teenager who is adopted into the white, affluent Tuohy family. We see his journey from extreme poverty to high school football star to ultimate NFL success. Whilst the Tuohy’s did play a significant role in Oher’s life, their role in the film is hugely exaggerated. They introduce Oher to football, therefore inadvertently causing his sporting success. However, in his autobiography, Oher states he had always known “sport would be [his] way out”, and had “studied the way the game was played”. In the film, he appears disinterested and wants to just “go home”.
Yet ‘The Blind Side’ is not just an isolated case of the Oscars celebrating this trope. In 2018, ‘Green Book’ won Best Picture, and was nominated for four additional awards. It depicts the life of Dr Donald Shirley, a famous jazz pianist and his chauffeur Tony Vallelonga on their tour through the American Deep South in the 1960s. Shirley is presented as lonesome with little family or friends, and the film ends with Shirley joining Vallelonga and his family for Christmas since he has no one to spend it with. Shirley therefore needs to be ‘saved’ by Vallelonga from his own loneliness. After the film’s release however, Shirley’s nephew contested that he “had three living brothers with whom he was always in contact” and that he had always been close to his family. So once again, the role of the white character is hugely exaggerated and the non-white character is ‘saved’.
So, the problem with this trope lies in its complete misrepresentation of non-white history, reducing the roles and successes of non-white people and instead giving this credit to white ‘saviour’. But how can we tackle this? The answer is simple – we need more diversity in filmmaking. 89% of Academy Awards in the last 10 years have been given to white people. More diversity in the film industry enables under-represented groups to tell their own stories, rather than having their roles and successes reduced and taken away from them.