White savior narrative in film

The white savior is a cinematic trope in which a white character rescues non-white characters from unfortunate circumstances.[1] This trope appears in an array of genres of films in American cinema, wherein a white protagonist is portrayed as a messianic figure who often learns something about him or herself in the course of rescuing non-white characters from their plight.[1][2]

The narrative trope of the white savior is one way the mass communications medium of cinema represents the sociology of race and ethnic relations, by presenting abstract concepts such as morality as characteristics innate, racially and culturally, to white people, not to be found in non-white people.[3] This white savior is often portrayed as a man who is out of place within his own society, until he assumes the burden of racial leadership to rescue non-white minorities and foreigners from their suffering. As such, white savior stories have been described as "essentially grandiose, exhibitionistic, and narcissistic" fantasies of psychological compensation.[4]


In "The Whiteness of Oscar Night" (2015), Matthew Hughey describes the narrative structure of the subgenre:

A White Savior film is often based on some supposedly true story. Second, it features a nonwhite group or person who experiences conflict and struggle with others that is particularly dangerous or threatening to their life and livelihood. Third, a White person (the savior) enters the milieu and through their sacrifices, as a teacher, mentor, lawyer, military hero, aspiring writer, or wannabe Native American warrior, is able to physically save—or at least morally redeem—the person or community of folks of color, by the film's end. Examples of this genre include films like Glory (1989), Dangerous Minds (1996), Amistad (1997), Finding Forrester (2000), The Last Samurai (2003), Half Nelson (2006), Freedom Writers (2007), Gran Torino (2008), Avatar (2009), The Blind Side (2009), The Help (2011)[5]

Following the release of cinematic adaptations of the play A Raisin in the Sun (1959), by Lorraine Hansberry, and the novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), by Harper Lee, the films of the blaxploitation genre of the 1970s reflected continued discontent over the social and racial inequality of non-white people in the United States and functioned as counterbalance to the trope of the white savior. Then in the 1980s, continued cultural hypersegregation led to the common misbelief, by many American white people, that the nation had reached a post-racial state of social relations, which resulted in a backlash against the racial and ethnic diversity of the cinema of the previous decades, on screen during the 1960s and the 1970s; thus, the popular cinema of the 1990s and the early 2000s featured the white savior narrative. That reappearance of the white-savior narrative occurred because the majority of white people in the United States had little substantive social interaction with people of different races and ethnic groups.[1][6]

The White Savior trope's prevalence continues in often critically acclaimed films. Joseph Vogel writes of the trope in Django Unchained:

In the crucial climactic scene, the pattern of white centrality holds. It is [the white doctor] Schultz, not [the freed slave] Django, who, racked by conscience kills Calvin Candie, and in doing so, sacrifices his own life. When asked by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. why he decided to make King Schultz the Christ figure, Tarantino claimed he was simply drawing on the tropes of the western.[7]

A study of 50 films between 1987-2011 found that 36% of studied films were produced by the 6 major studios (Sony, Universal, Paramount, Twentieth Century Fox/Fox Searchlight, or Warner Brothers). These films are also responsible for a plurality of the major awards in this time period.[8]