Race,  Television & Movies

Hollywood’s White Saviors and the Negro Damsels in Distress

Before I begin, I would like you to take a look at many of the movies and shows that have been filmed over the years and I ask you, “What do they have in common”? As a matter of fact, lets take a very brief look at a few right now.


Conrack - OpinionatedMale.com Filmed: 1974
Starring: Jon Voight, Antonio Vargas, Madge Sinclair

Pat Conroy (Voight), an educator, is assigned to Yamacraw Island located off the coast of South Carolina to teach African-American students who are extremely poor, very illiterate and know nothing outside of the world they live in. He teaches them not only basic academic skills but about the ‘American’ holidays, cultures and even takes them trick-or-treating. He is eventually fired but as he leaves the children’s lives he’s touched come to wish him farewell. Feel good story right?


Hardball - OpinionatedMale.com Filmed: 2001
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Diane Lane

Reeves is a compulsive gambler who owes $6,000 to two bookies in a bet that he lost. His only income is coaching a latchkey boys baseball team from Chicago’s Cabrini Green projects. At the beginning, he’s only interested in getting his weekly check. He shows characteristics detaching himself from the team. He leaves them to find their way home, comes in late to practices, and even walked out on them to place another bet. Eventually he grows on them and they do him.  They develop a strong bond and he guides them to the championship despite tragedy striking at the end. Smiles all around right?

‘Diff’rent Strokes’ (TV series)

“Whatchu talkin’ ’bout Whiteness”?

Aired: 1978-1986
Starring: Gary Coleman, Todd Bridges, Conrad Bain, and Dana Plato

Phillip Drummond (Bain), a wealthy park Avenue businessman, takes in brothers Arnold and Willis Jackson (Coleman and Bridges) whose mother worked as a maid for Drummond. After she dies, he soon adopts them and along with his daughter Kimberly, live as one big happy family in his mansion relishing in a lavish lifestyle.

‘The Blindside’

The Blindside - OpinionatedMale.comFilmed: 2009
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Kathy Bates, Quinton Aaron and Tim McGraw

Michael Oher coming from an impoverished background is adopted by Sean and LeAnn Tuhoy (McGraw and Bullock). Growing up with his drug addicted mother, he’s moved from different foster homes running away from each one. While in school Michael befriends their son Sean Jr. and  is then introduced to Sean’s mother Leann.

Later in the film Michael spends the night, then Thanksgiving and eventually becomes part of the family. The family, along with his coaches help hone his skills in the classroom and on the gridiron and he soon becomes a force to be reckoned with. He’s later accepted into Ole Miss for college  and is eventually drafted by the Baltimore Ravens.

There are other Movies/Tv shows and sitcoms that seem to have the same theme. Have you noticed? How about ‘Webster’, where a young African-American boy is adopted by a former NFL player and his socialite wife living in upscale Chicago Illinois. I’m not going to go into too many more movies or shows but you get the picture.

Now for every ‘Lean On Me’ there are movies like Freedom Writers’ and Dangerous Minds’ where a Caucasian female teacher comes in to rescue inner city youth and teach them reading and writing. It’s sad enough that in society African-Americans whether by choice or birth are already at disadvantages.

So here is just a question to ponder: Why or how is it that Hollywood portrays them as people who can’t make it on their own without the help of a Caucasian man or woman? I understand movies are scripted and all, but imagine the morale of the average Black person watching these movies feeling like, “Man there’s no hope for us. Can WE ever have a rebel or savior in the movies” ? They [people of color], for the most part, are made to look inferior or buffoonish and in many instances can’t stand on their own.

Life even imitates art as well. I have a close friend who works in an inner city alternative school and when a child becomes ‘out of sorts’, or becomes “unsafe” the big burly African-American staff are there to do restraints, but when it comes to the children looking for jobs, programs, or anything to enhance their growth it seems those same staff are nowhere to be found. They are replaced by the ‘softer’ more enabling Caucasian staff who are there to “make a difference” in a child’s life.

Now before I go any further, I have nothing against Whites (or any race of people for that matter) nor am I spewing sour grapes, but it just seems that on the big screen and in society African-Americans have to take a back seat. And please don’t get started on the, “But we have a black president” bit. This is just something I was pondering so I figured I’d rant about it. It just seems like one too many shows or movies to be considered just a coincidence.

What are your thoughts? What impact does this have if any at all? When faced with life’s adveristy and dire straits, who do you call? And also can you think of any other examples of this sort of portrayal?

My motto is, "Live, love and laugh". Check me out in the "Men Behind The Pen" section on OpinionatedMale.com.


  • Aly

    Life does imitate art, but in this case I don’t think there’s a comparison.
    Regarding movies, yes, I agree that the “white savior” trope makes people of color look incapable, but unfortunately this type of film is probably here to stay. They’re popular because white folks get to play the hero (who doesn’t want to be a hero?), plus they assuage white guilt about the oppression of POC. To add to your list, there’s also another category of “white savior” movie – where aliens are used as a stand-in for POC (Avatar, District 9).
    As far as real life, I don’t have a problem with white people “helping” people of color. One example that comes to mind is adoption. Some black folks are offended by the idea of a white person raising a black child, and to me that’s silly. As long as the kid is being raised in a loving home, I don’t care about the parent’s race.

    • Mr SoBo

      Excellent points Aly. I agree with it all. I’m glad you mentioned the Science Fiction genre because those tend to fly under the radar in this regard unless it is deliberately obvious such as the case with Avatar. James Cameron was clearly making several statements with that film, and now that you mention it, I wonder if the ‘white savior’ aspect was one of those statements in a sort of cheeky way. Hmmnn…
      And yes, the race of a parent who is willing and able to provide a stable, loving home environment for a child in need of such should certainly not matter. I couldn’t agree more.
      That aside, I would like to explore this on a more macro level. Lets be honest, Hollywood is another extension of the media and plays a significant role in shaping culture and perceptions. Particularly in regards to propagating the notion of the provider/protector/savior mostly being portrayed as White individuals, and those in need, or who are destitute being primarily people of color (human or otherwise). Sans Hollywood, Jesus (arguably the most popular Savior of all time) is and has been depicted as being White or White’ish.
      That said, it would be interesting to know what you (and other readers) think about the social and psychological implications such consistent messages and themes has on its audiences and society as a whole.

      • Aly

        That’s very true about Hollywood being an extension of the media, great point. As far as the psychological implications of the “white savior” theme, the simple answer is that it puts POC in the role of being the victim and having no agency over our lives. We’re always having to rely on others to…well, save us lol. And, “others” doesn’t necessarily mean an individual – I think it could also mean the government.
        Most people like to think that what they see in movies or on tv has no impact on their real lives, but I disagree. The media is powerful, whether you realize it or not. Seeing certain themes over and over again – you’ll subconsciously start to believe them. It’s really a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) form of brainwashing by the media.

        • Mr SoBo

          I’m putting a ring on your comment above, because I like it.
          But this:
          “We’re always having to rely on others to well…save us. lol. And, “others” doesn’t necessarily mean an individual – I think it could also mean the government
          Ding-Ding-Ding! Precisely. The government, which is undeniably the face of Wh*te aristocracy.
          I’ll even put this on the table:
          “Savior” can also mean the individual whom a person pursues a relationship with.
          Within the specific instances of interracial relationships being sought out as a direct result of dating frustrations within a person’s own racial group, one has to ponder the preconceived notions this person has of the race he/she now chooses to become ‘open to’ dating. How much of those romanticized notions were influenced and shaped by Hollywood and the like?
          Generally speaking, is it a mystery that regardless if the single person’s nationality (Indian, Asian, Hispanic or Black (sistahs I’m looking at you)), the default go-to race when it comes to interracial exploration tends to be ‘Wh*te’?
          Something to think about. The implications of these messages truly run deep.

        • Cortonio

          Aly I totally see where you’re coming from, but I’m sure you’ve seen most of the aforementioned shows/movies, and I’m curious how does it strike you when you constantly see them depicted as people who can’t do for themselves?

          • Alyson

            The key to all of this is balance. I don’t mind “white savior” films/tv shows as long as there’s something else to balance it out – images which show us as empowered and responsible for our own destinies. We’re making progress towards this, but we’re definitely not there yet.
            This conversation is making me think about Django Unchained. Have you seen it? If so, would you put it in the “white savior” category?

            • Mr SoBo

              *Inserts self in convo*
              Good question. Personally, I wouldn’t necessarily categorize Django Unchained as a ‘typical White Savior’ movie. Only because the relationship dynamic between Django and the German character was not one of servitude, dependency and subjugation. Despite being liberated by the German (can’t recall his name) at the very start of the film, they essentially worked as equal partners for the remainder with Django being personified as a very strong and independent character. In the end, Django saved himself and his damsel.
              *exits convo*

              • Alyson

                Lol @ you entering and exiting the convo.
                Yeah, I agree with you SoBo, and that’s actually what I appreciated about that film. It could have easily turned into a white savior movie, but I think Tarantino is progressive and smart enough to realize that it would have been sooo offensive to black folks, especially considering the sensitive nature of the topic of slavery. I know plenty of people didn’t like Django Unchained (my Mom refuses to even see it), but I thought it was a brilliant film.

                • Cortonio

                  I have never watched Django, I’ve had it for a couple months and still haven’t seen it. I gotta check it out

    • Cortonio

      As far as the comment about Caucasian people “helping people of color”, I as a whole. don’t have a problem with it, especially if it’s needed and essential. And yes if an Afro American child was adopted by a Caucasian and was raised to be an upstanding citizen that’s fine. I just don’t like the notion of them being depicted as poor, lazy, illiterate, drugged out, etc. and all of a sudden a white person comes into their lives and BAM! turns them into something “better”. I want to see if Hollywood do this is in reverse.

  • Ms. Not-Right-Now

    To me, your post just points to the proverb “until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”. Frankly, I’m not surprised by these movies and the frequency of them because the storytellers are white. Because anything else would be to understand it and tell it from our perspective. And how could they do that? I’m absolutely sure white ppl see themselves as our saviors. They see themselves as the world’s saviors evidenced by European colonization. Because the alternative would be to see themselves as oppressors and I don’t think white ppl like to think of themselves that way. And when I say white ppl I mean more as a collective as opposed to each individual white person.
    In the end, I’m much more concerned when our community starts to believe their stories and see it as more than just their perspective and their white privilege. When we actually start looking to white ppl to step in and help us save ourselves, that’s an issue. And unfortunately, we already know that media has those kind of subtle influences on the mind. So we have to watch our media intake as much as we watch what foods we put in our bodies.

    • Cortonio

      In the end I see your point I’m curious how does that make you feel as a whole seeing movie after movie with blacks being labeled as a permanent under class with no ability to fend for themselves depending on a Caucasian to make their lives better or to enrich them in some way? Have you ever been bothered by that?
      Interesting how Hollywood never puts this in reverse. And you are right, minorites as a whole especially Afro-Americans have to enrich each other and uplift each other as opposed to cutting each others throats.

      • Ms. Not-Right-Now

        It’s extremely frustrating to see it so often portrayed because even though I have a media filter–meaning I can watch something bad and not necessarily internalize it–I do not think the average Joe Blow Black (Wo)Man has a filter. I only developed a filter as I got older and studied the damaging, widespread effects of media. Then I knew I could only take certain things on television, radio, internet, etc. with a grain of salt. And even being conscious about my media intake, I might still find myself singing a jingle or the lyrics to a song I claim I hate. So the thought that ppl are looking at these images and it’s getting into his/her subconscious and he/she is not even thinking twice about it so he/she is certainly not outraged and writing posts like this one lol well of course that’s infuriating. It’s slavery without the chains. It’s inception, placing thoughts and images into one’s subconscious, without all the fancy equipment and Leonardo di Caprio. I mean Malcolm X said years ago, the one who controls the media controls society.

    • Cortonio

      right, Afro Americans have to learn to enrich and uplift themselves. It gets tiresome to see how Hollywood portrays them as a permanent underclass.

  • Soulflower

    I just read “Wake of the Wind” by J California Cooper, a fictional account of the end of slavery on one plantation. As the slaves are packing up their stuff and leaving, the white “mistress” asks, “What are you going to do without us to take care of you?” The ex-slave replies “We never thought you were taking care of us, we always knew we were taking care of you. Now we will just take care of ourselves”. I’m paraphrasing, but you know this whole “savior” concept began with slavery and has continued to this day. As Aly stated to a large degree I believe it is their way of assuaging their guilt over their mistreatment of POC (Africans, American Indians, Aboriginals, etc.). The difference is back then we at least knew what the reality was, now we are so indoctrinated with media I don’t believe the masses can tell the difference between truth and fiction.

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