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Oscar Loves a White Savior

If a movie features white people rescuing people of color from their plight, odds are high an Oscar will follow.
 
 
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According to  oddsmakers, Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” does not have the best chance of winning the 2013 Academy Award for best picture. That top spot right now goes to Ben Affleck’s “Argo” — but it shouldn’t. If history is any gauge, “Lincoln” has to be the front-runner thanks to its status as this year’s only Oscar-nominated White Savior film.

If you’ve been to the movies in the last half-century, you know the White Savior genre well. It’s the catalog of films that features white people single-handedly rescuing people of color from their plight. These story lines insinuate that people of color have no ability to rescue themselves. This both makes white audiences feel good about themselves by portraying them as benevolent messiahs (rather than hegemonic conquerors), and also depicts people of color as helpless weaklings — all while wrapping such tripe in the cinematic argot of liberation.

This, of course, is the backbone of Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” As historian Kate Masur recently wrote in the  New York Times, it is yet another “movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States” but one in which “African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them.” The result, she writes, is a film that ignores actual events of the 19th century, “helps perpetuate the notion that African Americans have offered little of substance to their own liberation” and thus reinforces “the outdated assumption that white men are the primary movers of history and the main sources of social progress.”

Coming from Spielberg, this isn’t particularly surprising. He is, after all, the creator of one of the most unself-consciously archetypal White Savior movies of all time: “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” In that cartoonish adventure, a whip-wielding white archaeologist drops from the sky into India and quickly becomes the only person able to save destitute peasants from the rein of a tyrannical human-sacrificing cult.

Spielberg’s Abraham Lincoln is certainly a more nuanced character than Dr. Jones, just as his latest film is more sophisticated (if not as exciting) than the second iteration of his 1980s archaeologist-superhero franchise. In return, he has been rewarded with an Oscar nomination — but probably not just because “Lincoln” plays to the academy’s general love of historical drama. It also plays to Hollywood award organizations’ specific affinity for the White Savior.

Indeed, in the last quarter-century, 10 White Savior films have received major Hollywood award nominations, with fully half of those coming in just the last five years. In chronological order, here’s a look at them, and how they channel the same old story of white people saving the day for people of color who supposedly cannot help themselves.

Cry Freedom (1987)
Major Academy Award Nomination: Best Actor (Denzel Washington)

Richard Attenborough’s “Cry Freedom” purports to be the story of South Africa’s black anti-apartheid leader Steven Biko. However, as the Miami Herald noted at the time, it devolves into “a movie about black suffering in which the hero is white.” Specifically, the film focuses far more attention on white journalist Donald Woods (Kevin Kline) and his gradual appreciation for the anti-apartheid cause, ultimately culminating in his flight from the country in order to expose the atrocities to the world.

“This movie promises to be an honest account of the turmoil in South Africa but turns into a routine cliff-hanger about the editor’s flight across the border,” wrote Chicago Sun-Times critic  Roger Ebert at the time. “It’s sort of a liberal yuppie version of that Disney movie where the brave East German family builds a hot-air balloon and floats to freedom. The problem with this movie is similar to the dilemma in South Africa: Whites occupy the foreground and establish the terms of the discussion, while the 80 percent nonwhite majority remains a shadowy, half-seen presence in the background.”

 
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