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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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Mississippi Burning (1988)
Major Academy Award Nominations: Best Actor (Gene Hackman), Best Supporting Actress (Frances McDormand), Best Director (Alan Parker), Best Picture

Like “Cry Freedom” the year before it, “Mississippi Burning” uses the very real history of black struggle as a vehicle to promote the White Savior narrative. In the latter’s case, the struggle is that of civil rights organizers in the South, but the story is nonetheless about the white FBI agents who investigate the murder of those organizers, one of whom was black.

“Mississippi Burning” stands out in the White Savior catalog for two key reasons.

First, as the  Chicago Reader noted at the time, it reimagined J. Edgar Hoover’s lily-white FBI as a heroic force for good in the civil rights struggle, rather than what it often was: either dreadfully inept or complicit in civil rights crimes.

Second, unlike many other directors who refuse to comment about their motivations, “Mississippi Burning’s” director, Alan Parker, was very open about why he deliberately White Savior-ized his film. As he told Time magazine:

Because it’s a movie, I felt it  had to be fictionalized. The two heroes in the story had to be white. That is a reflection of our society as much as of the film industry. At this point in time, it could not have been made in any other way.

Whether or not you blame Parker for his decisions, the New York Times was correct in noting that his choice represented a larger — and self-fulfilling — consensus in Hollywood.

“Movie people seem to believe that whites would be alienated by serious dramatic films with black principals, no matter how compelling the story lines,” the Times’ Brent Staples wrote, in a perfect summary of why the White Savior genre persists.

Glory (1989)
Major Academy Award Victory: Best Actor (Denzel Washington)

In a sense, “Glory” was the ancestor of Spielberg’s “Lincoln”; sub in Capt. Robert Gould Shaw for President Lincoln, set the film right on the blood-soaked battlefield, and actually give a few African-American characters some personality, and you have Edward Zwick’s 1989 classic.

But while “Glory” is a far better film than “Lincoln” in no small part because it gives people of color some real screentime, the underlying White Savior message is the same: namely, that black people were only able to fight back against slavery thanks to the benevolence of some enlightened and privileged white people. The big difference is that in “Glory,” the White Savior succeeds only in harnessing the martial power of black soldiers, but not in actually winning those soldiers’ liberation. In the end, the entire regiment is sent to their graves in the battle to take Fort Wagner.

Dances With Wolves (1990)
Major Academy Award Nominations: Best Actor (Kevin Costner), Best Supporting Actor (Graham Greene), Best Supporting Actress (Mary McDonnell)
Major Academy Award Victories: Best Picture, Best Director (Kevin Costner), Best Adapted Screenplay (Michael Blake)

One of the major sub-categories of the White Savior genre is the “going native” narrative, and 1990′s “Dances With Wolves” is the modern era’s emblematic example. It is the story of a white Union soldier who fully embeds himself in the Sioux tribe and quickly becomes its primary protector. First, he leads the tribe’s defense against its hostile Pawnee rivals, then he helps them attempt to evade the Union army in which he once served.

Among the defining characteristics of “Dances With Wolves” — as it is with most “going native” stories — is the prominence of what has been called the  Noble Savage. As TV Tropes describes it, that is a typically Native American “character who is, due to their race or ethnicity, a member of a barbaric or savage tribe (or a group simply perceived as such by others), who is nevertheless portrayed as nobler or of higher moral fibre than the norm.”

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