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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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Tribe of nature-loving Noble Savages? Check. White spy who “goes native” with said tribe? Check. Spy has an enlightened epiphany and a subsequent change of heart, aligning him with the tribe against their evil enemies? Check. White guy unifies disparate tribes to fight their collective oppressors in a more powerful way than they ever have? Check.

But it goes even deeper than that. As  The Progressive magazine put it:

Jake Sully, played by Sam Worthington, is the white hero who enters the Na’vi’s land, learns, in three months, all their secrets, becomes a super-Na’vi and is able to return and save them from the attack of his crazy nation’s warmongers. Jake is Cameron’s version of Tarzan, the white man who will save the “savages.” Jake is the only one who can successfully pray to the Na’vi’s mother goddess (Eywa). She hears him, not her own people’s prayers and grief.

District 9 (2009)
Major Academy Award Nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay (Neill Bomkamp, Terri Tatchell), Best Picture

At one level, “District 9″ is a stereotypical White Savior film much like “Avatar”; basically, it’s the story of a white government strongman with roots in South Africa’s apartheid culture going native with his country’s victims of apartheid. Only instead of those victims being black people, they are extraterrestrials known as “prawns.” Eventually, the savior helps free some of those victims so that they can escape, and the rest is history (well, until the expected sequel).

That said,  io9′s Annalee Newitz identifies an important substantive distinction between James Cameron’s 3-D blockbuster and “District 9″ (emphasis added):

Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege. Jake never really knows what it’s like to be a Na’vi because he always has the option to switch back into human mode.

Interestingly, Wikus in District 9 learns a very different lesson. He’s becoming alien and he can’t go back.  He has no other choice but to live in the slums and eat catfood. And guess what? He really hates it. He helps his alien buddy to escape Earth solely because he’s hoping the guy will come back in a few years with a “cure” for his alienness. When whites fantasize about becoming other races, it’s only fun if they can blithely ignore the fundamental experience of being an oppressed racial group. Which is that you are oppressed, and nobody will let you be a leader of anything.

This no doubt makes the latter a much more serious and harrowing film. Unlike so many other White Savior film, the savior in this picture never  chose to become a part of the non-white minority. That is, he never reached some moment of benevolent enlightenment whereby he made a moral choice to help the group. On the contrary, even at the end of the film, he is motivated by his desperation to regain his white non-alien privilege (or, at least, body).

In this, “District 9″ courageously refuses to give white audiences the psychological satisfaction of moral superiority. That’s not to absolve the film of its White Savior roots, of course, but it is to suggest that it at least offered a more nuanced look at privilege than the typical White Savior schlock.

The Help (2011)
Major Academy Award Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress (Viola Davis), Best Supporting Actress (Jessica Chastain)
Major Academy Award Victories: Best Actress (Octavia Spencer)

Following in the footsteps of 1987′s “Cry Freedom,” 2011′s “The Help” refuses to just focus on black working-class struggle and instead makes the film a tale of the white writer/journalist’s quest to tell that story. As The  New York Times’ Nelson Georgewrote, its “narrative is driven by (the white writer’s) journey from oddball college graduate to rebellious neo-liberal muckraker.”

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