The killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, and the ensuing nationwide protests against police brutality have sparked a national conversation about systemic racism and white supremacy in America.
This has manifested itself in many ways, including a growing call from the Black community for white people to acknowledge their privilege, question the systems and attitudes that have allowed racism to perpetuate for so long, and to educate themselves about the Black experience.
So, the white people of America took to Netflix, and “The Help” (2011) quickly became the most watched movie on the platform.
Here’s why this is a problem: “The Help,” based on the book by Kathryn Stockett, appears at first glance to highlight an important Black narrative, telling the story of two Black maids working for white families in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Era. But the story works against itself by placing a white character at the center of the story and presenting her as a hero. This is where the concept of “white savior” comes into play.
As used in cinema, the white savior is a trope where a white character saves a non-white character or characters from situations they cannot save themselves from. This is something filmmakers should be wary of, as these narratives contribute to enduring stereotypes of people of color and the belief that racism is no longer an issue.
In “The Help,” we see the white savior in Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), an aspiring journalist who takes it upon herself to interview domestic workers about the racism they face, namely Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), and then publish their stories. The book is a huge success which earns Skeeter a job in New York and praise from her mother, who calls her brave.
Although well-intentioned, by making Skeeter, a young white woman, the narrator of a story about Black maids, “The Help” doesn’t help educate viewers or eliminate stereotypes, but instead promotes the idea that white people are heroes who must continually come to the aid of people of color.
Two more recent examples include “Hidden Figures” (2016) and “Green Book” (2018), which have also featured white savior characters at the center of stories about people of color. The character of Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) in “Hidden Figures” who comes to the rescue of Katharine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) multiple times throughout the film, and is portrayed as a paradigm of justice and moral correctness, didn’t actually exist in real life. In contrast, “Green Book’s” Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) is based on a real person, but again is presented as Dr. Don Shirley’s (Mahershala Ali) knight in shining armor when he is subject to racism and discrimination.
This isn’t to say that Hollywood should stop making films about Black people. On the contrary, it is more important than ever to shed light on Black narratives, and the experience of being a person of color in America. But maybe let Black filmmakers tell their own stories, on their terms, and in their own way.