How to Avoid the White Savior Trope

Time to End the White Savior Trope

It’s no secret that race and gender have been hot-button topics in the entertainment industry, especially lately. There have been valid complaints about the lack of diversity, representation, and multidimensional female characters in films and TV, but one of the most underrated critique is the white savior trope, which is when a film is all about a white person “saving” people of color. It’s the driving force in films such as McFarland, Radio, and Freedom Writers. Now, you may say, “but those three movies are true stories. You can’t just rewrite history,” which is true. But the film The Good Lie, which documents the plight of Sudanese orphans seeking asylum, uses two distinct tactics to try to avoid the trope, thus proving it can be sidestepped even in films based on true stories.
Reese Witherspoon’s character could have easily fallen into every white savior characterization there is, but instead, they don’t play up her character traits or storyline. She’s not some phenomenal coach who takes a chance on neglected youth like in Radio and McFarland. She’s not a stand-up teacher who bridges the gap between gangs and cliques like in Freedom Writers. She’s nothing more than a mediocre job-placement associate who has a sloppy house and sometimes helps her friends. Therefore, by keeping her character traits secondary, this film is able to focus on the Sudanese characters Mamere, Jeremiah, Paul, and Abital. The film highlights their self-resilience and courage by following their unaccompanied escape from civil war as they walk hundreds of miles to a Kenyan refugee camp, losing friends and family along the way, and then their ability to make their own way in America, a country different than Sudan in every way. When Reese’s character enters the story, she doesn’t so much as show them how to survive in America. Though she picks them up from the airport, she doesn’t explain the different rules of American society or how to use the foreign amenities in their house when she drops them off. They learn this new lifestyle and culture on their own because they are the ones who time and time again are shown saving themselves, whether that be from a civil war in Sudan or from being outcasts and jobless in America. Then at the end, it’s not Reese who has the biggest impact/sacrifice, but Mamere. He trades places with his brother so that his brother has a chance at a better life in America, thus leaving himself stranded back at the Kenyan refugee camp. Instead of making Reese courageous and inspiring, the film makes a huge point to show that Mamere, Jeremiah, Paul, and Abital have the characteristics of bravery and courage that lead them to constantly save themselves and each other throughout the film.
Reese was the big name attached to this film, but unlike in the white savior films mentioned above, she wasn’t the protagonist. Instead, the entire first half of the story follows Mamere, Jeremiah, Paul, and Abital adapting in order to resolve conflicts. A protagonist is defined as the person who changes the most over the course of the film. Time and time again the film puts these four characters through hardship, as most films do with their protagonists, to show how they change in order to rise to the occasion. At the beginning of The Good Lie, they state outright that they do not know there is a world outside of Sudan or that it contains people who look different than them. Then, when they arrive in America for asylum, everything they thought they knew is turned on its head. Everything is foreign, from the telephone to the cars, but even so, they are able to adjust their thinking and actions so that they can retain jobs and work their way to better lives. Reese doesn’t enter the film until they arrive in America 13 years after reaching the refugee camp and even then she is more of a helpful neighbor than a self-righteous savior. She does what she can to assist them, but at critical moments of conflict, she always fades into the background, leaving them to help themselves and thus grow from their experiences. For example, at one point Mamere discovers his brother is still alive and made it to the refugee camp in Kenya. Reese’s character demands information on how he can be granted asylum status, but unlike in Freedom Writers when Hillary Swank goes up against the school board to fight for the kids to stay in her class, Reese falls back so that Mamere is the one who travels from embassy to embassy to fight for his brother’s asylum. Earlier in the film, it’s Mamere’s brother who sacrifices for him, giving himself up to a soldier so that the others can get away, but with everything Mamere has faced and learned throughout the storyline, he has grown to be the one who fights for his brother’s freedom. Therefore, it’s not Reese who goes through the changes that indicate that she’s the protagonist, but it’s Mamere, Jeremiah, Paul, and Abital.

This film isn’t perfect though. It has it’s moments where it does have characteristics of the white savior trope. For example, there is a point in the story where Reese’s character provides a place for Abital to live so that she isn’t miles away from the other three. It’s a big deal because it’s something that Mamere kept trying to achieve, but always failed at. So it does have some instance of the white savior trope. Even so, this action isn’t played up like it normally would be in movies such as this, but instead it’s just touched upon, making it seem more of a logical way for Abital to continue to add to the story rather than a reason to hold Witherspoon’s character in high esteem. So, although it isn’t the perfect example of a true story without contents of the white savior trope, the number of times it could have fallen into the trope and didn’t proves that films can’t hide behind the fact that they’re true stories in order to justify the use of the trope.

Had Reese Witherspoon’s character been deemed the protagonist or given traits that would elect her as the saving force in the film, The Good Lie could have easily fallen into the same category as Freedom Writers, Radio, and McFarland. Though there were times it did lean into the trope, the majority of the story kept the focus on Mamere, Jeremiah, Paul, and Abital. It is always their struggles to overcome and their lives to take back. The true story of the Lost Boys of Sudan is one that has been heard around the world. When I was in elementary school, we were visited by a few of the Lost Boys who shared their stories and spread the knowledge they gained through their experiences. If such a popular historical event can be turned into a film that retains truth without completely falling into the trope, then who’s to say that other fact-based films can’t do the same?

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