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 focuses on 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 a very distinct tactic to try to avoid the trope, thus proving it can be sidestepped even in films based on true stories.

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 as they flee the civil war in Sudan by walking hundreds of miles to a Kenyan refugee camp, losing friends and family along the way. 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, when 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, 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, it’s Mamere. Thus, he is the one who saves himself, with his three siblings coming in right behind him.

This film isn’t perfect though. It does have moments related to 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 her three brothers. It’s a big deal because it’s something that Mamere tried to achieve, but failed. While this is unfortunate, it 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 use the excuse that they’re true stories in order to justify the use of the trope.

The true story of the Lost Boys of Sudan has been heard around the world. When I was in elementary school, the Lost Boys visited my classroom and shared their personal stories to spread the knowledge they gained through their experiences fleeing civil war and finding a new home in America. 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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