White Savior Movies, Ranked

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Today, McFarland, USA is released in theaters. Based on a true story, the movie stars Kevin Costner — who, between this role and Black or White, must be working out some white guilt — as Jim White (his actual name), a white coach who leads a track team of inner-city (see: Latino) students to victory. This is just the latest entry in a long list of white savior narratives: stories in which a white person heroically “saves” people of color, generally by using his white expertise (privilege) to teach them that, hey, you can still play music/read a book/catch a baseball even if you’re brown! These movies are never about the people of color succeeding as much as the white savior patting himself on the back. But they are labeled inspiring (for white people) and groundbreaking (for white people) and are often voted on at the Oscars (by white people). Here’s a ranking of 20 white savior films — by no means a comprehensive list — from worst to best.

20. The Blind Side (2009)

Based on another true story (aren’t they all?), The Blind Side follows a rich Southern woman, Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock), who adopts black teenager Michael (Quinton Aaron) after spotting him walking around. She invites him to Thanksgiving dinner, buys him clothes, sits him down, and explains to him how to play football (seriously), eventually helping him get into college. Throughout the film, he’s portrayed as a quiet, docile, eager-to-please black child, while Leigh Anne is the woman who coaches him to success. Bullock won an Oscar for the role — of course! — though I’m choosing to believe it’s a belated award for Miss Congeniality.

19. Finding Forrester (2000)

Here is the setup: A black teen boy named Jamal (Rob Brown) is dared to sneak into the home of reclusive writer William (Sean Connery). Jamal leaves his backpack behind and William goes through his stuff, makes notes on his writing, and returns the backpack. They form a mentor/mentee relationship. It is utterly ridiculous, especially when Jamal is repeatedly accused of plagiarism because his writing has improved. It eventually culminates with William reading an essay in front of the school to wild applause, and then revealing that — surprise! — it was actually written by Jamal. Who knew a black boy could write?!

18. The Help (2011)

The Help is perhaps the most egregious of recent white savior narratives, a story that is ostensibly about black maids in the South and their hardships, but actually concentrates on a perky young white girl, Skeeter (Emma Stone), who does “important” work by convincing these black women that, yes, their stories are worth telling! But they have to be told through Skeeter, who is the not-so-secret heroine of the film and who, through the book she writes “with” the help, lands a fancy job in the big city. The Help is not smart, not kind, and not important.

17. The Soloist (2009)

When you rapidly consume and review insane amounts of culture, as I do, it becomes easy to shrug off some of the offensive fluff with the excuse that it just isn’t worth it, because there are bigger battles out there. That said, it was impossible to ignore the awfulness of The Soloist, a movie wherein a journalist Steve (Robert Downey, Jr.) just happens to overhear a skilled violinist. Nathaniel (Jamie Foxx) is homeless and schizophrenic, but thankfully, Steve is there to write an inspiring article and find him an apartment! Nathaniel even plays a recital!

16. Avatar (2009)

White savior narratives aren’t limited to drama. They often pop up in science fiction as well, in movies where extraterrestrials are often coded versions of minorities. Take James Cameron’s Avatar, featuring a white man (Sam Worthington) who disguises himself as the foreign race Na’vi in order to save them. It’s a typical white savior story in that it portrays a race that simply can’t survive unless someone white swoops in to help. Naturally, it was nominated for nine Oscars.

15-12. The Educators: Freedom Writers (2007), The Ron Clark Story (2006), Conrack (1974), The Principal (1987)

The two most common white savior tropes-within-a-trope are white coaches and white educators. All of these movies are basically carbon copies of one another: A white person ends up teaching in an inner-city school, for whatever reason (in The Principal, for example, James Belushi’s character is sent to a school full of minority students as a punishment), and changes the lives of kids. From Freedom Writers‘ Hilary Swank buying minority students composition books to The Ron Clark Story‘s Matthew Perry bravely powering through pneumonia to teach poor kids in NYC to Conrack‘s Jon Voight teaching black kids in South Carolina, each of these movies are universally horrible. Really, you’re better off watching the parody High School High instead.

11. Gran Torino (2008)

Who thought Gran Torino was a good idea? (Besides Clint Eastwood.) It’s a tricky white savior movie in that it revolves around an outright racist (but he’s racist because of the war, so it’s OK!) who befriends a young Hmong American boy but attacks other members of the Hmong community. It’s a delusional, fantastical film that ultimate turns a racist into a hero.

10-8. Slave Narratives: 12 Years aSlave (2013), Django Unchained (2012), Lincoln (2012)

If there is one genre of film that should be exclusively about black people, it should be the slave narrative. But no, even that is taken away from us (and this isn’t limited to film, but television as well). Instead, the narrative is given to the white “heroes” who helped the slaves: Brad Pitt mailing a letter, Christoph Waltz unshackling Jamie Foxx, and Daniel Day-Lewis freeing the slaves. Some are better than the others — Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor are revolutionary; Django has some moments of absurd levity — but they all switch the focus away from the real tragedy and toward white back-patting.

7-6. The Ridiculous Sports Comedies: The Air Up There (1994), Wildcats (1986)

In their defense, these movies are meant to be comedies, but it doesn’t make them any less offensive — especially when rewatched in 2015. I mean, just look at the poster for The Air Up There or the tagline for Wildcats: “Her dream was to coach high school football. Her nightmare was Central High” — which all but states that this white woman’s worst nightmare is working with black students.

5. Hardball (2001)

OK, Hardball isn’t exactly a “good” white savior movie, but I have an inexplicable soft spot for it. Starring Keanu Reeves as Conor, a gambling addict who has to coach a baseball team full of minority, troubled youths in order to repay his debts (stick with me here), Hardball is as white savior as they come, but it’s almost so ridiculously bad that it swings back to being ironically good. I mean, Conor doesn’t even succeed in saving them — spoiler: one of the black children gets shot and dies shortly before the championship game — which makes the entire thing kind of pointless and not exactly inspiring. But hey, it also stars a young Michael B. Jordan!

4. District 9 (2009)

Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 is a tricky white savior movie to parse. On the one hand, it suffers from the same problems as Avatar: It’s about a bureaucrat, Wikus (Sharlto Copley), who becomes infected with alien fluid and slowly turns into one, all while trying to help them. The film was inspired by the apartheid era, which comes through as a very obvious parallel, but alien speciesism as code for racism is actually done well here, with a hell of a lot more nuance than Avatar. District 9 is actually a good, well-written, and superbly acted movie, albeit one that’s just a little iffy due to the aliens being unable to help themselves without interference from Wikus.

3. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

As far as white savior narratives go, To Kill a Mockingbird is undeniably well written and impressively nuanced on race in other ways, but let’s be honest: It’s about a white lawyer trying (and failing) to help a black victim yet still getting all of the accolades. It’s told from a white POV and is a prime example of black characters existing solely as devices for developing their white counterparts.

2. Dangerous Minds (1995)

The biggest problem with Dangerous Minds isn’t that it’s a white savior movie but that it’s a bad movie. That said, its badness is actually kind of great, and it did almost single-handedly propel the term “white savior” into the national lexicon. It stars Michelle Pfeiffer as LouAnne, a faux-bad-ass (she wears a leather coat) former Marine, who begins teaching at an inner-city school, where she gives karate lessons, introduces the kids to Bob Dylan (how can anyone take this film seriously?), and helps students who are pregnant or caught up in gangs. It ends with the most white savior moment of them all: a group of minority students begging a white teacher to continue teaching. At least we got that Coolio song out of it.

1. Cool Runnings (1993)

Cool Runnings is one of my favorite movies, and likely one of your favorites, too, because who can resist the uplifting story of a Jamaican bobsled team? It is, unfortunately, also a white savior narrative (and it should be mentioned that it’s the team that actively seeks out help, practically begging for John Candy’s guidance), but it hardly feels like one because it’s so silly and funny. Plus, when the man doing the saving is John Candy, it’s hard to get mad.