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A Conversation About Great White Saviors in Movies

Have we reached the point where most smart people see “white savior” movies as silly anachronisms, rather than “noble” or “important” statements?

Shea Serrano: Hello, Steven. Let’s talk about white people saving non-white people — specifically in movies. Not too long ago, I saw the trailer for Black or White, which looks to be about Kevin Costner saving a little black girl. Then, I saw the trailer for McFarland, USA, which looks to be about Kevin Costner saving young Mexican kids. I am 100 percent in.

I am excited for these movies for a number of reasons. I like Kevin Costner. I would literally give my life for The Postman. And Costner already has a history of saving non-white people (Dances With Wolves, The Bodyguard), so he’s certified. I am pumped for Black or White because Costner basically takes the girl on as his daughter, and I want a daughter desperately. I’m interested in McFarland, USA because it’s an uplifting sports movie, and you can never have enough uplifting sports movies. Also, I have a particularly personal connection to McFarland, USA. We — and I’m saying “we” as in “Mexicans” — have never had a big-budget movie where a true movie star, who is white, is rescuing us. This is the first step. We are on our way to a Mexican president. Thank you, Mr. Costner.

Steven Hyden: I’m not sure what I — and I’m saying “I” as an unelected representative of white people  — should say here. Congratulations? I’m sorry? I’ll go with the latter. I’ll keep saying “I’m sorry” until you say when.

Shea: Fair.

Steven: I do feel good about where we’re at as a culture when we can look at these movies in a semi-derisive, mocking way. At least we’ve reached the point where most smart people see “white savior” movies as silly anachronisms, rather than “noble” or “important” statements. Of course, that doesn’t change that they’re still being made, or that a movie about Mexican kids probably wouldn’t get made without Costner. But don’t you feel like this kind of movie is on the verge of extinction?

In order for it to work, you need a craggy old white man with enough free time to dispense valuable lessons, and those dudes are disappearing from movies. I doubt Clint Eastwood has another Gran Torino in him. Warren Beatty has only made one film since rapping in Bulworth.

The audience for this kind of thing is inching toward obsolescence. There’s no way a white actor born after 1975 is going near a movie like this in the future. It’s just inexcusably corny and wrong.

Shea: You say the audience for this kind of movie is inching toward obsolescence, but I don’t think that’s accurate. The highest grossing movie of all time is Avatar, and that’s about a white guy who saves non-white people, so … I mean: Dollars are dollars. What’s really crazy with Avatar is that at the end the white guy BECOMES A NON-WHITE GUY, so maybe that’s the next step? I hope so. I really need to see black-white Kevin Costner. I super need to see that.

Steven: For argument’s sake, let’s say I’m right and this subgenre is in the process of being outmoded.

Shea: OK.

Steven: Let’s chart the rise and fall. Where does it start? My immediate thought goes to Dangerous Minds. It seems like the definitive example of this kind of movie. Do you know how I ended up seeing Dangerous Minds? My senior year of high school, I signed up for a class called Social Problems, because all you did in Social Problems was watch movies like Dangerous Minds. It was the ultimate senior slough-off class, which is pretty sad, because a class called Social Problems implies that the subject matter is, you know, serious and important. Then again, Social Problems as a title is boring, antiseptic, and meaningless. Kind of like Dangerous Minds. I’m sure the makers of Dangerous Minds told themselves, “This is gonna blow some minds when kids watch it in Social Problems classes.”

Shea: Do you how I ended up seeing Dangerous Minds? It was because I was trying to make out with this girl, and that was the movie she wanted to see so that’s what we saw. And guess what? She was white. So what I’m saying is these movies even accidentally save non-white people, too, and that’s dope.

Steven: This blows my mind almost as much as black-white Kevin Costner.

Shea: You know what actually irked me about Dangerous Minds, and what irks me about all teacher movies, in general? The classes. In Dangerous Minds, Michelle Pfeiffer only had the one class to teach, and that’s not a real thing. You always have between three (if the school is on block scheduling) and six (if the school isn’t on block scheduling). This doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with what we’re supposed to be talking about, but that’s how things go sometimes.

What’s probably going to happen with white savior movies is what happened with action movies: They will be less hokey, and more “real” and “nuanced.” In the old action movies, Arnold Schwarzenegger could tear the arms off a bad guy and then say something like, “Need a hand?” and then push the bad guy out of the helicopter with the bad guy’s own arms. That doesn’t really happen anymore, and if it does, it happens ironically or as part of gag or whatever. Now everything’s all dark and serious. It’s still cool, but it’s a different cool. I figure if there’s a change coming to white savior movies, it’ll be in line with that, and I think we secretly already saw the first real attempt with Ryan Gosling in 2006’s Half Nelson.

Let me ask you this: Who are your Top Five All-Time White Saviors?

Steven: Good question. I’ve thought a lot about this, and it’s been painful narrowing my list down. But I think I have it. With apologies to Keanu Reeves in Hard Ball, Phil Collins in the “Easy Lover” video, Marty McFly (because he helped Chuck Berry invent rock and roll), and Elvis Presley (ditto), here are my top-five white saviors:

5. Gabe Kaplan in Welcome Back, Kotter

An O.G. who was Dangerous Minds–ing it up back in the ’70s. (And I feel like we should mention Kaplan out of respect for our boss.)

SheaWelcome Back, Kotter? What’s weird is, I didn’t even know you were 100,000 years old, Steven.

Steven: I watched a lot of WGN in the ’80s. Kotter and Jeffersons reruns are the closest I got to big-city life in Wisconsin.

Back to my list:

4. Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side

Confession: I never saw this movie, because I assumed I’d probably hate it. But I have seen the trailer, so I know that Bullock teaches the black guy how to smile and dress warm in cold weather. Then a white woman tells Bullock, “You’re changing that boy’s life,” so I think I get the gist. 

Shea: You got the gist. For, like, the first hour or so, it seems like the director thought the guy playing Michael Oher was a bear or something, so he just had him behaving in a very bear-like manner. Bullock actually won an Oscar for her role here, which I couldn’t even believe at first, but then I remembered I was watching the Oscars, and I was like, “Oh, that’s right.” (I kind of want someone to make a white savior movie about the Oscars, and then I want that person to win an Oscar for the role in the white savior movie about the Oscars.)

Steven: 3. Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon 2

Back when Gibson was awesome, he lured a bunch of apartheid-era South African diplomats and goons to Los Angeles, and then he murdered them in spectacularly quippy fashion. The real reason Gibson is on my list, though, is that he pulled Danny Glover off that booby-trapped toilet. Can you imagine if Glover had been blown up before he got the chance to make Predator 2?

2. Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

Bono had to be on my list; he’s like the Michael Jordan of white saviors. My initial thought was to include the scene in Rattle and Hum in which Bono teaches B.B. King about the blues, but I decided instead to go with “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” just because the sheer number of white saviors saving non-white victims is mind-boggling. This song boasts some serious white-guy All-Stars: Phil Collins, George Michael, Sting, Boy George, Duran Duran, and the big man himself, the artist formerly known as Paul Hewson. Bono helpfully underscores the song’s dichotomy by pointing out that “them” (as in non-white people) are starving instead of “you” (as in white people).

1. Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino

It’s hard to tell at first if Eastwood is a white savior or a white oppressor here. But then you notice how he says “Get off my lawn!” to that girl, in a somewhat lighter, vaguely non-psychopathic way, contrasting nicely with that unfortunate business about Korea earlier in the film. And then you’re like, “Oh Clint, you secretly want those kids to stay on your lawn! What an only partially racist softie!”

Shea: Can’t believe this is your no. 1. How does Reeves in Hard Ball not make it? My top five:

5. Keanu Reeves, The Replacements: Saves the Washington Sentinels.
4. Keanu Reeve, Chain Reaction: Saves Morgan Freeman.
3. Keanu Reeves, Speed: Saves the non-white people on the bus.
2. Keanu Reeves, Hard Ball: Saves black kids (except for the one he let die).
1. Keanu Reeves, The Matrix: Saves Laurence Fishburne and Jada Pinkett Smith and the rest of the non-white world.

Nobody has saved more non-white people than Keanu Reeves, except for maybe Phil Jackson.

Steven: I’ll sign off on that.

Shea: Honorable Mention: Kurt Russell in Big Trouble in Little China. Kurt might’ve been the first white man I ever loved.

Steven: Damn, now I’m pissed about us both leaving Russell off our lists. This scene represents how I feel right now.

Now tell me your top five beneficiaries of white saviors, and don’t forget to explain why they deserved to be rescued. 

Shea: Easy.

5. Private Miter, Tigerland

He’s the guy who was in charge of Bozz’s troop but couldn’t control Boz and ended up nearly getting his testicles zapped off, and … I’m just now realizing that, as I type this, anyone who’s not seen this movie is super confused right now. In any case, Bozz (the white) helps Miter (the non-white) get out of the Army before he gets shipped off to Vietnam. What a hero.

4. Spaceman, Sunset Park: EARLY ERA TERRENCE HOWARD. 


Also, Fredro Starr deserves a mention here. He was so dope. I like this movie because the white coach agrees to be coach because she wants money to open a restaurant. She plans to leave at the end of the season to do that. But then the boys end up almost winning the city championship so she’s like, “Maybe I’ll stick around after all.” That seems like a good lesson to learn.

Steven: Hey man, I’m sorry to interrupt, but there’s a Wikipedia page devoted to white saviors, and I can’t believe I didn’t put Jim Belushi in The Principal on my list. This scene is amazing.

How is that not an Oscar clip?

Shea: There is an Oscars for incredible scenes in terrible movies. It’s called the Oscars. 

3. Neytiri, Avatar


Put Neytiri on the list of animated characters I’m going to date if I get the chance. My wife’s list is Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, John Smith from Pocahontas, and Jake Sully from Avatar. When she told me this list, I was a little sad, because I don’t look like any of those characters. I’m going with Neytiri, Lola Bunny from Space Jam, and I think that’s it. I know a lot of people are going to say Jessica Rabbit, but she’s just not for me.

2. Miles, Hard Ball

I want to point out that Keanu raps in Hard Ball, after he sees Miles listening to Biggie’s “Big Poppa,” so this would be pretty easy proof that Reeves is a better actor than Beatty.

Steven: I wish I could counter this with a clip of Beatty rapping, but I can’t find any on YouTube. The historical record of Beatty’s raps has been whitewashed! 

Shea1. Emilio, Dangerous Minds

He was the leader of his super terrible class. Everyone respected him, and was afraid of him, and thought he was cool. He meant so much to me as a kid. He’s still one of my all-time favorite movie Mexicans. I couldn’t even take it when he died. It was too much. 

Steven: Hold on a minute. If Emilio dies, does that disqualify Pfeiffer as a white savior? (Given that she failed to “save” him.) And if Pfeiffer is disqualified, how does this affect Belushi?  

Shea: Emilio dies, but she saves the rest, and that’s usually the way it has to go. So no, she doesn’t get disqualified. Belushi is still out. It’s fine. He’s no Kevin Costner.