Dec 19, 2013



Is it just me, but don't you love reading articles that make you feel like the author was reading your mind?  That was exactly the case for me when I read

Here's a snippet of what Older wrote:

“12 Years a Slave” is a stunning cinematic achievement. Director Steve McQueen attacks the brutality of slavery with an unflinching eye, spares us no detail of the degradation that white America inflicted on the people it considered its property. The performances, particularly of Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita N’yongo, are breathtaking; we feel the depth of each character with a few simple cinematic strokes.

About three-quarters through the movie, Brad Pitt suddenly shows up and, essentially, saves the day. Never mind that Pitt is also one of the film’s producers (an interesting contrast to Quentin Tarantino, who cast himself as an Australian slave trader in “Django Unchained.” But that’s a whole other essay). In this otherwise monumental and groundbreaking film, written and directed in the age of stop-and-frisk and “stand your ground,” of Trayvon and Aiyanna and Marissa and Renisha, did we really need yet another white savior narrative?

We absolutely did not.

Some have pointed out that it’s simply being true to the historical record of Northup’s life. But the creative process begins with selection: which narratives we decide to privilege over others matters. Our myths reveal mountains about who we are as a nation. Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” erased Frederick Douglass, reinforcing the tired notion that a singular white man, through the sheer force of his moral conviction, brought slavery to an end. In “Lincoln,” as in “12 Years,” this cliché not only hobbles the film’s cultural relevancy, it is a narrative failure as well. The story begins with Lincoln already having formed his opposition to slavery. Without the history of his relationship to Douglass, we have no idea how this president is willing to risk so much to pass the 13thAmendment. There is no inciting incident, no motivating factor: We are left with just a determined man. And the story suffers for it.


I agree with dream hampton that we need more, not fewer, narratives about slavery. As Roxane Gay writes, so much of these films’ cultural commerce depends on the spectacle of black suffering. The few victories we’re shown come almost exclusively at the deus-ex-machina-like intervention of a white savior, a painful irony considering the historical context. “12 Years” was brilliant in part for the depth and scope it afforded particularly the female characters. The film leaves you with the haunted feeling of having glimpsed shreds of so many stories, most tragic, some triumphant. This makes the final twist of more of the same all the more painful.

What would a cinematic aesthetic of American history look like without the white savior? Perhaps the myth of white American exceptionalism would begin to crumble. Filmmakers would have to struggle to find new ways of getting people of color out of tight situations. Unpredictability might ensue; creativity would thrive. Maybe we’d finally see a Harriet Tubman biopic, instead of a cheap joke video at her expense.

Don't get me wrong, it's not just slave narratives that have the white savior complex. Pretty much most films that revolve around people of color has to introduce a white savior in some form or fashion. If the white savior isn't a character in the actual film, then the white savior comes about as the producer or director of the film. Somehow a film about a person of color only gets told if there is some white savior attached to it. You may think that's a stretch, but ask yourself how many critically acclaimed films about people of color have been told without the aid of a white savior?  Spike Lee made 'Malcolm X' and it didn't get any of the acclaim that it so richly deserved and I'm willing to bet it's.  It's just the Hollywood way of doing things.

Trust me, the only way we're going to get a Harriett Tubman or Nat Turner film is if there is some white savior attached to the film.  If some big time white producer or director wants to do it then maybe it'll get done, but don't let Spike Lee try to make the film.

What do you think about the white savior treatment of films?