White savior narrative in film
In cinema, the white savior is a narrative trope by which a white character rescues people of color from their plight. The trope of the white savior has an extensive history in the cinema of the United States, wherein he or she is portrayed as a messianic figure who learns something about himself or herself in the course of rescuing the non-white characters.
The narrative trope of the white savior is how the mass communications medium of cinema represents the sociology of race and ethnic relations, by presenting abstract concepts — such as morality — as innate characteristics (racial and cultural) of white people, rather than as characteristics innate to people of color. In the praxis of cinematic narrative, the white-savior character usually is a man who is out of place within his own society, until he assumes the burden of racial leadership in order to rescue non-white foreigners and minorities (racial and ethnic) from their plights; as such, white-savior stories “are essentially grandiose, exhibitionistic, and narcissistic” fantasies of psychological compensation.
In “The Whiteness of Oscar Night” (2015), Matthew Hughey describes the narrative structure of the sub-genre:
A White Savior film is often based on some supposedly true story. Second, it features a nonwhite group or person who experiences conflict and struggle with others that is particularly dangerous or threatening to their life and livelihood. Third, a White person (the savior) enters the milieu and through his or her sacrifices, as a teacher, mentor, lawyer, military hero, aspiring writer, or wannabe Native American warrior, is able to physically save — or at least morally redeem — the person or community of folks of color, by the film's end. Examples of this genre include films like Glory (1989), Dangerous Minds (1996), Amistad (1997), Finding Forrester (2000), The Last Samurai (2003), Half-Nelson (2006), Freedom Writers (2007), Gran Torino (2008), Avatar (2009), The Blind Side (2009), The Help (2011), and the list goes on.
That the white savior film arose from the occurrence of "racial schizophrenia" in the culture of the U.S. in the latter half of the 20th century. Following the release of cinematic adaptations of the play A Raisin in the Sun (1959), by Lorraine Hansberry, and the novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), by Harper Lee, in the 1960s, the films of the Blaxploitation genre of the 1970s reflected continued discontent over the social and racial inequality of non-white people in the United States, and functioned as counterbalance to the trope of the white savior. That from the 1980s, continued cultural hypersegregation led to the common misbelief, by many American white people, that the nation had reached a post-racial state of social relations, which resulted in a backlash against the racial and ethnic diversity of the cinema of the previous decades, on screen during the 1960s and the 1970s; thus, the popular cinema of the 1990s and the early 2000s featured the white savior narrative. That reappearance of the white-savior narrative occurred because the majority of white people in the U.S. had little substantive social interaction with non-white people of different races and ethnic groups. Therefore, the initial rise, and continued popularity, of the white-savior film trope likely offered interracial experiences to the mostly white viewers at the cinema, who usually do not encounter colored people in real life.
At the cinema, the white savior narrative occupies a psychological niche for most white people, as an expression of their latent desire for interracial goodwill and reconciliation. By presenting stories of racial redemption, involving black people and white people professing to reach across racial barriers, Hollywood is catering to a mostly white audience who believe themselves unfairly victimized by non-white ethnic groups, because they are culturally exhausted with the unfinished national discourse about race and ethnicity in U.S. society. Hence, movies featuring the narrative trope of the white savior have notably similar storylines, which present an ostensibly nobler approach to race relations, but offer psychological refuge and escapism for white Americans seeking to avoid substantive conversations about race, racism, and racial identity. In this way, the narrative trope of the white savior is an important cultural artifact, a device to realize the desire to repair the social and cultural damage wrought by the myths of white supremacy and paternalism, regardless of the inherently racist overtones of the white-savior narrative trope.
As a literary trope, the white-savior narrative antedates the visual narrative of the cinema. In the late 19th century, with the poem “The White Man's Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands” (1899) Rudyard Kipling appeals to the white people of U.S. society to assume racial stewardship in civilizing a non-white people of Asia, and in the novella The Man Who Would Be King (1888), the explicit objective of the protagonists — Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnehan, ex-soldiers of the British Indian Army — is to become kings to the tribes of Kafiristan, a part of Afghanistan then unexplored by white men from Europe.
In each medium of mass communication, the plot and themes undercut the racial superiority of the white-savior narrative, yet the narratives of the novella and of the screenplay represent the tribes of Kafiristan as non-white stereotypes, as benighted natives who must be led towards civilization (i.e. who must be Westernized), as initially recommended in the poem “The White Man’s Burden”. Hence, the 20th-century film version, The Man Who Would Be King (1975) retains Kipling’s racist representation of the Kafiristani peoples as “uncivilized natives”, a literary trope usual to the colonial literature of the 19th century. Likewise, the novel King Solomon's Mines (1885), by H. Rider Haggard, features European explorers in Africa encountering the rightful (native) king of a kingdom — as yet “undiscovered” by white Europe — whom they restore to power by actively intervening to the internal politics of an “undiscovered” nation.
Types of story
In an historical period drama, the narrative trope of the white savior usually appears as the plot of or as a sub-plot in films based upon historical events, such as Mississippi Burning (1988), Amistad (1997), Lincoln (2012), and 12 Years a Slave (2013). As such, the cinematic narrative about the historical event depicted features and concentrates upon the experiences of the white protagonist(s), and not of the black people who are the ostensible subjects of the story. Despite being fairly true, accurate, and faithful to the historical record, “the creative process begins with selection: which narratives we decide to privilege over others matters." In the film Amistad (1997), the black subjects of the story are at the narrative center only at the start of the story: the slaves’ revolt and their taking control of the Amistad slave ship, afterwards, once on dry land in the U.S., the narrative is about the heroic white lawyers who defend the slaves in court.
The narrative of 12 Years a Slave (2013), based upon the memoir Twelve Years a Slave (1853), by the free-born black man Solomon Northup, shows the kidnap and enslavement of the protagonist, and his mental and physical resilience against dehumanization by white supremacy, nonetheless, the narrative denouement, shows the black man rescued by a white man from Canada. As such, in “It’s Time to Take the White Savior out of Slavery Narratives” (2013), Daniel José Older identifies 12 Years a Slave as a white savior narrative about slavery in the U.S.
In Mississippi Burning (1988), about the Mississippi civil rights workers' murders in 1964, the cinematic representation of that historical event features two fictional protagonists, the white agents of the FBI assigned to investigate that federal crime. The director of the film, Alan Parker, defended the casting of white actors as the protagonists, “because it’s a movie; I felt it had to be fictionalized. The two heroes in the story had to be white. That is a reflection of our society, as much as of the film industry. At this point in time [the late 1980s], it could not have been made in any other way.” In “Mississippi Burning: A Civil Rights Story of Good Intentions and Suspect Politics” (2013) the film critic Alex von Tunzelmann said that “its narrative focus is on what race politics meant to white people. Most of the black characters in the film are passive, with two notable exceptions.”
Moreover, within the white-savior subgenre, there exists the “White Savior Historical Sport Film”, which mainstream movie reviewers label as “inspirational sports movies” and as “inspirational underdog sports movies”.
The white-savior teacher story, such as Up the Down Staircase (1967), Dangerous Minds (1995), and Freedom Writers (2007), “features a group of lower-class, urban, non-whites (generally black and Latino/a) who struggle through the social order in general, or the educational system specifically. Yet, through the sacrifices of a white teacher they are transformed, saved, and redeemed by the film’s end.” As an inspirational tale of the human spirit, the storyline of the white-savior-teacher is not racist, in itself, but is culturally problematic for being racialist, because it is a variant of the white-savior narrative that factually misrepresents the cultural and societal reality that there exist minority-group teachers who have been successfully educating (racial, ethnic, cultural) minority-group students in their colored communities, without the saving stewardship of white people.
Man of principle
The white savior’s principled opposition to chattel slavery and to Jim Crow laws makes him advocate for the humanity of slaves and defender of the rights of black people unable to independently stand within an institutionally racist society, in films such as To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Conrack (1974), and Amistad (1997). Despite ostensibly being stories (fictional and true) about the racist oppression of black people, usually in the American South, the white-savior narrative relegates the colored character(s) to the story’s background, as the passive object(s) of the dramatic action, and in the foreground places the white man who actively militates to save him and them from the depredations of racist white folk, respectively: a false accusation of inter-racial rape, truncated schooling, and chattel slavery. Moreover, a contemporary version of the white-savior as man-of-principle is integral to the narratives of the films in The Matrix franchise (1999–2003), wherein a “racially diverse team of helpers” (women and men) assist the white protagonist in realizing the salvation of the imperiled colored people.
In the Mighty Whitey story, the narrative features a white savior arrived to save a tribe from impending danger, in films such as Lord Jim (1965), Farewell to the King (1989), and The Emerald Forest (1985), which are stories occurred in the wild lands of Polynesia, in the Pacific Ocean, and of the Amazon basin. In the course of the story, a psychologically troubled white man arrives to a foreign land, where the native populace welcome him to their tribe (society), and eventually include him to their social hierarchy, as such, he “not only learns the ways of the native people, but surpasses their skill, becoming far better at being a [native] member of the culture, than those of the tribe, and, naturally, [becomes] their greatest warrior or even their leader.”
Historical period drama
In “12 Years a Slave: Yet Another Oscar-nominated ‘White Savior’ Story” (2014), Noah Berlatsky identifies the white-savior narrative in film as essentially racist, because the films in that genre are thematic variations of a single narrative about the lives of black people being oppressed by “bad white people”, and thus cannot achieve their physical freedom, social independence, and economic self-sufficiency without “the offices of good white people”. In Recognizing Race and Ethnicity: Power, Privilege, and Inequality (2014), Kathleen Fitzgerald, said that, although the white-savior narrative is “a successful film genre, this image is problematic, because it frames the person of color as unable to solve their own problems, as incompetent.”
About the Free State of Jones (2016), reviewer Ann Hornaday said that it is just “another white savior movie”, whilst the reviewer A. O. Scott said the opposite, “This is not yet another film about a white savior sacrificing himself on behalf of the darker-skinned oppressed. Nor, for that matter, is it the story of a white sinner redeemed by the superhuman selflessness of black people. Free State of Jones is a rarer thing: a film that tries to strike sparks of political insight from a well-worn genre template”; and in “The Historical Imagination and Free State of Jones” (2016), the reviewer Richard Brody said that “it’s tempting to shunt Free State of Jones into the familiar genre of the white-savior tale, but [the] Newton Knight [character] appears as something else — not so much as a savior, but as an avatar of a new South.”
The science fiction trilogy of The Matrix (1999), The Matrix Reloaded (2003), and The Matrix Revolutions (2003) features a white-savior protagonist, named Neo, who is The One man who can save humanity only by entering “multicultural landscapes outside [the] computer-simulated reality [and who] must begin, through his grace, to save non-white people from an impending disaster” — human subordination to a cybernetic overlord, the Matrix. Moreover, in Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness (2003), Hernán Vera and Andrew M. Gordon identify The Matrix as “a recent ‘updating’ of the white savior myth”, featuring a story in which “the white messiah has a racially diverse team of helpers.” Yet, despite that casting of actors, “the movie’s potential critique of white racism is contradicted, by the mythic plot, in which the black characters — Morpheus, the Oracle, and Morpheus’s crew members Tank and Dozer — are disciples who serve the white Messiah, Neo.” Nonetheless, in Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film (2008), Adilifu Nama counters that the narrative roles of the Morpheus and Oracle characters indicate that, “On the whole, the quest . . . appears to be more a mission led by a black man and woman than one led by a white savior . . . [that] the black characters are easily read as symbolic, cultural touchstones and [as] respective reminders of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements” in the U.S. of the 20th century.
The movie McFarland, USA (2015), is a contemporary example of the inspirational-sports-movie subgenre within the genre of the white-savior narrative. Addressing the matter of the white-savior trope, the director, Niki Caro, said, “We were very conscious of not making a white savior movie, and you could have, with the material, but it was really important for us that he be a flawed guy who was ultimately redeemed by the community.” In “The Troublesome Rebirth of the Kevin Costner, Everyman” (2015), Katie Kilkenny acknowledged the white-savior premise of McFarland, USA, but said that some people “say it transcends its paradigmatic trappings — others have claimed it’s a film about easing white people into a more [racially] diverse America.” In the “McFarland, USA Movie Review by Kenneth Turan”, the reviewer said that, as an inspirational film about sport, it “may sound like a white savior movie . . . but it doesn’t play that way, in part, because of the [woman] director involved.”
The indicated films are examples of the white-savior cinematic narrative.
|12 Years a Slave||2013||A free-born black man Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is kidnapped and enslaved in the American South. After more than a decade of slavery, Northrup is rescued by a white man from Canada (Brad Pitt).|
|42||2013||Based on a true story, the white baseball executive Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), selects the first African-American Major League baseball player, Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers.|
|Air Up There, TheThe Air Up There||1994||A disgraced white basketball coach (Kevin Bacon) travels to a village in Kenya to recruit a possible recruit to the team.|
|Amistad||1997||In the 1830s, a cargo of captured Africans, enroute to enslavement, mutiny and assume control of the slaver’s ship, are captured by the U.S. authorities, and a results in which the white lawyer John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) defends the slaves’ right to be freed.|
|Avatar||2009||In the science fiction film, a white former Marine (played by Sam Worthington) goes to another planet and becomes part of an alien humanoid tribe, ultimately leading them to victory against his people's military.|
|Blind Side, TheThe Blind Side||2009||A white woman and football fan (played by Sandra Bullock) takes a black teenager (played by Quinton Aaron) into her home, and he plays football with her support through his high school and college years.|
|Blood Diamond||2006||A racist white Rhodesian mercenary (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) rescues a black Sierra Leonese (played by Djimon Hounsou) and his son from black villains.|
|City of Joy||1992||A white American doctor (played by Patrick Swayze) travels to India to find enlightenment. He sets up a free clinic to serve the poor, and though reluctant at first, he decides to stay with the people.|
|Conrack||1974||A white teacher (played by Jon Voight) is sent to an island off the coast of South Carolina, where he teaches children of poor black families.|
|Cool Runnings||1993||In the comedy film, black Jamaicans who want to form a national bobsled team are helped by a disgraced former bobsledder (played by John Candy).|
|Cry Freedom||1987||The film features white journalist Donald Woods (played by Kevin Kline) who learns to appreciate the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and its black leader Steven Biko (played by Denzel Washington). Woods leaves the country to report the apartheid system to the world.|
|Dances with Wolves||1990||In the 1860s, a white Union soldier (played by Kevin Costner) becomes part of the Sioux, a Native American tribe. He leads the Sioux against their rivals the Pawnee and later helps them escape the army he once served.|
|Dangerous Minds||1995||A white teacher (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) teaches African and Hispanic American teenagers at an inner city high school.|
|District 9||2009||A white South African government official (played by Sharlto Copley) works to relocate extraterrestrials to a new internment camp. When he is infected by a fluid and gradually changes into an extraterrestrial himself, he fights against the transition and is motivated to free extraterrestrials so they can provide a cure for his condition.|
|Django Unchained||2012||In 1858, black slave Django (played by Jamie Foxx) is freed by the white German bounty hunter Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz), and they work together to free Django's wife.|
|Elysium||2013||In the science fiction film, a white assembly worker (played by Matt Damon) from a mostly nonwhite community travels to a space station and ends up sacrificing himself so medical devices could be used to heal people on Earth.|
|Express, TheThe Express||2000|
|Finding Forrester||2000||A white reclusive writer (played by Sean Connery) sees potential writing skill in a black high school student and helps him with his writing.|
|Free State of Jones||2016||A historical film taking place during and after the American Civil War, about the events surrounding the rebellion of Jones County, Mississippi against the Confederate States of America.|
|Freedom Writers||2007||In the mid-1990s in Long Beach, California, a white teacher (played by Hilary Swank) strives to educate nonwhite high school students despite their neighborhood conditions.|
|Glory||1989||During the American Civil War, a regiment of black Union soldiers serve under the white Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (played by Matthew Broderick). Through Shaw, they are able to fight back against slavery.|
|Glory Road||2006||In the 1960s, men's basketball coach Don Haskins (Josh Lucas) coaches a team with an all-black starting lineup and leads them to victory.|
|Gran Torino||2008||A racist white Korean War veteran (played by Clint Eastwood) helps a Hmong American teenager and ultimately protects him and his family from a Hmong American gang.|
|Green Berets, TheThe Green Berets||1968||The Vietnam War propaganda film depicts a white U.S. Army Special Forces commander (played by John Wayne) who fights for the people of South Vietnam.|
|Half Nelson||2006||A white teacher with a drug addiction (played by Ryan Gosling) teaches at an inner city middle school, and befriending a black student, learns to overcome his addiction.|
|Hardball||2001||A white gambler (played by Keanu Reeves) is required to coach a baseball team of black children from Chicago's ABLA housing projects to pay off his gambling debts.|
|Harlem Globetrotters, TheThe Harlem Globetrotters||1951|
|Help, TheThe Help||2011||In 1963 in Jackson, Mississippi, a young white woman (played by Emma Stone) strives for a career in journalism and encourages black maids to share their personal experiences despite the racism prevalent at the time.|
|Hurricane, TheThe Hurricane||1999|
|Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom||1984||White archaeologist and adventurer Indiana Jones (played by Harrison Ford) rescues Indian peasants from a cult that sacrifices them.|
|Jackie Robinson Story, TheThe Jackie Robinson Story||1950|
|Jim Thorpe – All-American||1951|
|Last Samurai, TheThe Last Samurai||2003||In the 1870s, a white former Union Army officer (played by Tom Cruise) travels to Japan and ultimately joins a group of samurai, helping them to resist corrupt advisers to the Japanese Emperor.|
|Lawrence of Arabia||1962||The white British Army officer T. E. Lawrence (played by Peter O'Toole) leads Arabs in a revolt against the Ottoman Empire.|
|Legend of Tarzan, TheThe Legend of Tarzan||2016||Tarzan, raised by apes in Africa and then returned to England as Lord Greystoke, returns to Africa and fights the slave trade.|
|Lincoln||2012||The historical film focuses on the efforts of President of the United States Abraham Lincoln (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) and other white figures to win the American Civil War and end Slavery in the United States.|
|Machine Gun Preacher||2011||A white ex-convict (played by Gerard Butler) travels to South Sudan to rebuild homes and finds himself having to save its residents from soldiers involved in a civil war.|
|Man Who Would Be King, TheThe Man Who Would Be King||1975||Based on the story The Man Who Would Be King (1888) by Rudyard Kipling, two white British adventurers (played by Sean Connery and Michael Caine) in the 1880s are crowned kings in a non-white country (Kafiristan). While the narrative is depicted as ironic, the natives are portrayed in a cliched manner.|
|Matrix, TheThe Matrix||1999||The film features a white computer hacker Neo who becomes "The One" to save humanity.|
|McFarland, USA||2015||A white coach (played by Kevin Costner) trains an all-Latino high school cross country running team.|
|Million Dollar Arm||2014||Based on a true story, a sports agent J. B. Bernstein (played by Jon Hamm) organizes a talent contest in India where he discovers a pair of youngsters who will demonstrate enough baseball skills to receive a contract by the Pittsburgh Pirates.|
|Mississippi Burning||1988||In 1964, two white FBI agents (played by Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe) travel to Mississippi to investigate the murders of civil rights organizers, one of whom is black. They are depicted as heroes in the black struggle.|
|Music of the Heart||1999||Based on a true story, a white music teacher (played by Meryl Streep) teaches nonwhite students at an inner city school.|
|One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest||1975||A white protagonist (played by Jack Nicholson) is in a mental hospital and confronts its cruel nurse, ultimately inspiring a Native American patient to escape the hospital.|
|Our Brand Is Crisis||2015||In the comedy-drama film, a white political consultant (Sandra Bullock) helps a Bolivian politician win the presidential election in his country.|
|Principal, TheThe Principal||1987||A white teacher (played by James Belushi) teaches nonwhite students at an inner city school.|
|Radio||2003||A white high school football coach (played by Ed Harris) helps a mentally handicapped black football fan (played by Cuba Gooding Jr.) become more involved with the team.|
|Remember the Titans||2000||A white high school football coach (played by Will Patton) gives preferential help to the school's black players and helps the black football coach (played by Denzel Washington) during a game that has been rigged by the white referees.|
|Ron Clark Story, TheThe Ron Clark Story||2006||A white teacher (played by Matthew Perry) moves from a small town to New York City to make a difference in the lives of nonwhite students.|
|Snow Falling on Cedars||1999||A white journalist (played by Ethan Hawke) possesses information that can exonerate a Japanese-American fisherman (played by Rick Yune) on trial for murder.|
|Soloist, TheThe Soloist||2009||A white man (played by Robert Downey Jr.) helps a black mentally handicapped and homeless man (played by Jamie Foxx) revive his passion and skill in music.|
|Stargate||1994||In the science fiction film, a white Egyptologist and linguist (played by James Spader) and a white military colonel (played by Kurt Russell) rescue a nonwhite population on an alien planet from their extraterrestrial slavers.|
|Sunset Park||1996||A white physical education teacher (played by Rhea Perlman) who coaches a basketball team of black players and succeeds in taking them to the city championships.|
|Tears of the Sun||2003||A white commander of the United States Navy SEALs (played by Bruce Willis) decides to save the Nigerian refugees from advancing rebel troops, in violation of their primary and secondary orders.|
|Three Kings||1999||The white leader of a United States Army team (played by George Clooney) has the respect and loyalty of his racially mixed team and the Iraqi rebels.|
|Time to Kill, AA Time to Kill||1996||In rural Mississippi, a white lawyer named Jake Brigance (played by Matthew McConaughey) is appointed to defend Carl Lee Hailey (played by Samuel L. Jackson), a black man accused of murdering two white supremacists that raped his 10-year old daughter Tanya.|
|To Kill a Mockingbird||1962||A white attorney (played by Gregory Peck) unsuccessfully defends a black man falsely accused of rape but is applauded for his noble effort.|
|Wildcats||1986||A white woman (played by Goldie Hawn) becomes the coach of an inner city football team and leads them to a championship.|
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Critics contended it was yet another film showcasing a White savior with Pitt (who also produced the film) positioning himself as such.
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In interviews, Ross has insisted that he didn't want 'Free State of Jones' to become another white savior movie, but that's precisely what it is, especially during scenes when the murderous injustice of slavery is refracted through Knight's frustrated tears.
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By having Neo occupy the time-honored role of white male savior, the racial and gendered otherness of the rebels is paradoxically underscored and dismissed while also being appropriated because their cause is now his.
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