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Surveying the prevalence and popularity of films in which heroic white characters uplift racial others

The White Savior Film

Content, Critics, and Consumption

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Matthew W. Hughey

Q&A with Matthew W. Hughey, 2014

"In The White Savior Film, Matthew Hughey offers an insightful, thorough and well-written analysis of a key trope in America’s racial formation: cinematic representations of noble saviors—from Sandra Bullock to Kevin Costner—fighting to save Others. This important book offers its readers a timely analysis of how contemporary cinema continues to perpetuate racism by eliding historical specificity."
Daniel Bernardi, author of Star Trek and History: Race-ing toward a White Future

The cinematic trope of the white savior film-think of Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side, Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves, or Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai-features messianic characters in unfamiliar or hostile settings discovering something about themselves and their culture in the process of saving members of other races from terrible fates.

In The White Savior Film, Matthew Hughey provides a cogent, multipronged analysis of this subgenre of films to investigate the underpinnings of the Hollywood-constructed images of idealized (and often idealistic) white Americans.

Hughey considers the production, distribution, and consumption of white savior films to show how the dominant messages of sacrifice, suffering, and redemption are perceived by both critics and audiences. Examining the content of fifty films, nearly 3,000 reviews, and interviews with viewer focus groups, he accounts for the popularity of this subgenre and its portrayal of "racial progress."

The White Savior Film shows how we as a society create and understand these films and how they reflect the political and cultural contexts of their time.

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Excerpt

Read Chapter 1 (pdf).

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Reviews

"Hughey proves that the White Savior film is more prevalent and more significant than currently recognized. His examples of the tremendous financial success of recent blockbusters such as Avatar, Lincoln, and Django Unchained place the White Savior genre at the center of popular culture worldwide. Hughey’s tactic—providing a clear window into particular moments of key films—is simple but surprisingly effective. The White Savior Film delivers epiphanies by opening windows on carefully taxonomized groups, and Hughey gives them authority by documenting their statistical, ethnic, class, gender, ideological, and geographical contexts. His contextualizations are all substantial, and the voices shining through are compelling and enlightening."
J. Ronald Green, Emeritus Professor of Film Studies in the Department of History of Art at the Ohio State University, and author of With a Crooked Stick—The Films of Oscar Micheaux and Straight Lick: The Cinema of Oscar Micheaux

"Since the 1980s, Hollywood has released a spate of so-called 'white savior' films, in which heroic white protagonists liberate persons of color from dangerous and decayed environments.... Hughey provides a systematic study of the messages these films convey, as well as how film reviewers and audiences receive them.... The author's analysis is sound, and he ultimately offers a convincing critique of how these movies seek to maintain the racial status quo. VERDICT: Scholars of film, sociology, and cultural studies will find this book particularly illuminating."
Library Journal

"[R]ich with qualitative interview data, including individual interviews and focus groups varying in age and racial diversity. Hughey organizes his interview findings into themes and subthemes, making the data easily accessible.... This book would complement an undergraduate or graduate class on race or film, and make good reading for anyone who is interested in these types of films."
Contemporary Sociology

"Hughey culls the most popular and profitable films of the last 20 years that deal with race in both subtle and overt ways, among them such blockbusters as The Blind Side, The Help, and Gran Torino. These and other films lay the foundation for Hughey's insightful, comprehensive critique of racial paternalism in US cinema and its broader implications in regard to race relations, social policy, and historiography.... [T]he study effectively probes the proliferation of the white savior in the US narrative and challenges filmmakers and audiences alike on the assumption that people of color must be rescued from their own circumstances, forced to assimilate, and managed in order to maintain white dominance. A cogent, well-written, and thoroughly researched book, The White Savior Film will have wide appeal across disciplines and particular interest for those in the humanities and cinema studies. Summing Up: Highly recommended."
Choice

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About the Author(s)

Matthew W. Hughey is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. He is the author or coauthor of seven books, including White Bound: Nationalists, Antiracists, and the Shared Meanings of Race.

Subject Categories

Race and Ethnicity
Mass Media and Communications
Sociology

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