Q: How did you first encounter the white savior film genre?
MH: I was studying racial representations in the media. A lot of activists and scholars talked about "negative" representations of people of color or how white people were nearly always represented in a "positive" light, but few people discussed the relationships between white and nonwhite characters. I found films like Cry Freedom (when a white journalist becomes the hero in a story supposedly about the slain black activist Steven Biko) or Mississippi Burning (when a two Northern white FBI agents become the protagonists in a story about Southern, black-led Civil and Human Rights activism) to justify and legitimate white paternalism and superiority. This developing trend signaled a new and disturbing moment in media representations of race and race relations.
Q: Do you believe that white savior characters are necessary identification points for white audiences to understand foreign/exotic people and cultures?
MH: I don't believe that such a tactic is necessary in an objective sense. Our collective desire for such stories seems to result from our allegiance to Western myths about the distribution of morality, intelligence, and innocence across the color-line. That is, those very concepts (e.g., morality) are racialized; there is a host of sociological research that demonstrates how people identify whites (when compared to nonwhites) as more deserving of resources and leadership because they are assumed more naturally intelligent, innocent, and hard-working. Given our current racialized worldview, it should be no surprise that stories about white redeemers carry so much purchase.
Q: You present the book in three parts: content, reception and consumption. Why did you take this particular approach?
MH: I wanted to examine the most popular 50 films over the last twenty-five years to look for their common denominators—something no one else had done. I also wanted to examine how film reviewers operate as interpretive communities that are influenced by the racial climate in which they make their supposedly individual appraisals. In addition, I wanted to know how people interpret these films both consciously (what they are aware of) and unconsciously (how their social background influences what they see and how they interpret it). Together, that tripartite approach takes seriously the production, distribution, and consumption side of media without valorizing one at the expense of the other.
Q: The content section focuses on how white savior films like Grand Torino treat racial issues and difference. Do you think any particular films do it particularly well or poorly?
MH: Hollywood films on race are not suitable stand-ins for sociological analysis, so I'd have to say not many treat racial issues very well. In fact, most portray nonwhites through a host of stereotypical tropes (blacks are dumb and drug users, while Hispanics and Latinos are gang members and lazy) while whites are portrayed as vicious racists of a Nazi ilk with the exception of one white virtuous savior that wishes only to redeem people of color. Moreover, these films' redemption stories turn on an assumption that the white savior must remove nonwhite people from their own communities to be successful. Once saved, the characters of color must stay far away from their families, communities, and former cultures. Being saved, it would seem, means entering into a nearly all-white world. These are hardly competent treatments of race and race relations.
Q: The critical chapters show what reviewers felt about white savior films—how they analyze and interpret the themes and their effectiveness, as when they write about the inspirational moral triumph in The Long Walk Home, or the oversimplification of Dangerous Minds. Do you think critics have agendas when they write about white savior films? Or are they really honing in on the point of these films?
MH: Film critics are generally trained to engage in some kind of artistic interpretation. Their stated agenda is to evaluate the quality of the film in question. While critics may attempt to do just that, I found the presence of significant interpretive patterns amidst their supposedly individual aesthetic evaluations. And these patterns seemed not the product of expert consensus, but seemed guided by the dominant understandings of race at the time of their writing. That is, among the nearly 2,800 film reviews written from 1987 to 2011, I found that critics' appraisals followed suit with how media events involving African Americans, Asian Americans, Latino/Hispanic Americans, racial relations, and hot-button racial topics such as affirmative action, civil rights, and hate groups were discussed in the media. By exploring the relationship between the interpretive community of film reviewers and perceptions of U.S. race relations, I was able to show how variations in understandings of race seemed to guide the interpretive strategies critics used to understand and evaluate these films.
Q: In contrast, the consumer's remarks are fascinating because they see the films for what they are (or aren't) and measure them against their own experiences...
MH: When film represents off screen social issues and historical events, the line between entertainment and education is vague if not non-existent. Like it or not, media like film teaches audiences about social life—about how it was, is, or should be. Audience members take film seriously and think about its possible effect on them, their children, and society writ large. In our supposedly "post-racial"—and soon to be post-Obama—moment, these films are increasingly popular with Western-located whites (in both the U.S. and Europe). They are marketed as plausible and moral narratives in which whites are invited to idealize and identify with these white saviors qua role models and to take up a racial crusade. Some movie-goers see this as a well-rehearsed and somewhat over-played stock character and device. But the danger is when many defend the supposed lack of ideological slant or racial politics in these films, by referencing that they are based on actual, historical events. The "based on a true story" phrase may seduce audiences into an uncritical appraisal of these films. These films subtly rewrite historical events so that white colonizers, paternalistic controllers, and meddling interlopers seem necessary, relevant, and moral.
Q: Do you think/has there been a white savior film can be made that would satisfy both white and minority audiences?
MH: Many of the films covered in the book do satisfy both white and nonwhite audience members according to the data I analyzed in my focus groups and interviews with audience members. This very fact is a part of what makes these films so dangerous. They are able to justify, rationalize, and legitimate white paternalism and nonwhite dysfunction and get hands of all colors to clap by the end credits.