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Tropes in Entertainment: White guilt films

Tropes in Entertainment: White guilt films

Tropes in Entertainment: White guilt films
July 18
10:30 2020

(This is part four in an ongoing series that examines tropes that perpetuate harmful stereotypes and behaviors in media against women, people of color and the LGBTQ+ community. Click the links to read part one, part two and part three.)

In the wake of nationwide protests against police brutality, not only are the rights of Black people back in the spotlight, but so is the cinematic legacy of “white guilt” and white savior films. The 2011 drama “The Help” skyrocketing to the top of the most-watched list on Netflix only added fuel to the fire. Conversations still rage on about how to best handle racism and Black stories on the silver screen.

To clarify, white guilt movies often feature white protagonists confronting issues of racism against Black people, often in the past, to show how far American society has supposedly come. While often well-intentioned, these push Black characters to the background or render them as passive and inactive in their own lives in favor of a white champion or outright mighty whitey”.

Green Book” has also been brought up a lot recently. In 2018, the film seemed to have broken racial barriers by showing how a Black and white man got along. That is not the case at all. Showing an extremely bland and far-from-the-truth depiction of how easy it is to put racial differences aside whilst ignoring the systemic issues does nothing but make audiences more blind to what Hollywood is scrubbing their eyes with. Showing a white man, all of the sudden, realizing that racism is bad is not at all the message that should be portrayed.

The filmmakers also attempt to create a false equivalence through the loud-mouthed racist Tony Lip, who alleges that due to his lower-class upbringing he is “Blacker” than the refined Don Shirley. Yeah, no. Then there’s the controversy over whether the friendship between Lip and Shirley even existed, with members of Shirley’s family calling the film a “symphony of lies.”

Then there’s “The Help,” with its depiction of Emma Stone’s Skeeter publishing an anonymous tell-all memoir by Black maids. The two Black maids at the center of the story, Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer), are ostensibly main characters, but largely inactive in the main plot. The film treats Minny negatively for openly mistrusting Skeeter and doubting her intentions, while Aibileen is treated as the more reasonable one for her more passive and friendly demeanor.

The movie also whitewashes the morality of its protagonist — in the original book by Kathryn Stockett, Skeeter’s a segregationist with some very of-the-times views. While the idea of using racist white women as morally gray protagonists certainly deserves scrutiny (a topic discussed in “Racist white women are not anti-heroes” by former contributor Rachel Card), Skeeter was not a borderline-perfect character who just needed to spend time with a few Black women. As a result, a story that partly sanitizes its subject matter — the treatment of Black maids in the South — is subjected to further whitewashing for consumption. These stories erase any moral ambiguity so as to not risk upsetting white audiences.

Speaking of moral ambiguity, these films also display racist characters as over-the-top cartoons, with half the depth one would expect. In “Green Book,” Tony Lip is played by Viggo Mortensen as a giant Italian-American stereotype. Meanwhile, in “The Help,” Bryce Dallas Howard’s antagonist, Hilly, is portrayed as a hysteric, devoid-of-self-awareness racist Southern Belle. This extends to many of the other racist characters in both films, ramped up enough so that these caricatures do not run the risk of potentially confronting white audiences with their own complicity and behavior.

“The Help” has not only been met with backlash from critics of all races but recently from both Davis and Dallas Howard.

A movie with none of these problems is “Selma,” which more people should pay attention to. Right off the bat, director Ava DuVernay keeps it clear that there is no white savior or white guilt in this movie. In an interview with Rolling Stone, she said she, “wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie. I was interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma.” The movie perfectly adds itself to the great list of civil rights films, without needing a white man to be the main character, while also providing the most third-dimensional depiction of Martin Luther King Jr. on film to date, without neutering him for white consumption. The struggle of Black rights activists is kept center and the white allies to the sidelines.

Movies like “Green Book” and “The Help” are for people who do not want to feel bad about racism nor want to really be confronted with its legacy in America. They are movies ignoring many aspects of the time, with creators who apparently think white characters are the only viewpoints through which to tell these stories. Whether or not that is the intent, or simply ignorance, on the part of the filmmakers is irrelevant. We need fewer “Green Books” and more “Selmas.”

Making a white character the main character of a movie about racism serves one purpose — to make what are often older, white middle-class audiences feel more comfortable around topics like racism and segregation and try to put some mental distance between the past and the present. That’s the problem — movies trying to talk about history ignore history.

Movies are one of the most effective ways to reach out and touch someone with a meaningful message, and that message is immediately white-washed when the main character of a movie about racial injustice is a white character. The story of brave Black Americans fighting prejudice in a nation against them is reframed as character growth for a white person, and it completely ignores how complicit our systems are in perpetuating racism. The stories of Black Americans are more than fodder for feel-good stories for white people, they are complex people who deserve to have their stories told with respect, where they and their Black creators are front-and-center.

Featured image: Courtesy Walt Disney Studios

About Author

Will Tarpley

Will Tarpley

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