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The Blind Side, The Help & The White Savior Genre

Updated: Apr 29

Hollywood’s Representation of Blackness

For the first time in history, the United States has slowly begun to examine our true histories by questioning how we have viewed history and why we have viewed it in this light. As a society, we are starting to contextualize our learned history to preserve an authentic truth. By doing this, we understand that we have learned a whitewashed version of our past, glorifying white communities and demonizing the communities of color, specifically the Black communities. 


Currently, in the film industry, the idolization of white individuals and communities thrives by suppressing Blackness. Between anti-Black stereotypes, hidden white power ideology, and dramatizing storylines, the White Savior genre heavily reproduces racist ideology in pop culture. To understand this genre, we first have to understand how Black culture has been manipulated, as this will begin to answer why and how films like The Blind Side (John Lee Hancock, USA, 2009) and The Help (Tate Taylor, USA, 2011) perpetuate inauthentic representation resulting in negative ramifications in our society.


According to Stuart Hall, the remnants of Black culture seep into every facet of our popular zeitgeist as it has been created from the appropriation of Blackness. This derivative form has been simplified, distorted, and violated as it has been replaced with a false equivalency rather than the authentic experience (Hall, 1993). Art, in all of its forms, has been eroded by whiteness to become acceptable in mainstream and corporate settings; the lucrative nature of Hollywood only dramatizes and heightens these real-world issues. 

The DNA of Racial Capitalism
Image from Grassroots

Since commercial media and corporate wallets control what Blackness looks like and can be on screen, they perpetuate paternalism through racial capitalism. As their power reaches billions of audience members, creating profitable and inauthentic stereotypes and expectations in our culture. Now, these societal norms have dictated the "opportunities" available for Black actors, pigeonholing them into popular stereotypes. This limits the overall openings for Black characters and narrows mainstream Blackness. Unfortunately, these limitations are in line with the historical portrayal of Blackness in US film history. 


Commercial Blackness started as Blackface, where white men would get on stage mocking, stereotyping, and belittling Black culture. Minstrel shows created the mammy stereotypes featured in contemporary media like The Help. Another grounding racist portrayal of Blackness (still taught in Clark University’s Screen Studies Department) is Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, USA, 1915), which portrayed the Civil War era and the Ku Klux Klan. Due to the portrayal of the Black and white paradigm and dichotomy, the years following the film's release resulted in the resurgence of the KKK, lynchings, and race riots (Ang, 2023). 


Throughout the subsequent decades, “The new [Black] stereotype played to White perceptions of Black personalities who, in the vernacular of the era, ‘knew their place’ in American society. Blacks now appeared in movies for the purpose of entertaining White audiences within the context of social limitations…When in movie characters, Blacks were subservient to Whites as maids, mammies, domestics, and sidekicks” (Chao, 2003 p.73-74). In other words, Black members knew their place in society, and the screen reinstated this hierarchy of the oppressor and the oppressed. White savior films reconstruct this narrative, as they present a “positive” interracial interaction while upholding hegemonic powers, ultimately sustaining White supremacy tendency in societal racial juxtaposition (Hughey, 2012). 


The Help poster

The film The Help, based on the book of the same title, features Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone) and her relationship with the maids in her community, specifically those of her friends and those who raised her. After returning from college, Skeeter begins to despise how her friend, the film’s antagonist, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), treats her maids. One example of Hilly’s maltreatment is that she fired the maid that raised her, Minny (Octavia Spencer), for using the indoor toilet during a tornado, as there was a Black designated toilet outside. 


In fact, Hilly lobbies the governor for the “Home Help Sanitation Initiative,” a bill that instills this sentiment, requiring a separate bathroom for Black people per white home. Hilly convinces close friends to build outdoor toilets for their maids, as white folk can catch diseases from the toilets the maids use (completely forgetting that maids raise their white children, hugging, kissing, and caring for them, ergo the “contagious Black people disease” would already be transferred. However, there is no place for logic here in Jackson, Mississippi). 


This rightful villainizing depiction of Hilly and her beliefs contrasts with Skeeter, highlighting her righteousness and heroism and uplifting her to the title of savior. Skeeter fondly remembers the woman who raised her and the familial maid, Constantine (Cicely Tyson); with this positive outlook on Black maids, she despises the mistreatment of other maids, so Skeeter decides to write a book from the perspective of Black maids. 


She first recruits Aibileen Clark (Voila Davis), whose boss, Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly), has begun building an outdoor bathroom at Hilly’s behest. After the construction of the outhouse, Hilly lords the power of her whiteness over Aibileen, demanding appreciation and praise. Witnessing this, Skeeter outwardly questions, nay attempts to protect Aibileen from Hilly’s malicious intent, gaining Aibileen’s respect. This silent but potent ideological battle wins Skeeter's metaphorical points of Black allyship and the audience. By entering the Black fight for civil rights (on a micro scale) Skeeter becomes the textbook definition of the “hero” fighting against racism, “the White Savior is a decidedly upright White character that enters a Black, Latino, Asian, or Native context in which the non-Whites struggle through the social order. By the film’s end, and through the sacrifices of the White Savior, the non-white ‘‘others’’ are transformed and redeemed” (Hughey, 2012).


In terms of The Help, Skeeter decides that the help needs rescuing. By requesting stories of her white peers from those of a lower class, she has placed them in physical and financial danger as they could be fired or lynched if the maid’s collective stories are connected back to Jackson, Mississippi. With this danger hanging overhead, other maids decline Aibileen and Skeeter’s request. And Minny, Aibileen's best friend reminds Skeeter of this looming threat in a confrontation at Aibileen's.


Minny boldly asks, “And just what makes you think colored people need your help? Why do you care?...Maybe you just want to get Aibileen in trouble” (57:47) To which Skeeter simply replies, “No. I want to show her perspective. So people might know what it’s like from your side. Minny snidely states “well it’s a real fourth of July picnic,” and jumps into hours of storytelling. But, here, we can see that when confronted with her saviorism, Skeeter ignores the question and focuses on the accusation of harming Aibileen, once again protecting and saving Aibileen, but this time from the misused power of her own whiteness. Despite the risk, the book (and the film) were stories told by white creatives; Viola Davis, in recent years, has publicly commented on her role in The Help, saying "it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard" (Desta, 2018).   


With that, the film’s ending fits perfectly in line with the definition of a white savior. For example, after being fired from Hilly’s, Minny is redeemed as she has saved the life of her new boss. Aibileen transforms from a maid into retirement after Elizabeth Leefolt cowards to Hilly’s demand after accusing Aibileen of stealing silver (something Elizabeth doesn’t believe), and Skeeter loses her love as he disapproves of her support of the Black community; however, she gains her dream job as a New York junior book editor.


The Blind Side poster

In comparison, The Blind Side is based on The Blind Side: Evolution Of A Game (2006), written by Michael Lewi, and is about former NFL player Michael Oher and his relationship with football and the Tuohy family. In the film, prior to meeting the Tuohy family, Michael “Big Mike” Oher (Quinton Aarons) spent his life trying to survive. With an absent father, a mother struggling with drug addiction, and inconsistent stays in the foster system, Michael had nowhere to call home. Leigh Ann Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) spots Michael shivering as he walks through the rain without a coat and in his only clothes, baggy polo shorts and cargo shorts. After SJ (Jae Head), her son, states he goes to the same school, she pulls over and asks if he has a place to stay tonight. He lies, saying he does. And she demands that he tells her the truth, bringing him home…for just one night. 


Leigh Ann and Michael in the rain

While the whole family rescues Michael, two white saviors stand out; Leigh Ann “saves” Michael from both his financial and educational. And SJ, who “saves” Michael’s position on his high school football team. The film specifically dramatized these aspects in order to belittle Michael and uplift his white counterparts. For example, after Leigh Ann’s white friends made statements referring to Michael as charity, even stating, “You’re changing that boy’s life,” Leigh Ann responded, “No. He’s changing mine.” In other words, her friend states you're saving that boy, but Leigh Ann reframes the narrative, making herself look noble and altruistic, giving Michael the credit.  


Moreover, the film portrayed SJ teaching Michael the rudimentary rules of football and his position. But in truth, the real Oher denounced these actions, stating, “Whether it was S.J. moving around ketchup bottles or Leigh Anne explaining to me what blocking is about, I watched those scenes thinking, ‘No, that’s not me at all! I’ve been studying – really studying – the game since I was a kid!’” Oher also points out that “ it portrayed me as dumb instead of as a kid who had never had consistent academic instruction and ended up thriving once he got it” (Hughey, 2012) The fictitious elements, belittles the portrayal of Michael, and giving way to harmful tropes in Black characters and students and giving undue credit to the Tuohy’s, strengthening the ideology of white saviorism.

Additionally, with the rise and creation of HBO, Showtime, and VHS tapes, so did an increase in mainstream media in the 1980s, and much of the new content displayed race-focused narratives, placating the white masses. The 1990s and 2000s increased the production of white savior films as society’s relationship with racism changed, moving away from violent/macro aggressions to microaggression (Ash, 2015). 


List of white savior movies in the 1990s and 2000s

This influx in the genre cemented its cinematic prowest as it has become a vital cultural tool to protect white supremacy and paternalism through a lens of political correctness. By doing this, cinema is weaponized to reproduce hegemonic theology, profit off of Blackness, and appropriate more culture, all of which sustains racial capitalism (Hughey, 2012). 


Every Black person will define Black culture differently. Nevertheless, every definition has a singular commonality: misappropriation. Every aspect of Blackness has been violated, manipulated, and reproduced to be deemed suitable by the hegemonic race. Films made by and for white people featuring Blackness and racism will take complex Black emotions, characters, and storylines and simplify them into digestible caricatures. ‘‘The contemporary status of race in mainstream American culture is intimately bound to the process of representations within and through the mass media” (Rocchio, 2000, p.4). The White Savior genre promotes this current status, and if the US wants to progress towards an anti-racist society, our mainstream zeitgeist must no longer be a mirror reflecting our culture but a looking glass, demonstrating what our future can look like. 


So, are you still wondering about Hollywood’s relationship with Blackness? To say the least, it’s no fourth of July picnic.


 

References:

Ang, D. (2023). The Birth of a Nation: Media and Racial Hate. American Economic Review, 113(6), 1424–1460. https://doi-org.goddard40.clarku.edu/10.1257/aer.20201867

Chao, Lena M., II. (2003). Racism, sexism, and the media : the rise of class communication in multicultural America (F. Gutiérrez, L. M. Chao, & C. C. Wilson II (Eds.); 3rd ed.). Sage Publications.

Desta, Y. (2018, September 12). Viola Davis regrets making the help: “it wasn’t the voices of the Maids that were heard.”Vanity Fair. https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2018/09/viola-davis-the-help-regret

Dunn, J., Lyn, S., Onyeador, N., & Zegeye, A. (2021, March 11). Black representation in film and TV: The challenges and impact of increasing diversity. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/black-representation-in-film-and-tv-the-challenges-and-impact-of-increasing-diversity

Hall, S. (1993). What Is This “Black” in Black Popular Culture? Social Justice, 20(1/2 (51-52)), 104–114. http://www.jstor.org/stable/29766735

Hughey, M. W. (2012). Racializing Redemption, Reproducing Racism: The Odyssey of Magical Negroes and White Saviors. Sociology Compass, 6(9), 751–767. https://doi-org.goddard40.clarku.edu/10.1111/j.1751-9020.2012.00486.x 

Rocchio, Vincent F. 2000. Reel Racism: Confronting Hollywood’s Construction of Afro-American Culture. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.


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