The White Savior Returns: Has It Been Three Years Already?

Posted: March 1, 2010 by RA in Television
Tags: ,

Originally posted at Mixed Media Watch in Aug 2006

White SaviorAny self-respecting, gluttonous “Law & Order” viewer here must have seen the previews for TNT’s made-for-TV movie, “The Ron Clark Story.” If you haven’t seen them yet, you absolutely have to.

The movie features Matthew Perry as a white teacher who joins an “inner-city” public school system, whose enrollment is 99%-black (but I’m sure you’ll see a white kid or two— hey, tokenism works both ways). He gladly takes on these students nobody cares about, turning them into… oh, who the hairy hell are we kidding? We come across this exact synopsis every three years or so.

My early pick for Best Line this time?

“Nobody wants them, and I do. So what’s the problem?” (ahh, what a fucking saint.)

Before Antonio Banderas’ “Take the Lead,” the last White Savior flick I remember was some drivel supposedly set to air on Lifetime a few years back (somebody help me out here), but the most successful film in this genre has to be Michelle Pfeiffer’s last hurrah, “Dangerous Minds.”

Still, it seems one of the effects of global warming is an increase in the speed of the earth’s revolution around the sun, because:

  • it’s been scientifically proven that these White Savior movies come around only once in three years,
  • and my cellphone, computer, and even cable box suggest that “Take the Lead” was released just this year. So much for state-of-the-art technology, right?

Anyway, there have been a few Black Teacher versions of this narrative, but somehow they don’t leave me needing a shower quite as urgently as these White Savior flicks. More after the jump…
Why? Let’s look at some of the more memorable examples.

Morgan Freeman in “Lean on Me” (1989): Here, the students, though engaged in stereotypical activities, were much fuller characters– each with his own individual flaws, virtues, etc. Still a treaclefest, but it didn’t set up the students as creatures to be alternately pitied and feared. Plus, Freeman’s Principal Joe Clark is a bit of a tyrannical asshole (with a heart of gold, of course).

Whoopi Goldberg in “Sister Act 2″ (1993): Right. Like these kids were really in any danger.

Samuel L. Jackson in “187″ (1997): Back when SammyJack actually read scripts before signing on to a picture. This is no shlocky tale of a good teacher who doesn’t give up on his “loser” students. It’s a dark film with a near-existentialist outlook on the futility of good works. SammyJack doesn’t exactly care about these kids when he begins teaching in New York, but they’re more than just a means to a paycheck. However, after he is attacked by his own students, he moves to an LA-area school where he begins a zombie-like existence reminiscent of Meursault in Albert Camus’ “L’Etranger.” Sure, he helps some kids along the way, but somehow you don’t get the feeling he really set out to — collateral repair, if you will.

Thus, you see, those movies don’t really count as White Savior flicks—an assertion that is bound to leave many asking the Syzlakian question, “Well if you’re so sure what it ain’t, how’s about telling us what it am!”

To that end, let’s run down a few essential elements of a White Savior flick.

1. Race is NEVER mentioned… at least, not by the Savior:
These kids are… BLACK? Only a racist like you would notice that, for I don’t see color! In “Music of the Heart,” Meryl Streep’s Roberta Guaspari—a violin teacher—has to deal with parents telling her they don’t want a white teacher teaching her son “dead white man’s music.”
The message: “Us whites are the oppressed ones! Left to us, we’d have a color-blind society in a heartbeat!”

2. The Jaded Black Administrator:
Each of these flicks must have someone of color there to devalue the kids, just in time for White Saviorman to cluck his tongue and declare in his/her softest (but most determined) voice, just how amazing these kids are. “Ron Clark” has one of these, and I tell you, I could’ve sworn that scene was directed by Leni Riefenstahl for the “White Savior for Canonization” committee.
The Message: These people are so problematic, even their own have given up on them… but not us! White Man’s Burden lives on!

3. The words, “Based on a true story” :
Whenever these issues are brought up, there is always a mass of people rushing to point out that it was based on a true story. Well, that shuts me up, doesn’t it? To quote Williams and Delli Carpini, “it is not enough for movies to say only that they are ‘based on a true story. For politically relevant media, how far and in what ways dramatic license was used must be made much clearer than is currently the norm.”
The Message: See? That’s how “these people” really are!

I could go on, but why bother?

So yeah, I hate White Savior movies… no fancy ending here.

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