Green Book - white savior trope

What is the white savior trope – Green Book

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The white savior trope describes a narrative where a white person (usually the protagonist) fights either to save a non-white individual or group from an oppressive ruler or to morally redeem that individual.

This trope is frequently used in 3 types of movie:

  • set during a historical period filled with conflict and tension between two groups of a different race (like Dances with wolves)
  • a biopic centered around the accomplishments of real non-white people (like Hidden Figures)
  • a fictional story that takes inspiration from history (like Avatar, which was inspired by the genocide of Native American tribes)

Why the White Savior trope is problematic

Let’s start by saying that the white savior trope is not created with the intention of causing trouble, but it’s impossible to ignore the implicit message of a story like this.

The message can be summed up in: “Non-whites are helpless and need a knight in shining armor to save them from a cruel destiny”.

In the end, instead of showing the strength and courage of an oppressed group that managed to get rid of its oppressor, the story is about a good guy doing the right thing.

Of course, not all movies with a white savior trope are equally “problematic”.

12 years a slave (in my opinion at least) doesn’t deserve to be put in the same category as Avatar or Green Book (don’t worry, I’m getting to Green Book in a minute).

This movie does have a black character being saved by a white character. But since it was based on the life of a real person, Solomon Northup, and this is literally what happened to him, it cannot be called a “trope” anymore.

The writer didn’t make it up, he simply wrote the facts, and writing something else would have meant distorting the truth.

Also, most white savior narratives are intensely focused on the white person (he/she is often the main character), while 12 years a slave follows the life of its black protagonist.

Why do writers use this trope?

When we see someone different from us, our first instinct is to distrust those individuals.

But what if someone we know (like the protagonist of the movie we’re watching) decides to lead by example and get closer and learn more about this mysterious new people?

In any movie, empathy is the key to hook the audience into the story. If they like the protagonist they will certainly want to know what happens to him, they will understand what he is doing and why he is doing it.

This is the reason why movies with the white savior trope are tailored to appeal to a certain group: people who don’t know much about the culture that the movie is trying to celebrate.

The white savior trope serves the purpose of persuading a certain type of audience member to “give a chance” to minorities by showing how happy and beloved they would be if they made the first step towards a different culture.

So what’s the problem with that?

Well, as I said those movies are written with a specific target group in mind, so they tend to exclude the rest of the audience.

If a mildly racist man walks out of the movie theatre patting himself on the back and feeling like the new MLK, a non-white man or a white man who’s not racist walks out feeling that 2 hours of his life were wasted on a cheesy movie.

Green Book

This Academy Award-winning movie… let’s not forget that this movie won Best Picture at the Oscars… is built around the white savior trope.

Yes, this movie (that someone decided had to be crowned as the best one of 2018) doesn’t just contain some elements of the white savior trope, it’s very own premise was based on it.

Let’s look at the premise of this movie:

Doctor Shirley is a black homosexual pianist, composer of both jazz and classical music with a PhD in music, psychology, and liturgical arts. He hires an Italian-American driver, Tony Vallelonga, to escort him through his tour of the Deep South of the US.

Even if you haven’t watched the movie, you can easily guess which one is the protagonist. No, not the man with an enviable academic curriculum who happens to be a talented musician.

Nope. We’re writing a movie about racism and prejudice here. Putting the life of a black gay guy at the center of the story wouldn’t make any sense. The protagonist is his driver Tony.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Tony Vallelonga has had a rich and interesting life, he was a book author and had small parts as an actor in both The Godfather and The Sopranos.

But all those things happened years and years after the events of the movie. If they wanted to write his biography, why not simply do that and leave the road trip with Shirley as one of the many things he has done? Why force this to be a movie about racism?

Anyway, going back to the topic of the white savior trope. It’s pretty evident by the premise alone that the writers went out of their way to not make the black guy the protagonist, but this is not the only thing that penalizes the story.

Unfortunately, Green Book seems to have all the characteristics that make a white savior story.

White savior trope 101:

1. The white person saves the black person multiple times

Doctor Shirley, in this movie, seems to be constantly looking for trouble: he enters a bar full of racist white men and gets himself beaten to a pulp, some cops catch him in the bathroom of a swimming pool with another man.

And, both times, Tony comes and saves the day.

This is an integral element of the trope, and the reason why it is called “white savior”. The white person is supposed to “save” the non-white person by harm, self-destruction, a morally wrong path.

Tony saves Shirley from both physical harm (in the two examples above), and a life of unhappiness by welcoming him in his home at the very end.

2. Being surprised by racism

Even if we ignore all the saving that Tony has been doing (he is a bodyguard after all), this movie takes a huge leap of logic in its depiction of the two most important characters.

Just look at how oblivious both him and Shirley seem to be when confronted with racist/discriminatory laws.

Shirley should know very well that if he asks to try a suit in a shop managed by a white man his request will probably be denied. And yet, he is shocked when the man refuses to let him try a suit he likes.

He says himself that once he stops playing the piano and gets off stage, the rich white audience immediately start treating him differently. So how come he is surprised when the host of one of his shows doesn’t allow him to use the indoor bathroom?

Tony seems to be speechless when he realizes that the hotels where Shirley is supposed to sleep are terrible places. He keeps asking why he doesn’t fight back when someone disrespects him, and just like Shirley, he seems to not be aware of many Jim Crow laws.

Here’s the problem: Tony has been established as a man with a lot of experience in life, who has met any kind of people and any kind of situation. While Shirley is an educated black man who knows that because of his race and his sexuality he is not going to be welcome everywhere.

They travel around the Deep South using a guidebook that indicates which places should be avoided because they both know that this specific part of the country is very dangerous for people of color.

And yet, they are both surprised by racism.

3. The black character is passive

In most movies about racism, there is a “winning” scene where the non-white character has a triumphant moment over his oppressor.

A movie with a white savior trope will certainly have this scene as well, but with a little twist.

Here’s the “triumphant” scene in Green Book: the manager of a restaurant refuses to let Shirley have dinner with the rest of the white clients, so the doctor is left with a choice, eat in the storage room or leave the restaurant and don’t perform his last show.

Shirley asks Tony what he should do, the driver simply says “Let’s get out of here” and they both walk out surrounded by gasping wealthy people, a screaming racist manager and the smiles of the black waiters.

This is supposed to be an important moment of emancipation, when the minority is not a victim anymore and decides to fight back.

The problem is that this wasn’t Shirley’s decision, it was Tony’s.

Like in many other white savior movies, the oppressed ones are only able to get rid of their “inferiority complex” thanks to something the white guy said or did.

Shirley apparently needs to “ask permission” to Tony in order to be properly emancipated.

And let’s not forget that right after this scene there is always, ALWAYS, the “I’m proud of you” moment.

Here, the white character says or implies that he is happy to see that the minority character is finally emancipated thanks to his efforts.

4. The white character has a short redemption arc

The beginning of Green Book made me hope that the rumors about the white savior trope in this movie were false or exaggerated.

One of the first scenes sees a group of Tony’s friends all gathered in his house in order to “protect” his wife from the “dangerous” black workers that came to fix a broken pipe in the kitchen.

When they leave, Tony throws away a pair of glasses that they used to drink, establishing that he is racist as well.

I know that it might sound weird, but seeing racism portrayed accurately in a movie always makes me hope for the best.

In way too many movies racism is distorted into something different. Usually a grudge between a specific white person and a specific non-white person, or a vague concept that is not explained in detail.

Those two scenes made me hope that this movie wouldn’t be another lazy attempt at exploring racial tensions, they made me think that the writers were going to take this topic seriously and show even the most uncomfortable examples of prejudice.

Obviously, I was wrong…

The ending of the movie, in particular, seems to contradict the beginning.

Those same guys that were worried about two black plumbers assaulting a woman, now welcome a black man they have never met with open arms.

The same happens to Tony when he decides to accept the job offered by Shirley.

He was so disgusted by the idea of drinking from the same cup of a black person, that he threw two glasses away.

But as soon as he hops in the car, he starts singing music by black artists, he is immediately friendly towards the black man sitting behind him, and has not problem entering a bar full of black people.

POOF! Their prejudices have vanished. No one is racists anymore. Christmas has ended racism.

From personal experience, I can tell you this: racist people don’t change their minds in the blink of an eye. Tony’s redemption arc should have lasted a little longer.

Overall, I can say that the movie wasn’t terrible. Viggo Mortensen’s performance made Tony a funny and lovable character. The famous speech in the rain and the concept of a black man uncertain of his identity were really good.

The problem is that the quality of the movie doesn’t really matter, once the white savior trope slips into the screenplay, it becomes the elephant in the room that makes it impossible to enjoy the story.


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