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Oscar Nominees - Still Trapped in the White Knight Syndrome

New America Media, Commentary, Andrs Tapia Posted: Mar 08, 2010

For different reasons I was entertained, challenged, and/or inspired by Avatar, District 9, Precious, and The Blind Side, four of this years ten Oscar nominees. Smart script writing, convincing performances, off-the-chain special effects, first-class editing. And I simply loved the first two sci-fi flicks.

So I hate to rain on this parade, but its time we name the elephant in the room: what is it with this spate of Hollywood movies that require a member of the majority culture to save us poor people of color from ourselves or others every single time?

So in Avatar, it takes one white male who goes rogue to save an entire civilization of classically depicted noble savages from the destructive forces of Western civilization (by the way, not unlike in Disneys Pocahantas- see that movies mashup with Avatar).

CFV 426 - Avatar/Pocahontas Mashup FINAL VERSION from Randy Szuch on Vimeo.

Turns out that Avatars white knight, Jake Sully, a former Marine, can fight harder and smarter in Pandora, an environment no, a planet he has never been in before, and not only master the ways of the Navi, but actually even surpass them as he becomes only the sixth man ever in the millenia-long history of the Navi to have tamed a mythical airborne predator referred to as the Great Leonopteryx.

District 9 follows a similar plotline, where another white male, this time a South African police operative, Wikus van de Merwe, also goes rogue to help the alien prawns (this time not depicted as beautifully noble but rather as idiot savants) to escape even greater oppression with obvious links to Apartheid ideology. In both sci-fi pics, the white male heroes become one with their charges through various plot twists as they literally take on the physical forms of the ostracized and oppressed.

In The Blind Side, it takes Sandra Bullocks Leigh Anne Tuohy, a white Republican Texas mother, to see the talent and humanity of African-American Michael Oher, an exceptionally large, strong, and gifted football player, and in the plot twist, despite big gaps in his formal education more astute academically than those around him thought. Not only does Bullocks Tuohy rescue and redeem yet again an archetypical noble savage but she does so by cowing the meanest and baddest hood hoods.

Lastly, we have the controversial and excruciating-to-watch Precious, where Gabourey Sidibe and MoNique give slamdunk performances in an African American tragedy gasping for redemptive hope. In this film by African American director, Lee Daniels, the white messiah theme is diluted but not erased. The two key redemptive figures in Precious life are her alternative school teacher Miss Blu Rain played by Paula Patton and her social worker Miss Weiss played by Mariah Carey. Both actors, Carey and Patton, are half-white. (For more on the controversy this movie stirred in the black community, see this earlier post: Precious Triggers Heartfelt Debate within Black Community.)

Furthermore, this salvation message is accentuated by the subliminal theme that a white messiah, even with real or perceived physical or social handicaps his or her own or imposed on them by others , is more capable than all the saved peoples combined. Jake, when not galloping like a stallion through his avatar body, is a paraplegic. District 9s Wikus is painfully incompetent and clueless, and Bullocks Touhy is a woman in a male Texas sports environment. Even in the 90s comedy The Three Amigos starring Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short, these bumbling, buffoonish, white male outcasts as smarter and stronger than an entire Mexican village.

And while I recognize that The Blind Side is based on a true story and I dont want to take away from the accomplishments of the real Ms Touhy or diminish her real relationship with Oher who is now a Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle, its the lack of Hollywood narratives that emphasize self empowerment on the part of marginalized groups that gets tiresome and worrisome.

For example, weve seen the homage film Mississippi Burning about white Civil Rights workers getting killed before we have seen a great movie about Martin Luther King, Jr. And were still waiting. We do have Spike Lees Malcolm X epic, but this black director chose to highlight a black self empowerment leader who was brought down by his own. And where are the equivalent fictional or historic black, Latino. and Asian Jakes and Winkus and Touhys? Invictus about Nelson Mandela and Gandhi are in that spirit, but note that these are about historical figures outside the US.

This, of course, is not a new phenomenon. It showed up with Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves and Peter OToole in Lawrence of Arabia. And others over time have written about it, most recently in the Racism Review and the New York Times. But the persistence of this narrative is troubling. Not just from a movie watching experience but, more seriously, in how it reinforces a persistent mindset in well intentioned corporate diversity or in disaster relief efforts such as in Haiti.

For example, here is a wonderfully inspiring, fun, and heart-warming video by grade school students at Hope Christian School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. No question their white administrators and teachers doing video cameos are truly committed to these kids and are doing genuine affirming work with them. I love this clip in the same way I admire and even relish the movie-going and cultural impact of Oscar nominees Avatar, District 9, The Blind Side, and Precious. But
first see the clip and come back:

But theres a point when one simply gets tired of always seeing stories of our being saved by white messiahs. It is not good for the majority culture who may be subliminally encouraged to keep taking on this white persons burden and its not good for our communities of color where we are vulnerable to abrogating responsibility to be effective advocates for ourselves without having to have our redemption depend on the kindness of well meaning and bigger than life strangers.

Andrs Tapia is Chief Diversity Officer / Emerging Workforce Solutions Leader of Hewitt Associates. He is the author of The Inclusion Paradox: The Obama Era and the Transformation of Global Diversity.

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