We need to talk about Harriet: The white-saviour complex in Hollywood

There’s more to watch than The Help


In the wake of the brutal murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the ensuing political unrest against systemic racism and police brutality across the world, some of us have looked to the film industry for further education.

I watched 12 Years a Slave, The Help and Harriet in one week, and that taught me more about institutionalised racism that any of the story-lines probably aimed to convey. What 12 Years a Slave and The Help have in common is a white hero, whereas Harriet features a black, disabled female protagonist; a figure that is often omitted from both the big screen and the history books. Yet 12 Years a Slave and The Help have become dinner-table topics, whereas the story of the radical female abolitionist Harriet Tubman remains essentially unheard of. Neither is this a coincidence nor attributable to the films’ distinct cinematographic styles. I believe that the fault behind Harriet‘s comparative lack of popularity is the white saviour complex; that is, the need for white people to see themselves as the heroes of every story. That Hollywood has waged a war against black people, and even more, against black women, should be no surprise (remember #OscarsSoWhite?). 

As producer, Pitt refused to play any of the slave-owners and instead took on this totally fictional, angelic character that saves the black protagonist at the end of the film. (credit: GabboT, Creative Commons Licence)

The white saviour trope has been central to almost every big blockbuster film about racism: Brad Pitt and Emma Stone are joined by Viggo Mortensen in Green Book, Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side, and Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained, just to name a few. The white hero does not have to be the protagonist of every story, however he (usually a he – why only have racism when you can sprinkle some sexism on top?) must be included.

Take Hidden Figures – even a (true) story about the strength and exceptional genius of black women has to include a (fictional) white male hero. The scene where the white boss takes down the “coloured” sign on the bathroom and rips it to pieces to announce the end of segregated toilets at NASA never actually happened. This addition to the story replaces the much more radical reality, where Katherine Johnson – one of the African American female mathematicians – defied NASA’s bathroom segregation rules herself. It was her struggle, and her triumph. Not her white male supervisor’s.

Katherine – better than your average Kevin Costner – Johnson (credit: NASA, Wikimedia Commons)

So why did this film – even a supposedly revolutionary one – erase this piece of black feminist history? Theodore Melfi, Hidden Figures’ screenwriter, justified  the male white-washing of history in this film by claiming:

“There needs to be white people who do the right thing, there needs to be black people who do the right thing. And someone does the right thing. And so who cares who does the right thing, as long as the right thing is achieved?”

This mentality mirrors the ‘all lives matter’ logic: whatever applies to black people, must apply to white people as well.

Let’s look at the fact that The Help became the number one trending film on Netflix U.S. back in early June. As protests against police brutality erupted across the country and around the world, the majority of white Americans chose to show their allyship by watching the flagship of all white-saviour films. I don’t know where to begin with The Help – not only does the film glorify the white main character, Skeeter, whose storyline revolves around profiting off the experiences of the black female help in Mississippi, but the author of the book has even been sued by the real Ablene Cooper, who claims that the character of Aibileen Clark was based on her own life-story. Racist story-line, racist context: The Help truly is the white-saviour package deal. At the same time as we are urged to unlearn our internalised racial biases, people have flocked to watch a deeply problematic, almost decade-old film and neglected more recent releases such as When They See Us, The Hate U Give, Queen & Slim, 13th or Harriet. 

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I’ve heard that #TheHelp is the most viewed film on @netflix right now! I’m so grateful for the exquisite friendships that came from that film — our bond is something I treasure deeply and will last a lifetime. This being said, The Help is a fictional story told through the perspective of a white character and was created by predominantly white storytellers. We can all go further.⁣ ⁣ Stories are a gateway to radical empathy and the greatest ones are catalysts for action. If you are seeking ways to learn about the Civil Rights Movement, lynchings, segregation, Jim Crow, and all the ways in which those have an impact on us today, here are a handful of powerful, essential, masterful films and shows that center Black lives, stories, creators, and / or performers: ⁣ ⁣ 13th ⁣ Eyes on the Prize⁣ I am Not Your Negro⁣ Just Mercy⁣ Malcom X⁣ Say Her Name: The Life And Death Of Sandra Bland⁣ Selma⁣ Watchmen⁣ When They See Us ⁣ ⁣ This is not a comprehensive list so please add to it in the comments below!

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One particular detail from Harriet Tubman’s life epitomises how the forces of racist and misogynistic oppression interact; as she began rescuing over seventy slaves from the Southern states, slave-owners refused to believe she was a former black female slave. Instead, they nicknamed her Moses, believing her to be a white man in black-face. In essence: heroes could only be white men. Much like in the 1800s, society today still struggles to accept black women as saviours. 

Julia Roberts was originally considered for the role of Harriet Tubman. Yes, you read that right. (credit: David Shankbone, Creative Commons)

Of course, white fragility is not purely an individual phenomenon. Dismantling an entire system of white supremacy takes more than pointing the figure at the few subconsciously racist people in the audience. I have no doubt that like myself, many watched The Help simply because we did not know any better. Audiences alone are not responsible for a film’s success; along with our viewing habits we must simultaneously look at things like the amount of publicity each film receives or its accessibility on streaming services. Yet here we arrive at the typical Catch-22 of the supply and demand chain: the more successful these films are, the more they will make.

We should not be discouraged from making individual changes and reflecting hard on our complicity in this system. We must strive to do better, and boycott the white-saviour narrative, because I guarantee that once Hollywood stops profiting from the films that reproduce it, these films will eventually no longer be made.

Feature image credits: Horatio Seymour Squyer/ National Portrait Gallery (Wikimedia Commons), Eva Rinaldi (Creative Commons), Eva Rinaldi (Creative Commons), Gage Skidmore (Creative Commons), Nicolas Genin (Creative Commons), Joel Kowsky/NASA (Wikimedia Commons) – all images edited from their original versions.