My daughter is about to begin 8th grade. Next year, she will attend an inner city high school, that will be very diverse, even more diverse than her magnet middle school (which is still leagues away from the schools I attended from K-12).
Recently there have been several list serves and discussion forums or blogs that have addressed the so-called "Great White Hope" movies. "Great White Hope" movies are those which feature the (often) true story of a group of people from some community of color or culture that is struggling or oppressed and becomes transformed, saved, or my favorite personal word, empowered, when a white stranger "saves" them. Some of the movie titles that have been bandied about that fit this description are Glory, Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, etc.
There is a particular genre of these movies aimed towards kids like my daughter – teenagers. The most recent of these movies is Freedom Writers, in which Hilary Swank plays a white teacher who transforms an inner-city class.
Those of us who critique these movies are often told that we are making a big deal out of nothing. Freedom Writers is based on a true story just as Dangerous Minds (which starred Michelle Pfeiffer and has a similar story line) was. On an individual basis, these are inspirational stories of relationships and what can happen when a person has someone to believe in them. I have been told that these movies are meant to show what can happen when a white person has to transform themselves – but the key still seems to be that they’re transforming themselves in order to be able to help "these people" – in other words, they have to help "these people" because either way, no one else is doing the job. The critique gets lost because we’re so caught up in empathizing with just how difficult it is for the White person to overcome their innocence/bias/prejudice/naivite/whatever so they can get on with the business of transforming "people." We also get a dose of "White person gets saved/transformed by the people s/he helps" and that often becomes a bargaining chip for those who would critique. We need more movies like Stand and Deliver which feature a leader from within that community rather than another well-meaning but naive White person.
Taken as a whole, these movies suggest that people of color can’t help themselves without the intervention of a white person. Even movies that aren’t outwardly based on this premise often include elements of it, and I’m thinking of movies like "Bring It On – All or Nothing" (the sequel) in which a popular white teen who is cheerleading captain is transferred to an inner city school and has to compete with her old squad in a competition, and somehow wins over her skeptical cheerleading team to lead them to winning over her snotty, rich, former teammates.
For my own family, this is not all they see. They have a very rich and diverse group of adults in their lives from all different walks of life who mentor them in multiple ways. My daughter liked Freedom Writers for the story, but felt it did emphasize the "Great White Hope" scenario and that bothered her. Fortunately for her, she can talk to me or any of her "aunties" or "uncles" about this without being chastised for being "over-sensitive" and is encouraged to express critical thinking. That doesn’t diminish the fact that she can appreciate other aspects of the film.
Check out this MadTV skit, which parodies the high school "White Savior" movies.