“Great White Hope” or What the media teaches my daughter

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.

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

9 thoughts

  1. That “nice white lady” video was a good one – thanks. I only hope my kids have had enough life experience to get the joke. I’ll have to explain a little about the “great white hope” to them, first.
    I want to point out that many (some?) white people also get really fed up with these movies (well, I do, anyway…). When I rent a DVD which is supposedly about another country or group, the LAST thing I want to see is the tired old plot device of artifially sticking a white person into the story. It is so stupid. Just last night my husband brought home the DVD In My Country, about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. A blurb at the beginning promised to tell the stories of the victims of apartheid. So who’s the main character – Juliet Binoche! Samuel L. Jackson was there, as the 2nd main character, but even he was playing an American journalist. The story between them totally overshadows the stories of the victims of apartheid. No, we stupid white Americans cannot enjoy or understand a movie unless it has a white and/or American main character… and so many people write their movies with the white American box office in mind, it seems. What a pain.

  2. Wow. Thanks for pointing this out. I knew there was something i didn’t like about these movies–“the great white hope” is a great way to tag it. It’s creepy and it’s great you’re having these conversations with your children.
    Thanks for the insight!

  3. An excellent point.
    Not sure that I really notice the “white heroes” when I see movies such as “Dances with Wolves.” All I thought about was how tragic it was that those cultures were destroyed by the one we now live in.
    I don’t identity with “going native.”
    The distinction works both ways as well. As a social worker my wife has been accused of wanting to be some sort of savior – by her clients – because she is “white.”
    From her POV she grew up being told how white she wasn’t, and she is just doing a tough job.
    Agreed on Stand and Deliver. A great film about believing in one’self.

  4. And speaking of school, my 5 year old just started kindergarten this week, and sitting in his classroom yesterday morning I was thinking about the America I grew up with. And the one I saw before me.
    His school is extremely diverse, this being Sillicon Valley. There are two other trans racial adoptees in his class. We are the only white adoptive parents.
    There is no majority here. Mexican, Black, Chinese, Korean, Indian, Iranian, Syrian, Pakistani who knows what else all in that little microcosm.
    I guess that isn’t possible future for all of America, but I still find it comforting.

  5. Having now processed this post, here is what I think, for example, “Dances with Wolves” was trying to say to me, a white man:
    The lead character wasn’t a hero. He didn’t save anyone. He did however realize that his own culture was unjustly and brutally pushing indigenous culture of the high plains aside.
    Seems to me what Costner was trying to say is that what “we” did was tragic and wrong. Even his anguish over the Civil War seemed to be about that.
    Not that he is the heroic white man.
    I don’t mean to disagree with the idea of the “white hero” movie. It must certainly seem that way from a different perspective. And we all need to respect that.
    Reminds me of the the movie “The Host,{ which I watched last weekend finally. Showed Americans and white people for that matter in less than favorable light. But I didn’t take it that way.
    It just expressed to me how Koreans must feel about the War and the continued American military presence in Korea.

  6. Hi, I recently watched Edge of America and I would recommend it. I agree that we need more movies like this one. Here is a link. http://www.nativenetworks.si.edu/Eng/orange/edge_of_america.htm
    The “great white hope” movies get on my nerves. But, secretly, I wish that the real, white women teachers would exhibit even a small portion of that passion, dedication and commitment portrayed in Freedom Writers. By the way, I thought the book was much better than the movie.
    One resource for teachers that I recommend is Courageous Conversations about Race: A Field Guide to Achieving Equity in Schools.

  7. Personally, I would like to see some independent filmmakers “flip the script” and make a parody film about some minority teacher going off to the rich suburbs and helping White school children overcome their troubles like … choosing what elite private college they should apply to, whether they should summer in Europe or in the Bahamas, how they should spend their trust funds, etc.
    After all, these underappreciated problems have not yet been recognized by the Mainstream as dire issues that confront America’s youth!

  8. Several things to say about this post. First off, I am glad to have found this as I have olny recently come to realize just how different my experience is from other adoptees who were adopted from birth, and/or adopted by a family with the same racial background. One of the biggest struggles for me as an older, transracial adoptee has been figuring out what it means to be black in America, and how that plays into my relationship with my adoptive family, as the never have and never will be able to truly identify with my experience on this level. As I have come to think more about my new family, I can’t identify enough with the frustration most adoptees in my shoes feel. Like we are a charity case. This reality is not one that I alone struggle with, as my parents are coming to understand the world through my eyes but I can say that on some level, the socioeconomic differences between my birth and adopted families make me feel guilty ( read the article on survivor’s guilt) and lesser than my adopted family. Not to mention of course the stigma attached to being a black foster child.
    Also, I feel the need to point out that the word minority has little to do with numbers and much more to do with attitudes, privelege and (lack of) education.

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