By Mike Barber, Canadian Filmmaker, Race-Talk contributor
As I am typing this, I am five hours and 25 minutes into a 15+ hour trip on a slow train to Baltimore. I'm on en route to D.C. to interview sociologist and author Dr. James Loewen for my documentary film, A Past, Denied: The Invisible History of Slavery in Canada. This interview is two years in the making. In late 2007 when I originally conceived the idea to make a feature documentary on how Canada's over 200 years of institutionalized slavery of indigenous and African people is constantly escaping mention in our history books, James Loewen was one of the very first names that entered my head for interview candidates. His book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (1995) was one of the biggest inspirations for me to start think about making documentaries in the first place; an inspiration possibly rivaled only by Errol Morris' (2004) documentary film,The Fog of War).
Lies My Teacher Told Me is the result of Loewen's research into the 12 most popular history textbooks used in American schools (circa 1996). He explores the common threads of what/who is given coverage, how much coverage is given, and in what lights that coverage is made. He also looks into what is conspicuously absent, what is biased, and, finally,what is flat out false. More than myth-busting, Loewen examines the far-reaching social consequences of the history of teaching practices, a history that he finds has served more as jingoistic propaganda than scholarly discourse. At its heart, this book (and the follow-up Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sights Get Wrong) is about why the way in which history is disseminated matters,and how society could benefit from a curriculum that is unafraid to look deeply into the dark side of Canada's past as opposed to the feel-good bits.
Loewen demonstrates how the bland, celebratory versions of history found throughout the pages of various Canadian textbooks serve as a form of boosterism catering specifically to a white, middle- and upper-class audience. In essence, stories about white people written by and for white people. Page after page, Europeans are exalted for their great achievements while non-Europeans, if mentioned at all, are painted as people in need of European help. This feel-good bias doesn't feel right, however, and worse, it goes beyond the classroom, visible in pop culture and everyday discussions about historical events.
The film and television equivalent of this form of boosterism comes in the Hollywood archetype of the white saviour--a white, typically middle- or upper-class, usually male and almost exclusively heterosexual character through whom the life of a person of colour (or persons of colour) is dramatically improved. The basic formula goes like this: through the white protagonist's selfless deeds the helpless, downtrodden victim of circumstance is rescued from the cycle of poverty and violence, changing both their lives forever. One gains new opportunities that would otherwise never be afforded to them, while the other gains redemption and a well-deserved personal sense of piety. Most importantly, the white audience gets to feel good about themselves.
One problem with white saviour films is that they perpetuate the archaic paradigm of the white man's burden. They tell stories of white people going outside of their privilege to help people of colour who ultimately can't or won't help themselves. Whether it's Uncle Sam bringing "civility, education and religion" to the Philippines or Clint Eastwood teaching his young Hmong neighbour how to be a "real man," it's the same old story being played out again and again. It's been colonialism's best justification since Manifest Destiny in real life, as well as the template plot for movies like To Kill a Mockingbird, Finding Forrester, Gran Torino, Freedom Writers, The Blind Side"
(Why we never saw a remake of Pygmalion/My Fair Lady with Michael Cain as Henry Higgins and Rosie Perez as Eliza Doolittle, I'll never know. Perhaps that would have been a little too on the nose.)2
Another problem with stories focusing on white heroes is that the reality of people of colour working hard to improve their communities goes largely ignored. Just like the selective telling of history in textbooks, the audiences of white saviour films walk away with the message that it is only white people that are doing anything to change things for the better. While there are films telling the stories of some of these individuals striving to improve the lives of the underprivileged, they are a disproportionate exception. For every Lean On Me (1989) there are at least three or four Dangerous Minds, a film which also exemplifies yet another issue.
"Destroyers and usurpers, curse them."3
The movie Dangerous Minds (1995), which purports to be based on a true story, stars Michelle Pfieffer as a LouAnne Johnson, a white English teacher who tries to help her inner-city high school students learn an appreciation for poetry through the lyrics of Bob Dylan. The "based on a true story" isn't entirely dishonest. There really was a woman named LouAnne Johnson who used musical lyricism to connect with her underfunded inner-city high school students; in fact, it was her book, My Posse Don't Do Homework (1993) was the inspiration for the film. The betrayal in the movie adaptation is that the real LouAnne Johnson was Latina and used rap music.
The filmmakers had a profound opportunity to tell the story of a non-white person inspiring a group of inner-city Black and Latino students, who had been otherwise written off, to become engaged with their own destiny. Instead, they chose to usurp LouAnne Johnson, while the movie tirelessly extols the virtues of being white.
(And if that doesn't churn your stomach just a little bit, wait until next summer's release about the true story of the Black Panther's Free Breakfast for School Children Program, starring Tom Cruise.)4
What are students supposed to make of such history? What is an audience supposed to make of such movies? The constant message is that white people shape the world; non-white people are passive participants merelybenefitting from those efforts. White people are the only ones with the faculty to improve anyone's situation; non-whites are unorganized, hapless people, doomed until saved by the good will of their white saviours. Moreover, the white protagonist is usually the only character to have any depth or character development, while non-white supporting characters are foils to the white protagonist, and largely without history. The million-dollar film budget question is, why are white people the only ones deserving of inspiration?
The fact that none of these movies even mention, much less try to really address, the issue of systemic racism,is an appalling failure. The tragedy of over-crowded and under-funded inner city classrooms is never explained. It's never explained why these under privileged people are under-privileged to begin with. The situation is presented without any nuance, save for the givenness of white privilege.
White saviour movies, like their history text counterparts, are designed to reinforce and perpetuate white privilege. White audiences get to walk away from these films feeling good about being white, and they are never prompted to empathize with supporting non-white characters. Furthermore, white audience members are never confronted with their own privilege or internalized racism. They are let completely off the hook for their own roles and responsibilities in the perpetuation of a racist power structure.