There’s certain things about history that you can’t change. It’s a historical fact that Brad Pitt’s character, Samuel Bass, in “12 Years A Slave,” helped Solomon Northrup get a letter to Saratoga, which in return helped secure his freedom. That’s a fact that can’t be changed. But some people think over the last two years, movies based on slavery, whether fiction like “Django”, or fact, like “12 Years A Slave”, were conveniently given the white savior treatment. Now in the case of Pitt’s produced movie, we can say it was historically correct. But unlike Pitt’s, Quentin Tarrantino’s movie was purely based on his imagination.
In a recent piece for Salon, Daniel Jose Older writes how the white savior phenomenon has appeared in just about every slave narrative brought to the big screen:
What would a cinematic aesthetic of American history look like without the white savior? Perhaps the myth of white American exceptionalism would begin to crumble. Filmmakers would have to struggle to find new ways of getting people of color out of tight situations. Unpredictability might ensue; creativity would thrive. Maybe we’d finally see a Harriet Tubman biopic, instead of a cheap joke video at her expense.
David Ruggles, whose audacious opposition to slavery covered decades and included direct action, legal recourses, community organizing and journalism, has all but disappeared in the shadows of history. His house was the newly escaped Frederick Douglass’ first stop upon arriving in New York City. A decade later, Ruggles saved Sojourner Truth’s life at a clinic in Northampton, Mass. He spoke about the sexual subjugation of black women and solidarity across the fault lines of gender and race, topics we wrestle with to this day. These are historical crossroads and struggles we need to know about and celebrate.
The U.S. culture machine has found the temerity to show our ugly history with brutal clarity. What resonates about slavery narratives is not just that mainstream white culture has worked so hard to avoid dealing with them; it’s that the mentality of subjugation persists in American culture. We’re still picking up the pieces, still moving from crisis to crisis. Unraveling today’s tragedies will always depend on a multilayered, intersectional understanding of our past. It’s time to let go of the same played-out savior game and unearth the lost heroic narratives of black freedom fighters.
In speaking with various friends who refused to see either “Django” or “12 Years A Slave”, many stated that they were tired of the white savior treatment movies have been receiving. In contrast, most would definitely see a movie about Harriet Tubman, but were afraid, like Older, that some random white guy would be thrown in for good measure.
Whether random or historically accurate, it’s safe to say that these narratives could possibly be told with out white additives, but would they actually get produced? Even in reading comments left by Clutch readers, many have complained about the one-sided aspect of most slavery movies.
Clutchettes, if the white savior was removed or not even added, would that change your opinion about the movies?