"White Messiah" films


The movie The Blind Side, which depicts a white family's successful adoption of an at-risk black male, has stirred the charge of "racism" for many in the black community. The word "silly" comes to mind as the most charitable word I would use in response to such a charge. A movie depicting a re-told true story recounting what the white Tuohy family actually did for a kid in need, who happened to be black, does not contain what we normally think of as racial dehumanization. It seems that many blacks are confusing "racism" with our distaste for "White Messiah" movies.

The Blind Side---which yesterday picked up Oscar nominations for best picture and best actress (Sandra Bullock)---is not racist, however it does depict the often told story of white people coming to the aid of some indigenous, needy ethnic person. My guess is that many white people appreciate movies like this because they help defend against the constant charge that all problems in America have a direct causal link to white people. Movies like The Blind Side tell the world that, even with America's complicated history, all white people are not bad people.

Ironically, such movies are convicting to many middle-class blacks because, outside of family members, they are just as unlikely to take in at-risk black males as whites. If suburban blacks had a regular cultural habit of doing what the Tuohys did, it would change America.

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Alternatively, movies like Avatar, which also is up for the best picture Oscar, elicit suspicions of racism because they depict a common Hollywood fiction that white people are here to save the universe. A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times' David Brooks explained the racism of Avatar:

"Avatar is a racial fantasy par excellence. The hero is a white former Marine who is adrift in his civilization. He ends up working with a giant corporation and flies through space to help plunder the environment of a pristine planet and displace its peace-loving natives. The peace-loving natives---compiled from a mélange of Native American, African, Vietnamese, Iraqi and other cultural fragments---are like the peace-loving natives you've seen in a hundred other movies."

Must it always be the case that a white male comes to save the day (again)? Perhaps this may explain the movie's popularity. There are those who believe that Avatar affirms white supremacy---the same kind of white supremacy that juxtaposed Christian missions with the African slave trade and colonialism in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere, for example, in India, South Africa, and Haiti. Brooks explains that this type of white supremacy:

". . . rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration."

While movies like The Blind Side are clearly not racist in the least, fictional films like Avatar may explain the growing consternation of stories involving minorities that depict white people as the heroes. I guess this means we need more Will Smith-as-hero movies than Keanu Reeves ones. Who knows? The debate continues.

Anthony Bradley
Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and serves as a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. He is author of The Political Economy of Liberation and Black and Tired. Follow Anthony on Twitter @drantbradley.


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