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The White Savior Film

Content, Critics, and Consumption

Matthew Hughey

Publication Year: 2014

The cinematic trope of the white savior film-think of Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side, Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves, or Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai--features messianic characters in unfamiliar or hostile settings discovering something about themselves and their culture in the process of saving members of other races from terrible fates.


In The White Savior Film, Matthew Hughey provides a cogent, multipronged analysis of this subgenre of films to investigate the underpinnings of the Hollywood-constructed images of idealized (and often idealistic) white Americans.


Hughey considers the production, distribution, and consumption of white savior films to show how the dominant messages of sacrifice, suffering, and redemption are perceived by both critics and audiences. Examining the content of fifty films, nearly 3,000 reviews, and interviews with viewer focus groups, he accounts for the popularity of this subgenre and its portrayal of "racial progress."


The White Savior Film shows how we as a society create and understand these films and how they reflect the political and cultural contexts of their time. 

Published by: Temple University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

I am grateful to the friends and colleagues who informally helped with my research and to those who officially served as my research assistants: Cherish Forsman, Menaka Kannan, Rodderick Benton, Sheena Gardner, and Bianca Gonzales-Sobrino. I thank them for their assistance with data collection and...

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1. The Savior Trope and the Modern: Meanings of Whiteness

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pp. 1-17

As she accepted the 2010 Oscar for Best Actress for her role as Leigh Anne Tuohy in the 2009 film The Blind Side, Sandra Bullock gushed, “There’s no race, no religion, no class system, no color, nothing, no sexual orientation that makes us better than anyone else. We are all deserving...

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2. White Savior Films: The Content of Their Character

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pp. 18-71

For centuries, magicians, messiahs, and martyrs have played the role of helpful guides and aides to embattled protagonists in an array of mythological tales. Athena’s assistance to Odysseus, Merlin’s shepherding of King Arthur, Mephistopheles’s supervision of Faust, and Dante’s use of Virgil...

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3. Reviewing Whiteness: Critics and Their Commentary

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pp. 72-124

In July 2000 the film critic David Manning hit the scene. In the Ridgefield Press, a small Connecticut weekly, Manning praised Columbia Pictures films such as Hollow Man, The Patriot, and A Knight’s Tale. In his review of A Knight’s Tale, he branded relatively unknown actor Heath Ledger as “this year’s hottest...

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4. Watching Whiteness: Audience Consumption and Community

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pp. 125-159

On January 21, 2012, director Craig Zobel debuted his film Compliance at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The film tells the story of a robbery of a fast food eatery in which a man posing as a police officer falsely accuses an employee of theft and forces her to perform a sex...

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5. The Significance of White Saviors in a “Postracial” World

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pp. 160-174

In late 2012 and early 2013—a century and a half since Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the beginning of the slow demise of de jure chattel slavery—Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2013) were released. Lincoln grossed over $182 million (over...

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Appendix A: Data and Methodology for Content Analysis of Film

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pp. 175-184

To discover more consistent and illuminating aspects about the white savior film in modern cinema, I adopted a research design that incorporated the strengths of traditional content analysis and mitigated its weaknesses. While conventional quantitative-based content analysis has its merits, including the ease of reporting numerical correlations as findings...

Appendix B: Data and Methodology for Film Reviews

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pp. 184-189

Appendix C: Data and Methodology for Film Audiences

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pp. 189-192


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pp. 193-210


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pp. 211-219

About the Author

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pp. 220

E-ISBN-13: 9781439910023
E-ISBN-10: 1439910022
Print-ISBN-13: 9781439910016
Print-ISBN-10: 1439910014

Page Count: 230
Publication Year: 2014