- The White Savior Film: Content, Critics, and Consumption by Matthew W. Hughey
Matthew W. Hughey’s The White Savior Film: Content, Critics, and Consumption is an incisive contribution to critical studies of whiteness. In undertaking to outline the genre markers, critical reception, and audience attitudes towards a body of films like Dangerous Minds (1995), Hard Ball (2001), and The Blind Side (2009), Hughey [End Page 137] draws attention to the kind of racial common sense that these films construct, reflect, and propagate.
The White Savior Film is particularly noteworthy for its methodological rigor and wide scope. In the introductory chapter, Hughey examines the savior trope and traces its historical genealogy—one that carries from the film houses of the Great Depression through the Hollywood adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) to Avatar (2009). Moving on from this historical contextualization of savior tropes and the construction of whiteness, the book’s three central chapters each analyze a different aspect of the genre’s production and circulation, and each relies on a distinct research method. This variance makes the study particularly robust.
In the chapter “White Savior Films: The Content of Their Character” Hughey analyzes fifty white savior films produced over a twenty-five year period to identify key characteristics both in their cinematic features and in their production context. Laying out studio names, film earnings, awards, and other production characteristics of the films, the author also analyzes how screen time is divided among white characters and the characters to be saved and identifies seven characteristics of white savior films. These characteristics in particular, offer a useful rubric for considering the hallmarks of this genre.
The third chapter, “Reviewing Whiteness: Critics and Their Commentary,” presents a remarkably deep analysis of nearly 2,800 English-language reviews of the fifty films discussed throughout the book. Here, Hughey employs a compelling combination of close reading and more statistical analysis by which he is able to trace broad trends while pointing to evocative examples. “Watching Whiteness: Audience Consumption and Community” turns to audience reception as gauged through a series of focus groups held in conjunction with screenings. Again, there is attention to broad trends—for example, the most dominant response among viewers was the claim that “race is everywhere now,” with increased racial diversity on screen and in people’s lived experience—combined with specific attention to noteworthy incidents. In one case, the middle-aged members of an Elks Lodge group viewed the film Gran Torino (2008) as evidence of “reverse racism” in mainstream film.
In the concluding chapter, Hughey turns to the larger cultural frame of the white savior film and in particular the genre’s implications in contemporary culture. Pointing to the critic James Hoberman’s question of when we might see “an Obama-inflected Hollywood cinema” (165), Hughey argues that this cinema, marked by films like 12 Years a Slave (2013), Belle (2013), and The Keeping Room (2013) has already emerged; its key characteristic is a desire to look backward to our racist past in part to subtly frame our present with a certain hopefulness.
This closing chapter helps extend the historical reach of the study, as the bulk of Hughey’s analysis concludes in 2011.
The White Savior Film presents a compelling case study of a popular and problematic genre. In particular, Hughey’s assessment of a post-racial era in the genre in its reception, which he dates as beginning in 1999, is useful in thinking more broadly about racial discourse. While the book is exceptional in its rigor, it also suggests a number of arenas for further research. The White Savior Film presents a deeply useful study that should be of relevance to researchers in visual sociology, American studies, media studies, audience studies, and should readily find its way into graduate and undergraduate classrooms in these fields. Ultimately, Hughey’s book examines not only a popular film genre, but also the complex cultural processes by which film producers, critics, and viewers contribute to dominant visions of white benevolence. [End Page 138]