Saturday, January 7, 2012

Moldering in the Grave

I had a new thought about the problem of the perennial white savior character in movies that aim to deal with issues of racial conflict.  It's a problematic handling of a still important issue, undoubtedly.  (Ah, "problematic", that overused term of the progressively-minded blog!)  And yet it seems nearly as questionable to do away with such stories completely.

I have often considered whether there is something to be gained when a large population of people, who make up the obliviously privileged, are presented and confronted with stories of bedrock-changing experiences endured by characters with whom they identify.  In other words, I do think an ordinary, white, American movie-going person, who hasn't ever given much thought to the actual lived experiences of someone in a vastly (or slightly) different set of circumstances (or skin), can gain some self-awareness by watching a story unfold on the screen in which another supposedly ordinary person ("just like me!") learns to identify with, and even help, people less privileged.  I mean this with no cynicism nor snarkiness.  There is a value to this story.  But there is also the much-expounded-upon problem of that character being seen as a savior whose inherent talent and goodness (which seems to stem from his - it's usually his - whiteness) must be employed to save the apparently inferior others.  And really, much of the problem is that this version of the story is all too common, and just seen as more profitable (which is probably true) than a story in which a hero rises from within the oppressed group to save its own people.  Or ANY other variation.

So, anyway, my new thought to add to my musings is this: could a work of drama make an audience member feel the righteousness of acting on principle for the good of others, not through the glorification of the would-be hero, but because all reasoning, guided by human decency, points to this inevitable choice of action, and could they be moved to such righteousness?  Because the story makes it clear that it is simply the Right Thing To Do?  Is it possible to inspire people without them worshiping the hero?  Could the fact that someone is working on others' behalf without any personal gain to be had give the story line more merit?

I was reading about John Brown which got me thinking about all of this again, and now I have an idea for a project.

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