Why 'white saviour' stories are past their use-by date

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Ruby Hamad

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in the segregated court room of 'To Kill a Mockingbird', the film based on Harper Lee's novel.

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in the segregated court room of 'To Kill a Mockingbird', the film based on Harper Lee's novel. Photo: AP

The passing of of Harper Lee last week came close behind an announcement by Aaron Sorkin that he will be penning a Broadway adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird, the universally-adored novel that made Lee a household name and a hero to many Americans.

For the rare bird who is unfamiliar with the plot, the Depression-era classic centres on Atticus Finch, a surprisingly fair-minded white lawyer practicing in the deep south.

Much to the disdain of his racist neighbours, Finch defends Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. To the townsfolk, Robinson's guilt is cut and dried. But, no ordinary southerner, Atticus Finch uses his passion for truth to instil non-racist values in his young children, and in doing so became the Hollywood prototype of the Good White Guy that many white people like to imagine is a reflection of them.

11 of the 12 Angry Men.

11 of the 12 Angry Men.

In a similar vein is 12 Angry Men by playwright Reginald Rose. In the 1950s film adaptation directed by Sydney Lumet, the eponymous men - white male jurors - have the life of a Latino youth in their hands.

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Charged with murder and certain to get the death penalty if convicted, the defendant is at the mercy of these men, 11 of whom, prejudiced by his race and "wrong side of the tracks" socio-economic status, are ready to convict within minutes. Only one - Juror 8 - is prepared to entertain the mere possibility of innocence. Like Finch, he is the white beacon of hope for the misjudged minorities who cannot speak for themselves.

While Harper Lee's recent passing is sure to set off renewed interest in Mockingbird, the enduring popularity of these old white-centred stories about racism, in which the "good white person" challenges and ultimately redeems the racists around them, was never in doubt.

Sorkin's Broadway adaptation comes not long after HarperCollins released Go Set A Watchman, an unfinished and inferior prequel to Mockingbird, amidst much hype - and criticism. Although wildly popular, readers were dismayed to discover Atticus Finch was more racist than the original story had led them to believe.

12 Angry Men, meanwhile, occupies such a place in the white imagination that a theatre company in Melbourne is currently working on a production - and only considering Caucasian actors for the jury. The director, Chris Baldock, tells me this is necessary to tap "into the bias and prejudices of these white jurors. For me it loses impact casting it any other way."

But that is the underlying problem with these types of stories about racism; despite their aim to shine a light on the uncomfortable reality of bigotry, there is no room for people of colour other than as objects of pity. Stories in which POC wrest control of their lives away from white people, such as Malcolm X and more recently, Selma (which despite critical acclaim was snubbed by the Oscars), simply do not resonate as strongly with white audiences.

Interestingly, a multi-racial remake of 12 Angry Men was released in the 1990s. In this version, the director shows POCs aren't simply "victims", but fully realised characters who can also be imperfect and susceptible to prejudice. They have agency, and can therefore also be privileged but misguided. This is important because it shows the full humanity of non-white characters.

Baldock claims this "dissipated the power of the story," but diverse casting actually provides an opportunity to explore unconscious bias, giving viewers a chance to reflect on the way we all absorb the dominant narratives about race that sees POC more likely to be regarded as criminals, while Caucasians are shown more leniency – even by non-white people.

Of course stories like 12 Angry Men served a purpose for their time, when racism was not only more explicit but actually enshrined in law, and when it was only white voices that were permitted to speak. But now that we are living in a time where racism takes more implicit forms, why are we still clinging to these outdated narratives that deny agency to people of colour?

This is the case even in more recent films that do feature people of colour in more significant roles. From Hairspray to The Help, from Dangerous Minds to The Blindside, it seems POCs need "good white people" to fight on their behalf. Even in 12 Years A Slave, the biggest race-themed film of recent years, the protagonist needed the help of an enlightened white man to regain his freedom.

So how do we challenge this? Is it time to let go of these classics altogether, or will that just doom us to repeat the mistakes of the past?

The answer lies in using them to support, rather than overshadow, contemporary stories that more accurately reflect the nuances of modern racism. All-white male juries may be a thing of the past, but white men still make the bulk of government decisions that directly impact on people of colour and indigenous communities.

In the absence of high-profile stories that explore a more contemporary race reality, our attachment to the white-centred narrative risks stunting our understanding of race. Alone, these stories perpetuate the fallacy that racism is a problem of the past; that exists now only in particular individuals, as opposed to being a systemic issue that is often difficult to identify, let alone overcome.

As well-intentioned as they are, white-centered narratives often do little more than soothe white anxiety while continuing to exclude people of colour. When white viewers watch 12 Angry Men or read To Kill A Mockingbird, they get to imagine themselves as Atticus Finch or Juror 8, even though reality dictates they would far more likely have been one of the small-minded townsfolk or the 11 jurors keen to return a verdict in time for the baseball game.

Racism cannot be undone by a few good white people because it is a system that benefits all white people. It takes a willingness for the beneficiaries of white privilege to first acknowledge and then surrender this privilege. And that involves relinquishing their need to be the focus of every story, something that even some the most progressive white people are unprepared to do.

In all the brouhaha surrounding Beyoncé's 'Formation' video and Superbowl performance, for example, I was amused to see several think pieces by white people about how they were "fine" with the song being "not for them." Even white people who concede that 'Formation' is - and should be - for and about black people, nonetheless took the time to write and publish entire articles about themselves. That is how accustomed white people are to being at the centre of every story.

Sometimes the intention is good. Baldock genuinely appears to believe his interpretation of 12 Angry Men is the most powerful way to depict racism. The problem is, in a world where implicit racism and the marginalisation of people of colour is a deadly reality, the story is outdated.

While it may make white people proud of how far they have apparently come, stories like these offer precious little to improve the lives of people of colour today.