Crucifying the White Savior (Film)
Photo Credit: 'Free State of Jones' (Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw)

Crucifying the White Savior (Film)

'Free State of Jones' (Matthew McConaughey, Mahershala Ali)
‘Free State of Jones’ (Matthew McConaughey, Mahershala Ali)

We no longer have to forgive them, for they know exactly what they are doing.

The new film by Gary Ross, “The Free State of Jones” is uncontestably a White savior film. Laid bare, “The Free State of Jones” is a simplistically constructed tale of a Confederate army deserter who eventually lives in a polygamous relationship with a Black former slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) with whom he has a mixed race child and his White wife and their White child. The film’s story is a heroification of the 1862 true story of Newton Knight a real Confederate deserter from Jones County, Mississippi, who ironically didn’t actually “save” anyone, but instead merely prolonged the inevitable suffering of those Blacks and his mixed race progeny who were trapped within the White supremacist power structure of the United States of America. (1)

The film builds its White savior character not in the broad conflicts between Confederate and Union soldiers, Free Black men and the KKK, but in small scenes of selfless heroism and demonstrative yet intimate “White-man- taking-charge- and-directing- the-actions- of-others” scenes that accumulate over the course of the two-and- a-half- hour film until there is no doubt about who is saving whom in a battle and who desperately needed to be protected from whom in a White supremacist society. Yet “The Free State of Jones” is an oddly racially segregated film that separates its Black token characters from its White fully developed characters, even as they fight (presumably) together to protect their illegal territory. There are certain battle and robbery scenes where no Black token is shown and others where Black tokens fight next to each other but are segregated from their fellow White fighters, revealing that Knight’s Free State was conditional at best. Moreover, the film never manages to convince the skeptical spectator that Knight’s higher ideals of freedom, autonomy, and “Every man is a man” equality were not simply rooted in his adulterous lust for a Black woman’s body.

However, if we take off the metaphorical rose colored glasses that director Gary Ross has placed in front of the camera, it is not too difficult to see that Newton Knight was merely a Confederate deserter who wanted to have his cake and eat it too- a Black mistress and a White wife – and through the benefit of his White privilege, he was allowed to do so with peculiar impunity until the end of his days.

But since many of us already knew that this film was going to be yet another iteration of the White Savior film that is merely Oscar-bait for Matthew McConaughey, I’d rather discuss here the political conditions within the American Entertainment Complex otherwise known as Hollywood and the pernicious ideological effects that make the White Savior film such an enduring and problematic narrative trope in the cinematic art.

To begin this operation, we must hold two truths to be self-evident: 1) That which we call Hollywood is a White controlled global industry; 2) Not all Whites are racist, but all Whites benefit in some materialistic or symbolic way from the systemic anti-Black structures and institutions created and maintained by White supremacy. (2)

It is upon these two truths that the White Savior film endures within the cinema regardless of the box office earning potential or audience interest and appeal for such films. As Matthew Hughey asserts in his brilliant book on the subject, “The White Savior Film,” “These narratives help repair what is truly the most dangerous myth of race- a tale of normal and natural white paternalism. Whether helping people of color who cannot or will not help themselves, teaching nonwhites right from wrong, or framing the white savior as the only character able to recognize these moral distinctions, these films show whites going the extra mile across the color line.” (Pgs.7-8)

The White Savior film allows those Whites who are non-racist or conditionally racist a cinematic means through which they can discharge their feelings of White guilt, shame and/or complicity for the ravages of White supremacy and its intransigent structures and institutions. It’s like a loud and disruptive, ”Hey look, some of us tried to help,” plea in the midst of a trial on racism in the court of public opinion where the preponderance of real and circumstantial evidence paints all Whites with a broad and filthy brush of complicity.

For when the tomes of history’s copious record keeping are opened to reveal the buying and selling of Black people as human chattel, Whites are quick to point out White individuals throughout history who stood up against the evil to show that not all Whites went along with the program-even if all Whites benefited from the program in some way. “But if you split a hair fine enough you’ll never go bald”, I would add. The political conditions wherein which these White Savior films are made and awarded recognitions of prestige are rooted in the fact that such films are conceived, nurtured, financed, produced and distributed in the womb of a White controlled global entertainment complex. Whites have the exclusive power to green light such films (e.g. “Free State of Jones” cost a reported 50 million dollars to make according to Variety) (3); Whites have the power to bestow recognitions of prestige upon such films and the main actors who themselves are White because an 89-year- old institution like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is made up on 91% Whites and 76% male voters (4); and Whites and their non-White sympathizers are targeted to see such films. Although where a White Savior film like “The Blind Side” made over $255 million at the box office in 2009, “The Free State of Jones” is tanking hard as Summer tent pole counter-programming by taking in only $8 million in its debut weekend, again according to Variety.

So if it is the very intransigent political conditions of Whiteness within the global film industry that produces such White Savior films for the benefit of allowing Whites to discharge their guilt in regards to the malevolence of White supremacy, what then are the ideological effects of the White Savior film for Black audiences?

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'Free State of Jones' (Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw)
‘Free State of Jones’ (Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw)

A good place to start looking for that answer returns us to Matthew Hughey’s work where he points out that,” Producers, critics and audiences often present these [White Savior] films as straightforward and impartial narratives about heroic characters, intercultural friendships, and the humanistic struggle to overcome daunting odds (usually “based on a true story,” to boot). Yet they are sites of both purposeful ideological labor and implicit explanations about race so normalized as common sense that many may fail to recognize them as ideological.” (5)

The real ideological effect of the White Savior film on Black and White audiences alike is to make us fail to recognize and resist the overarching macro-structures of White supremacy by seducing us into concentrating on the micro-benevolent actions of White individuals who saved a few Blacks or people of color from the malevolence of White supremacy at a particular point in time.(6)

In the case of “The Free State of Jones,” it was noted during the anti-climactic finale of the film that Knight deeded land in the name of his Black mistress, Rachel, in lieu of the fact that they could not legally marry. This literal and figurative “deed” of White micro- beneficence distracts us from the brutal castration and murder of the Black freedman Moses (Mahershala Ali) and the thousands upon thousands of other Black men in post-reconstruction era Mississippi that earlier in the film Knight could do nothing to stop. The sentimentality of the final act of White beneficence obscures and distracts from the macro-structure of White supremacy’s malevolence in the form of lynching, terrorism, Jim Crow restrictions, Mississippi Parchman farm slave labor and the denial of voting rights that Knight, nor any other White non-racist could’ve dared successfully challenge and overthrow at that time. A few are saved by the cost of many. Certainly, White complicity in White supremacy is there within the historical facts, but it is obscured by White micro-actions of benevolence that are aided and abetted by the formal organization of the film which fixes our gaze upon the good White individual as opposed to the entire malevolent White system.

In this crucifixion of the White Savior film, we must assert that ultimately all White Savior characters fail because in saving a few Black characters they fail to dismantle the macro-structures and institutions of White supremacy- institutions and structures from which they as Whites still materially or symbolically benefit only by the token of being White. The White Savior film and the White Savior character are ruses of psychological persuasion that absolves the guilt of complicity by the sentiments of mercy, charity, protection or education.

Moreover, planted within these White micro-benevolent actions of mercy, charity, protection and education are the seeds of Black middle class respectability politics, colorism and exceptionalism. Because you as a Black person are compelled to conduct, clothe, comport and constrain yourself in certain acceptable and pleasing ways to be selected for mercy by a White Savior so that many others can continue to be crushed, murdered, denied and forgotten in poverty and prison by the structures and institutions of White Supremacy.

Therefore, the White Savior isn’t a Savior at all, he is a trickster figure in the regime of White supremacy who might openly question, circumvent or mock the powers that be, but only for the purchase of his (or her) own personal pleasure, predications, material gain and conceits. All White Savior films tend to de-emphasize these personal gains, contradictions and conceits in the effort make a Savior out of the flawed White character. For example, critic Ijeoma Oluo, while comparing the real life of Newton Knight with Gary Ross’ heroification of Newton Knight, reveals that the film suppresses the fact that, “…the former slave Rachel- was not owned by a random White dude, but by [Knight’s] own grandpa,” as well as the contemptible fact that the real Newton Knight had, “… children with one of Rachel’s (yes, his wife Rachel) daughters after Rachel passes away…” (7)

The dramatization of such morally suspect and contradictory behaviors by the lead character in a White Savior film would not allow for an unobstructed heroification of the White character. Concomitantly, such suspect behaviors would also not allow the seduction of spectators into failing to recognize and resist the overarching macro-structures of White supremacy; namely the fact that Rachel was a victim of rape inherited from a White grandfather to his White grandson just like the very piece of property that White supremacy had defined her as. This historical fact is deliberately obscured within the film by a misplaced sentimentality. While many see “The Free State of Jones” as a failed type of counter-programing against the Summer CGI tent poles by the new independent film company STX entertainment, if we enlarge the scope of our view we would do better to see the film as a White Savior prologue to the upcoming epitome of White Savior epics, “The Legend of Tarzan,” based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ White character Tarzan who tames the savage animals and Black savages in deepest darkest Africa. Although pre- publicity for this film attempts to convince would be spectators that the film will delve into the horrific genocide of Africans by King Leopold II of Belgium in his conquest and exploitation of the Congo, it is more than likely that this real life historical horror will only be a dramatic backdrop to highlight the selfless heroism of a White Tarzan and his mystical control of the savage jungle environs.

Alternately, we could also see “The Free State of Jones” as a liberal White antidote for the White guilt (and Black anger) that will be inspired by Nate Parker’s upcoming film, “Birth of a Nation,” that tells the story of Black slave insurrectionist, Nat Turner. Although it remains to be seen if there is or is not a White Savior character within this film. If not, Whites will be hard pressed to discharge themselves of any guilt regarding complicity within the structures and institutions of White supremacy. The timing is crucial in that by the time “Birth of a Nation” hits theatres in October 2016, “The Free State of Jones” should be readily available on DVD, streaming platforms and in regular rotation on cable and satellite channels. This serendipitous timing between the two films will give non-racist and conditionally racist Whites some real counter-programming to assuage their consciences as they benefit from White supremacy even as they claim to be against it. Yet whether we see “The Free State of Jones” as a White Savior prologue to “The Legend of Tarzan” or an antidote for the White guilt that will be inspired by Parker’s Birth of a Nation the essential point is that we no longer have to forgive such clueless White directors like Gary Ross or David Yates (“Legend of Tarzan”) for continuing to make White Savior films because we know now that White Savior films are deliberately made to support the lies of White supremacy by making history appear simpler and less morally circumspect that it really was.

The sins of the White Savior film are multi-fold:

1) In the effort to manufacture an irreproachable hero of its White main character, historical accuracy is omitted and/or deliberately suppressed by erasing the White character’s real life flaws, contradictions or residual racial bigotry. This effort renders the representation of the events and circumstances of history clear and morally distinct but ultimately false and misleading.

2) White Savior movies seduce spectators into displacing their concern for dismantling the macro-structures and institutions of White supremacy in order to focus on the micro-benevolent actions of a White individual towards a few Blacks and/or people of color. A few are saved by the cost of many which gives a more sinister tone to the pre-1956 defacto Latin motto of the United States: E pluribus Unum (Out of many, one).

3) White Savior movies allow the White executives of the White controlled American Global Entertainment Complex otherwise known as Hollywood a declarative means through which they can feign racial tolerance and inclusiveness while simultaneously remaining unmoved and irremovable from their seats of power by citing such films and the awards they bestow upon them as evidence of the need for the racially exclusive structures and institutions of Hollywood NOT to change.

Although the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and its new Black president, Cheryl Boone Issacs, have initiated sweeping changes to the race and age limits of its membership processes, these changes won’t fully take effect until 2020. (8)

And while there have been some changes with regard to Black executives in Network Television (e.g. Channing Dungey as first Black president of ABC), what hasn’t changed is the complete Whiteness that controls the Global Entertainment Industry of motion pictures. So if we must crucify the White Savior film we should do so in the name of zealously continuing to dismantle one of the most effective and multifaceted macro-structures and institutions of White supremacy: Hollywood.

Andre Seewood is author of  “(Dismantling) the Greatest Lie Ever Told to the Black Filmmaker.” Pick up a copy here.


1) I’m borrowing the term,” Heroification” from historian James W. Loewen’s book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, where he states that Heroification is,” … a degenerative process (much like calcification) that makes people over into heroes. Through this process, our education media turn flesh-and-blood individuals into pious, perfect creatures without conflicts, pain, credibility, or human interest.” (pg.19)

(2) Here I’m paraphrasing the powerful line in Charles W. Mill’s trenchant work, The Racial Contract, where he concludes,” All Whites are beneficiaries of the Contract, though some Whites are not signatories to it.” (pg.11)

(3) Regarding The Free State of Jones Budget and Box office please see: still- looking-to- make-its- mark-after- free-state- of-jones- flops- 1201783703/

(4) Regarding the Racial make-up of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, please see: 2016-voters/

(5) Pg. 8, The White Savior Film by Matthew Hughey, Temple University Press; Philadelphia, 2014.

(6) We might better understand the notion of micro-benevolence as the contrasting opposite of micro-aggression. Author Toure cites a definition of micro-aggression from NYU Professor Peggy Davis as,” subtle, stunning, often automatic, sometimes non- verbal exchanges that are put-downs of Blacks by Whites. They serve as reminders of purported Black inferiority.” (pgs.80-81, Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness) By contrast micro-benevolence are direct, stunning and calculated verbal, material and symbolic exchanges that challenge White supremacy by allowing a White person to do good for a Black person on an isolated individual level that does not actually threaten the larger extant formal and informal restrictions of White supremacy against Blacks and people of color.

(7) Please see the article, Matthew McConaughey Can’t Stop Being a Badass White Savior in The Free State of Jones by Ijeoma Oluo: ew-mcconaughey- cant-stop- being-a- badass-white- savior-in- the- free-state- of-jones

(8) Please see: Academy Take Historic Action to Increase Diversity: historic-action- increase-diversity

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