Hidden Figures and Green Book: the White Saviour in Films

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Table of Contents

  • Inroduction
  • The White Saviour Model in Cinematography
  • The Formula of White Saviours in Green Book and Hidden Figures
  • Conclusion


Throughout the 20th Century, minorities have made significant strides towards autonomy and equality in society. From the abandonment of the Jim Crow era and further still the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, these advances have raised awareness about the lack of racial equality. These ideas of discrimination and injustice however have been ingrained in the mindset of the average person through the history of film and TV. Films either try to ignore the fact racism still exists, as we don’t see public demonstrations of hate, or hide underlying messages and undertones as minorities are often cast as sidekicks, thugs and leeches to the white society, through white saviour films. We will analyze the films Hidden Figures and Green Book.

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The White Saviour Model in Cinematography

‘White saviour movie’. These types of movies feature a white character saving people of colour from situations they couldn’t save themselves from. Films like Hidden Figures and Green Book feature a significant amount of the plot dedicated to barefaced racism, while slipping in the white saviour trope, which ultimately impacts the audiences view of racial power. Additionally though, audiences are left with a pretense that racism is ‘behind us’ with all being equal today.

The Formula of White Saviours in Green Book and Hidden Figures

Green Book in particular, which won Oscar – best picture, is a movie set mostly in the racially segregated southern states in the early 1960s, despite mirroring racial inequality that endures to this day. The very premise of the film demonstrates power inequality. The black, classical musician prodigy is denied his due because he is an outsider – because of his race. Thus, he needs a white driver to help him safely travel, to prevent him being attacked, despite what the driver’s original negative opinion is on the black race (Harker, 2019).

Green Book fits almost perfectly into the Hollywood formula. That formula being, black movies being set in the past, when life was tough for a coloured person. This lets audiences leave the theatre feeling satisfied with how far we have come since then. How well we are doing today. However, these films fail to exhibit that racism isn’t all about bigots who beat up black people shouting racial slurs. It’s about the underlying tones and feeling we have about each, each other’s race. The film reinforces the claim that Hollywood still doesn’t understand race. Because of this need of a white saviour, the power imbalance between races is still portrayed heavily in films today. The film Hidden Figures is another example of the Hollywood formula as well as the white saviour theme, starring three of the first African American women to work for NASA. The characters in this film face many struggles, as their with white middle aged male co workers often treat them with a certain ‘disrespect’. They receive looks, are treated very differently and are a second class citizen purely because they are black women.

There is a scene in the film when the white boss (Al Harrison) allows Katherine Johnson access to the control room so she can watch the rocket launch that she helped to create. The real Katherine Johnsons said she had to watch from her desk, and that Al Harrison never actually existed. He’s completely made up (OCBAZGHI, 2019). Why is this? Al Harrison is seen as the white saviour in this film. He is simply there to prove that coloured people can’t do anything without help from the white folk. He helps to undermine the successes of the true events, and in the process, allows coloured people now to view themselves as less than. Coloured people didn’t have a fellow black man save them from the treachery of racism. No. They needed a white man to save them. The film industry is attempting to make strides in the right direction however, as there was improvement with African-American roles in film in 2017, through films such as Hidden Figure and Fences, as well as Green Book in 2019, in which audiences were able to see perspectives of black people.


On the other hand, companies are aware of what people want to see. When we see diversity in films in is to increase profit as they need to keep up with current social movement. Even though they defend their inputs as an insider look into the lives of certain minority group, they are guilty of the same tropes and acts of discrimination, writers and director before them have committed. The industry relies on old tropes that base their lust for money towards the majority at the expense of the minority. We need to change what we keep seeing and terminate the discriminatory cycle that is portrayed. 

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