I’ve learned a lot recently about the “white savior” trope. I’d first heard the term when Matt Damon’s The Great Wall was released, and it came up a lot during Green Book discussions. Simply put, it’s when a white character rescues a non-white character (or often an entire community) from some dire circumstances. The Great Wall is a pretty cut and dry example, but Green Book is a little more complicated. It throws in the protagonist learning about and overcoming his own racist ideals, so the film comes off with a seemingly positive message. It’s a trope that I’ve been fairly blind do, but I’m now more able to recognize and understand some of the harm that it can cause. I recognized it immediately in Gran Torino.
Disclaimer: I’m not trying to be an expert on the subject. I’m merely trying to process my thoughts watching this film with the new information I’ve learned in recent years. I identify as Hispanic, but am half white (and mostly pass as such) and recognize that I have benefited from lots of white privilege.
Clint Eastwood directs and stars in this film as the angry old white guy in a quickly diversifying neighborhood. Most of his neighbors are now Hmong, who have immigrated from southeast Asia. You know how people use the “get off my lawn” phrase a lot nowadays? Yeah that started with this movie. Anyways Eastwood is super racist towards his neighbors, but then things happen (like they do in movies) and he befriends the two teens next door. He takes a particular interest in the teenage boy, and takes him under his wing, teaching him all sorts of life skills as well as how to be a man (at least by his uber macho definitions).
To fully go into the themes, I’ll hafta spoil it a bit, but it’s a 12 year old movie, so deal. Eventually the boy and his sister’s lives are in danger, after several growing attacks from neighborhood gangs. Eastwood sets his affairs in order, and confronts the bullies in full view of a neighborhood full of witnesses. The thugs kill him, but there’s enough evidence to send them to jail for a long time.
On its surface, and on my initial viewings, I thought it was a beautiful story about a man overcoming his own racist ideas and accepting his fellow man. To some extent, it still is. But the danger of the white savior trope is thinking that’s enough. (My go to joke about Green Book is saying that it solved racism completely. ) The other danger is in showing POC as victims who need a white person to save them. I also recognized this time that a lot of what Eastwood is teaching the boy is rooted in toxic masculinity, which is a whole other beast to tackle.
Still, despite its flaws, I think it’s a very moving film. I was in tears on this recent view. Why? Something else I was taught, this time since childhood: Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. That very Christian ideal is illustrated to its full extent in this movie. And it is beautiful to see. But what I’ve learned is to not get complacent with that, but rather to recognize that films like this are complex, and there’s still a lot more work to do.