Slavery and the White Savior: Then and Now

By: Sadie Brown

In reviews of Django Unchained, the film is often criticized for its portrayal of the white savior figure. In his review of the film, Matthew Hughey tells readers why Django is not a revenge fantasy:

Django is no antebellum-era Shaft.  King Schultz not only buys Django’s freedom, trains him in the art of bounty hunting, finds Django’s stolen wife Broomhilda, kills his wife’s master Calvin Candie, but ends up sacrificing his life for Django and Broomhilda’s freedom.  His rampage arises not from a love for his people, but out of affection for a single person.  Django is not a cause of black liberation, but an effect of a white paternal redeemer. (Hughey np)

Tarantino focuses so much attention on the white characters that the black characters become static and forgotten. While Django Unchained is neither the first nor last narrative to capitalize on the white savior trope, it has made it easier for viewers to identify what the ideology of the white savior entails.

When watching a film like Django Unchained, it is important to know that the trope of the white savior has a long history. By examining the film alongside a 17th century text written by author Samuel Sewall, I will show how the portrayal of the white savior can be recognized and compared across both narratives. Comparing Tarantino’s white savior figure to that of Sewall’s helps demonstrate how the trope stems from feelings of superiority. In The Selling of Joseph, A Memorial (1700), Sewall argues against those who support slavery. He states: “And all things considered, it would conduce more to the Welfare of the Province, to have White Servants for a Term of Years, than to have Slaves for Life. Few can endure to hear of a Negro’s being made free; and indeed they can seldom use their freedom well; yet their continual aspiring after their forbidden Liberty, renders them Unwilling Servants” (547). Like Django Unchained, Sewall’s narrative complicates the ties between slavery and superiority. Sewall exerts his power by taking on the role of a white savior. Rather than arguing for the equal treatment of slaves and whites alike, Sewall uses his social position as a powerful white male to discuss why African Americans do not belong in his community. His remarks show how little he thinks of African Americans – saying that they are incapable of using their freedom “well.” This quote demonstrates how abolitionist writings, or films such as Django Unchained, can become tied up with issues of white superiority.

Tarantino’s film did not create the white savior character, but it did make the trope better known. By further investigating earlier texts that also boasted a white savior, we are able to more easily understand why this trope is so tied up in portrayals of slavery. It could be that, by changing the emphasis, the audience feels compelled to focus more on the white savior in his attempt to “save” the slaves from their lives of servitude, rather than causing the audience to focus primarily on the plight of the African Americans slaves themselves. The white savior trope allows a white audience a distraction from feeling guilty about historical acts of slavery. For this reason, both Django Unchained and The Selling of Joseph, A Memorial capitalize on the audience’s desire to invest energy in the figure of the white savior. While Tarantino’s film deals with white guilt as well as the white savior, Sewall’s text concerns the detrimental efforts of slavery in his community and how it would be better off without African American slaves. Whatever the intentions may be, we can see from these examples that the trope of the white savior is another form of superiority.

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Works Cited

Sewall, Samuel. The Selling of Joseph, A Memorial. Ed. Sidney Kaplan. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1969.

Hughey, Matthew. “Slavery, Emancipation, and the Great White Benefactor in Django Unchained and Lincoln.” Race. Research. Rambling. 6 Apr. 2013. Web. 13 Dec. 2014  (link) 

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One comment on “Slavery and the White Savior: Then and Now

  1. When watching a film like Django Unchained, it is important to know that the trope of the white savior has a long history. By examining the film alongside a 17th century text written by author Samuel Sewall, I will show how the portrayal of the white savior can be recognized and compared across both narratives. Comparing Tarantino’s white savior figure to that of Sewall’s helps demonstrate how the trope stems from feelings of superiority. In The Selling of Joseph, A Memorial (1700), Sewall argues against those who support slavery. He states: “And all things considered, it would conduce more to the Welfare of the Province, to have White Servants for a Term of Years, than to have Slaves for Life. Few can endure to hear of a Negro’s being made free; and indeed they can seldom use their freedom well; yet their continual aspiring after their forbidden Liberty, renders them Unwilling Servants”.
    Very well said!

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