Western documentaries tend to rely upon the dual tropes of white saviorism and white sympathy to offer myopic approaches to complex interconnected cultural issues. This results in two-dimensional solutions to problems like climate change which tend to overlook marginalized groups that suffer for the global system of white supremacy. Seen as a bargaining tool and voice of clarity for its viewing audience, the act of conflating whiteness with notions of intelligence, purity, and the right to “intervene” is weaponized across the genre of documentary filmmaking. This leaves little room for discourse around how race, colonialism, and capitalism specifically target non-white beings for exploitation. Documentary films like Cathy Comes Home (1966), Sicko (2007), I Am Greta (2020), and David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet (2020) wield whiteness in this way, and in doing so build upon a cinematic lineage that contributes to the White-Savior Industrial Complex.
Weaponizing Whiteness: Saviorism and Sympathy
Understanding the position that whiteness occupies in documentary cinema is contingent upon grasping the history and definition of white sympathy and white saviorism in film. White sympathy frames white characters as the victims of struggle while eliding the oppression of non-white characters. White savior films, on the other hand, can be considered in terms laid out by sociologist Dr. Matthew Hughey as “the genre in which a white messianic character saves a lower- or working-class, usually urban or isolated, non-white character from a sad fate.”
Cathy Come Home (1966) is a prime and early example of a documentary style film that seeks to move its viewer around a social issue by centering white sympathy. Director Ken Loach stages scenes that sometimes interact with unaware members of the public. These sequences put the emotional focus on the titular white homeless mother, Cathy, as we experience how heartless and inept British social housing systems were in the 1960s. The most notable moment of the film comes at its climax. Social care workers approach and take Cathy’s children from her in front of a real audience of Londoners. The fragility of whiteness, coupled with the sanctity of motherhood, are strategically used and violated in this display of silent theater.
These elements play into Loach’s goal of making Cathy a “report on homelessness in which various things which happened to homeless families were condensed into a narrative.” For Loach, this white woman represents all homelessness in London. But Cathy cannot, by definition, represent the unique oppressions of Black homeless individuals. Nor does focusing on Cathy fairly represent the fact that Black families are overrepresented among the homeless in the UK. In this way, white sympathy masks the broader picture in favor of a monolithic narrative.
White saviorism is a close cousin of white sympathy. Once again, the filmmaker presumes that the only way to get the audience to care about a social issue is to make the lead a white person. However in this case, the white lead isn’t an object of sympathy, but is framed instead as a hero or warrior for justice. Filmmaker Michael Moore’s catalog of investigative journalist style documentaries tends to lean upon this model by placing Moore at the helm so that he can ask the tough questions about American politics.
In Sicko, the American healthcare system acts as the antagonist to Moore’s scrappy journalist hero. It’s up to Moore to get to the bottom of why so many Americans are drowning in debt while receiving some of the worst healthcare in one of the most powerful countries in the world. Moore, at the apex of the film, takes 9/11 first-responders who are victims of the American healthcare system to the only place where they can theoretically afford to be treated — US-controlled Guantánamo Bay. In a satirical finale, he purchases a boat and leads these forgotten American heroes to the promised land where “criminals” and “terrorists” of the state receive preferable treatment to the healthcare available to native born American citizens.
In this case, we see white sympathy rear its head again, embodied by the three white victims of the healthcare system. And then comes the white savior, Moore himself, purposely positioning himself as the main catalyst for debate and reform. From shots of him planting the American flag on the boat to Moore calling over a loudspeaker outside of Guantánamo Bay that “These are 9/11 rescue workers! They just want some medical attention! The same kind that al-Qaida is getting.” Moore frames himself as going to extreme lengths to strike conversation and change.
Once again, the concerns of non-white individuals are lost to the preferential treatment of white figures. The Guantánamo prisoners, who have faced profiling and torture precipitated by the War on Terror, are used as a punchline. The gag is that non-white prisoners and alleged terrorists are receiving quality healthcare undeservedly while hardworking white Americans are not. Elements of Islamophobia, nationalism, and imperialism underpinning this “joke” are simply taken for granted. Moore’s heroism is built in, the goodness of the first responders is implicit, and the evil of the inmates is assumed.
Cathy communicates brutality of the system in a manner contingent upon its protagonist’s sex, gender, and whiteness. In Sicko, the charge to change healthcare is validated through Moore’s battle with a crippling American reality. In both cases, these films amplify and feed into a larger structure termed the White Savior Industrial Complex, coined by novelist Teju Cole in The Atlantic. White perpetrators of this unconscious pattern tend to see the world as “nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.” Proponents aren’t interested in fixing the world; rather, they are more invested in validating their privilege through one “big emotional experience.” Nicholas Kristof, American journalist and political commentator, inadvertently exemplified this idea for Cole by stating, “it seems even more uncomfortable to think that we as white Americans should not intervene in a humanitarian disaster because the victims are of a different skin color.
This alleged need for white people to “intervene” ignores the work and lived experiences of people on the ground, many of whom are not white. We can see this manifest in Cathy and in Moore’s work. Even though their efforts are well-informed and good-hearted, movies like these tend to center whiteness to solve the world’s problems in a way that is ultimately harmful to the cause. They shrink the experience and activism of people of color while positioning white saviors as the only valid change agents and white people as the only victims worth saving.
David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet and I Am Greta Build Upon a Lineage of Whiteness to Combat Climate Change
A Life On Our Planet (2020) frames its host David Attenborough as a living testament to climate change. The film portrays his lifetime experiences of documenting planetary devastation as key to saving us all from extinction. His series Life on Earth, in his own words, “is the story of the evolution of life and its diversity.” Statements like this belie Attenborough’s privileged omnipresent view of the world and its wildlife that the everyday person does not have access to. “It was shot in 39 countries,” he states. “We filmed 650 species, and we traveled one and a half million miles. That’s the sort of commitment you need if you want to even begin making a portrait of the living world.” The film uses Attenborough’s white perspective and immense personal privilege, rather than marginalized voices, as the starting point of cinematic climate activism. Thus we see what David Attenborough cares about, where he places blame, and what his solutions are, while the views of those most affected by climate change — disproportionately not white men — are left a mystery.
Attenborough’s film also uses the idea of collective action to flatten sociological and geopolitical context. The film uses phrases like “we speak for,” “we are destroying,” and “we are consuming” to force complex issues through Attenborough’s reductive understanding of climate deterioration. Collectivizing all of humanity for the blame of mass climate degradation absolves responsibility from entities that tend to emit the most greenhouse gases, who are usually wealthy, white, and from the Global North. For example, the film gives deforestation in Borneo special attention but points the finger at overconsumption of materials. There is no mention of Borneo’s colonial past and exploitation by both the British and Dutch, or the Japanese occupation during the Second World War. Each of these periods drastically affected how Borneo’s land, resources, and people were treated by outside forces. To use terms like “we” erases these histories, preventing true reckoning and meaningful solutions.
While A Life On our Planet relies upon the firsthand experiences of one individual to frame both the problem and the solution to climate change, I Am Greta from director Nathan Grossman relies upon heavily gendered notions of womanhood. Grossman’s film wields strength, generational tension around children, and the “little guy” narrative of challenging the male-dominated status quo to communicate its message. For instance, in the opening montage of extreme climate events, the voices of powerful male climate deniers play in voiceover, claiming “it’s a hoax” and complaining that climate change is a “one-sided argument.” After a cross fade, the camera rests on Greta, small and alone next to the towering parliament building in Stockholm, Sweden. The message is obvious.
Greta has a single sign that reads, “SKOLSTREJK FÖR KLIMATET” (SCHOOL STRIKE FOR THE CLIMATE). In this opening sequence, older people stare and tell Greta that “she needs to be in school.” She slowly begins to amass a crowd of people and eventually major media outlets like the BBC. Her father conducts an interview with what seem to be local news correspondents stating that he “doesn’t agree with what she’s doing” but nevertheless supports her. In an extreme close up, he kneels in front of Greta and tells her that “I can tell you’re not feeling good,” and that it’s time to go. The motif of Greta struggling to resist and push back against male leadership is constant throughout the film. From the montage of male leaders across the world attacking Greta’s age and mental health to more focused and curated segments, like when she meets the President of France Emmanuel Macron, Greta is not only up against global warming: she’s up against adult men and the system of misogyny they perpetuate.
But just as Ken Loach did for Cathy, Grossman uses Greta’s whiteness to amplify her message. He uses the spectacle of her suffering — to the point where she states she almost “starved herself to death” — as leverage to garner sympathy for her cause in saving the world. In this, I Am Greta merges sympathy and saviorism to flatten the conversation with regard to race and colonialism. The film blatantly ignores events which counter this narrative. For example, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the Associated Press grabbed headlines after it was discovered they had cropped Black African climate activist, Vanessa Nakate, out of their photos. Even Greta herself called this out when it happened, stating, “This is totally unacceptable in so many ways. Like Vanessa said herself: ‘You didn’t just erase a photo. You erased a continent.’” The film makes no mention of this happening, once again cropping Nakate out of the conversation.
Addressing And Remedying White-Framed Narratives
When whiteness frames social issues in film, key matters and sometimes entire populations are erased. To combat this, we need to modify the way we engage with the complex reality of topics like climate breakdown on screen. The answer may lie in “resisting spectatorship.” Coined by film scholar Dr. Manthia Diawara, resisting spectatorship describes the idea that “the components of ‘difference’ among elements of race, gender and sexuality give rise to different readings of the same material.” This means that factors like race, gender, and sexuality in the spectator offer an alternative perspective when it comes to engaging with media, particularly with material that centers a white heteronormative male understanding of the world.
Resisting spectatorship opens up discourse on how we can better frame issues like homelessness and climate activism without relying on whiteness in order to reach the audience. We might ask all audiences to question, if not outright reject, the dominant narrative and demand alternative readings into the material as presented. When this is done, notions around collective fault, solutions that exclude and possibly harm marginalized identities, faulting color-blind capitalism that ignores systemic racism, and other byproducts of white-saviorism on screen soon begin to stand out. At that point, social justice issues will no longer be restricted to the narrow view of the most powerful, and common goals like ending homelessness, guaranteeing healthcare, and saving the planet will become clearer and more tangible for all of us.
This article was co-published with Science for the People.
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