How to participate without taking over.
Spoilers for ‘BlacKkKlansman’ below.There’s a moment near the end of BlacKkKlansman where Detective Philip “Flip” Zimmerman (Adam Driver) comes in and saves the day.
Detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) has caught Ku Klux Klan devotee Connie Kendrickson red-handed attempting to blow up civil rights student activist Patrice Dumas’ house. Her hysterical screaming catches the attention of a duo of white police officers. The newcomers immediately profile Stallworth as the danger, blatantly ignoring his protestations of his identity as a detective in favor of Connie’s alternative facts. For a moment, it looks like all might be lost—like she might just get away.
And then a new car skids onto the scene: Flip has arrived in the nick of time to save Stallworth from the racist cops and keep the white supremacist from getting away, free to give the cops the dressing down they deserve by virtue of his skin color. Yes, he might be of Jewish descent, and therefore subject to a significant degree of bigotry and prejudice as well, but ultimately in hue, he resembles a sheet of printer paper, and with that comes certain privileges.
In this case, the white guy showing up is a cue for a sigh of relief. But while BlacKkKlansman may feature some white heroism, it is perhaps one of the best examples to date of a film avoiding the “White Savior” trope.
The prevalence of the White Savior film has been subject to considerable discussion in both online circles and academia. Definitions vary somewhat. Matthew W. Hughey defines it as “the genre in which a white messianic character saves a lower- or working-class, usually urban or isolated, nonwhite character from a sad fate,” while Hernán Vera and Andrew Gordon describe it as the genre featuring the presence of a white person as “the great leader who saves blacks from slavery or oppression, rescues people of color from poverty and disease, or leads Indians in battle for their dignity and survival.”
Regardless, the basic idea remains the same: heroic, practically saintly white person swoops down from above to save the non-white people from themselves and/or the universe. Examples include Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, The Blind Side, and The Help.
To be clear, the issue with the whole “White Savior” trope isn’t that white people are not allowed to be heroic or that there haven’t been white people who have spent their lives fighting racism and injustice, the issue is that it robs people of color of agency. It makes them the battleground, the context in which good white people fight bad white people, relegating them to supporting characters in their own story.
On top of that, the White Savior trope taps into the same fundamental ideas as the “White Man’s Burden” mentality—the argument that, to quote Hughey again, it is the “moral responsibility of white men to rule over darker and dysfunctional people for their own good,” frequently used back in the day to “justify” conquering, colonizing, and forcibly converting various lands and peoples. So tl;dr: the White Savior is a trope with a whole lot of nasty baggage and implications, but it’s prettily wrapped in a feel-good package, so Hollywood tends to be quite fond of it.
Now that we’re clear on what we’re avoiding, let’s finally get to the matter at hand of how BlacKkKlansman avoids it. Simply put, while Flip is a good detective and human being in general, the film is Ron Stallworth’s story. He’s the protagonist, the one who keeps things moving forward. While Flip plays a vital role in the investigation, he isn’t the driving force—Stallworth is, from beginning to end. And while Flip is a worthy partner, he’s the one who occasionally needs a kick in the pants to keep moving. When the film has “teaching moments” regarding the nature of racism and bigotry, it’s never the white guy doing the explaining. It’s Ron—or Patrice (Laura Harrier), or Corey Hawkins as Kwame Ture. Flip is there to learn and learn he does. Early on, he tells Ron he has certain misgivings about the investigation, and the degree of risk entailed. “For you, it’s a crusade,” he says, “for me, it’s a job.”
Ron points out that, as a Jewish man, it should be his crusade, too. That while Flip might pass for white, like “some light-skinned black folks do,” in the eyes of the KKK he still counts as non-white vermin. Flip isn’t fully convinced at first, but in time comes to acknowledge the truth in Ron’s claims.
“I never thought much about it, and now I’m thinking about it all the time,” Flip admits. Prior to their investigation and dealing with a paranoid Klansman breathing down his neck, he really didn’t have to think about racism and bigotry all that much. Meanwhile, Ron has had to deal with racism, and therefore think about it, his entire life. Considering how we generally regard experience as an indicator of expertise, there is an obvious choice for teacher and student in the given dynamic, and BlacKkKlansman actually makes this choice. The White Savior film goes in the exact opposite direction—one of the most popular sub-tropes is the “inspirational teacher” narrative, in which the white savior is literally a teacher or coach (see: Dangerous Minds, Half Nelson, Freedom Writers, McFarland, USA, etc.).
The thing is, like many lies that show incredible resilience over time, there’s a tiny grain of truth buried deep in the tangled mess that is the White Savior trope: due to the nature of institutional racism and white privilege, there are in fact certain things that white people can do in the fight against racism that people of color are simply not able to. The White Savior trope then distorts this thread of truth into a narrative that uncomfortably plays into some of the very same notions of white superiority it claims to fight against. What BlacKkKlansman does differently is that it openly acknowledges this grain of truth and then handles it in a completely different manner.
Where so many other films tell us, “the right white man can do anything,” BlacKkKlansman proclaims, as Stallworth does when pitching his plan to infiltrate the KKK to his dumbfounded superiors, “With the right white man, we can do anything,” and that makes all the difference.