When white saviours are out­moded, Hol­ly­wood flocks to white devils


In Peter Far­relly’s Green Book, the story of a Black con­cert pi­anist (Ma­her­shala Ali) who stub­bornly em­barks on a tour of the Jim Crow south, is sup­planted by the story of the white guy (Viggo Mortensen) who drives him there. Win­ning both the Peo­ple’s Choice Award at TIFF and best pic­ture at the Na­tional Board of Re­view, Green Book proves clas­sic white saviour nar­ra­tives still have mileage. At the same time, the white saviour’s in­verse has risen to promi­nence in re­cent years, par­tic­u­larly in 2018.

Ter­ence Nance’s HBO sketch se­ries Ran­dom Acts Of Fly­ness sat­i­rized white saviour movies like Blood Di­a­mond and Avatar in an episode that also gave us a vis­ual es­say on “white devils,” an ex­ten­sion of an ab­stract for a yet-to-be-pub­lished aca­demic pa­per the film­maker posted on the Talk­house two years ago called White An­gel/ White Devil. In it, he ex­plained how white saviours (whom he dubs “white an­gels”) soothe white guilt while con­sol­i­dat­ing eco­nomic and so­cial power. White devils, ac­cord­ing to Nance, are the Walter Whites and Tony So­pra­nos – an­ti­heroes who re­assert white male supremacy, but as crim­i­nals.

Nance ar­gues that when white an­gel nar­ra­tives feel out­moded, Hol­ly­wood flocks to white devils as an al­ter­na­tive way to re-cen­tre white­ness.

The fas­ci­nat­ing thing is that white devil nar­ra­tives seek out ex­cep­tional white crim­i­nals in the same way that white saviour nar­ra­tives look for an ex­cep­tional Black man to warm the big­oted heart of both a lead char­ac­ter and the au­di­ence. But what makes a white devil ex­cep­tional is sim­ply that he’s white – in movies or real life.

That was en­tirely the point in the Safdie Brothers’ bril­liant 2017 thriller Good Time, star­ring Robert Pat­tin­son as a low-level crook who gets away with shit sim­ply by shift­ing at­ten­tion to Black peo­ple who cross his path.

So how are white devils far­ing in 2018? They were the sub­jects of The Mule, White Boy Rick and The Old Man & The Gun, all films that treat Cau­casian cul­prits with an em­pa­thetic eye rarely af­forded to non-white crim­i­nals. On TV, there was also the prison break se­ries Es­cape At Dan­nemora.

Clint East­wood plays a white devil in The Mule, in­spired by war vet­eran Leo Sharp, who was busted at age 87 for drug run­ning. East­wood’s Earl comes off more dig­ni­fied than his real-life coun­ter­part. But the film makes a point about Earl/Leo’s priv­i­lege – his suc­cess pred­i­cated on his age, skin colour and folksy style, which al­lowed him to run drugs un­de­tected for a decade. The DEA keep look­ing past East­wood’s char­ac­ter while tar­get­ing POCs.

White Boy Rick cen­tres a white crim­i­nal’s story – that of drug dealer and teen FBI in­for­mant Richard Wer­she Jr. (Richie Mer­ritt) – but it also rec­og­nizes the priv­i­lege he en­joys. Without call­ing at­ten­tion to it­self, the movie ob­serves how the FBI nur­ture Wer­she’s drugdeal­ing ca­reer so that he can be their in­for­mant against his Black coun­ter­parts in Detroit.

The Show­time se­ries Es­cape At Dan­nemora ad­dressed priv­i­lege that led to real-life in­mates Richard Matt (Beni­cio Del Toro) and David Sweat (Paul Dano) es­cap­ing from a max se­cu­rity prison. They had help from em­ployee Tilly Mitchell (Pa­tri­cia Ar­quette) who has sex with them in se­cret. The

show presents a stark con­trast be­tween Mitchell’s at­trac­tion to Matt and Sweat and her dis­dain for Black in­mates. The ex­cep­tional cir­cum­stance that led to their break was pred­i­cated on who a white prison em­ployee deemed fuck­able.

The year’s most fawn­ing por­trayal of a white crim­i­nal is David Low­ery’s The Old Man & The Gun, made with a 70s var­nish that ro­man­ti­cizes the ex­ploits of real-life se­rial bank rob­ber and prison es­cape artist For­rest Tucker (Robert Red­ford), con­flat­ing his re­fusal to quit with the aura around Red­ford’s fi­nal movie role. Low­ery even uses clips from old Red­ford films in flash­backs, the love for the crim­i­nal’s ex­ploits fully merged with Red­ford’s sto­ried ca­reer.

Low­ery also con­spic­u­ously casts Danny Glover as Tucker’s as­so­ciate Theodore Green, who in real life was white. The racial re-write reeks of white guilt, in­scrib­ing a Black pres­ence in the story without hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion about white priv­i­lege.

Here’s where Nance makes a con­nec­tion be­tween white an­gels and white devils. White saviour nar­ra­tives as­suage “white guilt,” giv­ing au­di­ences a nar­ra­tive about racism while also cen­tring a white con­duit they can iden­tify with. White devil sto­ries find new ways to as­suage white guilt – whether ac­knowl­edg­ing priv­i­lege in Good Time, White Boy Rick and Es­cape At Dan­nemora, or by adding di­ver­sity into a cast where it mat­ters least.

You couldn’t es­cape white guilt this year, but the best refuge from it might be – oh, I don’t know – a film made by some­one who’s not white. [email protected]­ | @JustSayRad

The Old Man & The Gun ro­man­ti­cized the life of a ca­reer crim­i­nal played by Robert Red­ford.

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