MOVIES & TV
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]toronto.com | @JustSayRad
The Old Man & The Gun romanticized the life of a career criminal played by Robert Redford.