Essays · Movies

When Movies Try to Walk in Others’ Shoes They Always Step in Shit

By  · Published on October 27th, 2016

Hopefully the empathic “[blank] like me” movies are gone forever.

There is a difference between walking in someone else’s shoes and leading a march in an Other’s boots. The former is a figurative idea involving empathy, while the latter is a kind of domination through appropriation and well-intended salvation. In the movies, though, protagonists representing both concepts are the same. And even if the movies are meant to be positive on issues of race, gender, or otherness in general, they no longer have a place in pop culture. Really, they never had a place there to begin with.

Many in the west clearly still believe we need an identical identifier on screen, if not a white savior than at least a proxy embedded into an exotic group. Someone apparently thought it necessary to have a white male lead in an early draft of Disney’s live-action Mulan remake. And a lot of people are still interested in seeing Tarzan as the superior white hero of Africa, given the global box office success of The Legend of Tarzan. Fortunately, discussions of the “Mighty Whitey” trope problem grow with every example.

“A White Man Set Them Free”

Every generation has had its share of fictional and real-life characters who try to make us understand the Other, and every kind of Other has gotten this treatment. But the white savior concept that was especially popular during 19th century colonialism seemed to evolve for the better 55 years ago with John Howard Griffin’s publication of “Black Like Me,” about his experiences traveling the American South disguised as a black man. It was not the first such experiment, but it quickly became the most famous.

Rather than treating the Other as inferior, this sort of story means to show how the Other is treated as inferior and why that’s wrong. Griffin was responsible for making millions of white people feel like they understood what African Americans were going through in the racist and segregated South, even if they couldn’t possibly truly make such a claim. The 1964 film adaptation is more uncomfortable for needing to show a white actor in blackface. It also further reduces the reality to passively viewed dramatics.

Two decades later, Hollywood attempted a comedic take on the “Black Like Me” idea with Soul Man. Again there are some good intentions there, but in the end it’s all about a rich white guy who finds the limits of his privilege in affirmative action, learns a lesson in empathy while hijacking and ignorantly lampooning black culture, then pleads for forgiveness by arguing that he shouldn’t be persecuted for the color of his skin and physically earns it, for romance, by heroically, mighty-whitely fighting for black people’s honor.

That movie, which was protested by African-American groups but was still a big hit at the box office, is the most scrutinized 30 years later because it involves blackface, even though it’s a character in blackface more than it’s a white actor playing another race (a la Fisher Stevens in the same year’s Short Circuit), yet it was just one of a number of 1980s comedies involving a moral journey walked in someone else’s shoes. Tootsie, considered a classic, has all the same problems but with women’s rights and representation.

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Particularly with comedies, it’s more tolerable if the movie has a protagonist of some minority or otherwise socially suppressed group masquerading upward, because then it plays more as satire. There’s Eddie Murphy’s famous 1984 Saturday Night Live short where he experiences exaggerated perks while in white face, and for gender we got the 1985 high school movie Just One of the Guys. The latter is rooted in Shakespearean drag roles, though it entails an undercover reporter angle akin to Griffin’s true account.

In these stories, the main character is emphasizing their own struggles through the ease that comes through their disguise, whereas those in Black Like Me and Tootsie wind up respectively “whitesplaining” and “mansplaining” the problems faced by the Other to their own kind as well as to a mostly approving audience made up of that Other they’ve posed as. This is where they align with the Mighty Whitey tales, such as The Last of the Mohicans, The Last Samurai and The Help, where the Other needs help.

The sci-fi version, Avatar, brings both tropes together by having the Mighty Whitey hero, who becomes embedded in a group of Others, also taking their form. Not just in dress but in skin color and size and other biological physical features. The movie received criticism for being just another retelling of the Lawrence of Arabia, Dances With Wolves, etc. story of white protagonists joining and sometimes leading the Other in battle. There should then also have been jokes nicknaming it “Blue Like Me.”

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Maybe it’s because seeing the supposed need for a white savior is more clearly insulting than seeing a need for white filter. But in the context of movie storytelling it’s all the same. With Soul Man and Tootsie, as well as “gay like me” examples I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and Bruno (Sacha Baron Cohen in general is Griffin to the extreme), the protagonists are still white saviors of a sort, as they’re still the dominant figures in a fight, only it’s one of social activism rather than violent action.

We ought to be at a place where we don’t need to empathize with people who are different from us through an intermediary. If we want to know what it’s like to be black, we take it from someone who is black, and the same is true for women’s stories and LGBT stories, etc. One reason Moonlight is arguably the best film of the year is that it trusts its audience to empathize with characters through their actor surrogates, not additional actors playing additional characters serving as additional surrogates.

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It will be interesting to see where the multiple Avatar sequels take us, since there’s no longer a need for the white savior role. Hopefully that’s the case, anyway. Avatar can still get away with the trope to a degree, though, as its Others aren’t a real group, they’re made-up aliens. But if cinema does away with stories where protagonists walk and battle in others’ shoes, that means no more body-swap movies, no more Borat-style undercover nonfiction exposes, and even fewer fish-out-of-water plots. We can live with that.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.