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A Few Defiant Ones: With and Without a “White Savior”

“Till” is the best new movie I’ve seen this year — and unlike many films about race, it does not contain a “white savior.”

Focused on the 1955 lynching of a 14-year-old black boy in Mississippi, the galvanizing “Till” scarcely has a single white character — with the notable exception of completely worthless jurors and government officials, along with (of course) the boy’s unconscionable accusers and killers.

In that way, this October release sidesteps the white-savior trope found in such movies as “The Help” and “The Blind Side.” It’s a surprisingly common motif that features black characters escaping from oppression with the vital help of a white man or woman — the latter often serving as main character in the story. Problem is, a lot of these movies — such as, for instance, “To Kill a Mockingbird” — are widely acclaimed and very popular.

That would include 2018’s “Green Book,” with Viggo Mortensen as a bigoted white chauffeur driving a black pianist (Mahershala Ali) on a tour of the South during the Civil Rights era. Mortensen’s Tony Vallelonga does wind up rescuing his charge from several ugly scenarios — though I might observe that Ali’s Don Shirley has much to teach Tony too. In any case, this winsome and entertaining title took the Best Picture Oscar that year.

Less problematic is 2019’s “The Best of Enemies,” with veterans Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell playing real-life black and white figures who learned to work together on integrating a public school — even though he was president of the local Ku Klux Klan.

And then there’s a pair of classics starring Sidney Poitier — “The Defiant Ones” (1958) and “In the Heat of the Night” (1967) — both of which flirt with but ultimately resist the white-savior stereotype.

“In the Heat of the Night,” one of my all-time favorites, does feature a white sheriff working with Poitier’s homicide detective; but it’s the black man who pinpoints the killer — by going, as he tells the sheriff, “where whitey ain’t allowed.” And indeed, his case-cracking is so slick and timely that it instantly disbands a gang of rednecks who plan to attack him. “The Defiant Ones,” which concerns a black and white man handcuffed together as they escape from a prison-truck crash, completely upends the white-savior trope at its bracing conclusion. Co-starring Tony Curtis, it was nominated for nine Academy Awards.

More recently, Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” also has a white co-star who is not a white savior. John David Washington — Denzel’s son — plays real-life policeman Ron Stallworth, who in the early 1970s managed to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan; Adam Driver plays a sort of white avatar who can represent Stallworth at the meetings, but that never eclipses the black officer’s bold, courageous work. The film won writer-director Lee his first competitive Oscar (Best Screenplay).

Also free of the stereotype is 2019’s dazzling “Just Mercy,” a film that inexplicably failed to nail a single Oscar nom, despite its first-rate cast and gripping true-life story. Michael B. Jordan plays Harvard-educated lawyer Bryan Stevenson, who in 1989 worked to defend a wrongly accused black man in (of all places) Monroeville, Alabama — hometown of “Mockingbird” author Harper Lee and model for that novel’s town of Maycomb. With a sensational supporting performance from Tim Blake Nelson as a witness who’d been badgered into lying, the film felt so relevant during the 2020 race riots that its distributors streamed it free on multiple platforms.

Watch also for two other real-life dramas, “Fruitvale Station” (2013) and “Selma” (2014) — plus the 1995 middle-age rom-com “Waiting to Exhale.”

Oh yeah — and a little film called “Wakanda Forever,” now playing and already well on its way to half a billion bucks in box-office bounty.