Twelve Years a Slave, The Butler, and even Django Unchained have been labeled with the “White Guilt Film” moniker. With Selma already receiving a great deal of positive buzz from critics, that phrase has seen a resurgence of use. And honestly? Labeling a film that covers things like slavery, discrimination, and other historical struggles for black people simply as “White Guilt Films” is an extraordinarily offensive thing to do. On top of that, it’s also incredibly arrogant and – I say this seriously – completely stupid. What’s worse is people are going further to state that these films are praised merely because critics are coerced into giving positive reviews out of some sense of guilt. Many negative criticisms on these films are often preceded by some variation of the absurd claim “Oh I’ll be called racist for not liking it”, which is a tellingly defensive thing to say and speaks volumes about the real racial issue that surrounds these movies. In this article, I’m going to unpack, analyze, and dismiss all of the “White Guilt Film” arguments, and hopefully by the end you will see how problematic they are if you don’t already.
“This movie is just trying to make white people feel bad”
This is a claim often made on the internet by people who felt discomfort while watching especially violent acts of discrimination perpetrated by white characters. Feeling uncomfortable watching this, some people have decided that these were only put to film as part of some elaborate plot to make them feel bad. That the people writing these stories depicting the historical struggles of black people were only doing so because they wanted to slightly inconvenience white people. How arrogant do you have to be to seriously think this? That what’s being written isn’t about black people at all, but white people all along. That what you should really take away from the movies is what’s being said about white people. Because they’re the only ones that matter right? Why else would a room full of liberal writers be conspiring to create films tailor-made to make white people feel bad? Honestly, people who think this way should get over themselves. You’re not supposed to “feel bad” watching these films, but you should feel bad if you think a movie was ultimately about you and you’re struggles when it clearly wasn’t.
“Wow, so all white people are evil now? Because that’s what they’re saying with these movies”
This one is especially confusing to me because it contradicts an argument a lot of racially insecure white people tend to make these days. “Racism is over”, “Slavery happened like a hundred of years ago”, “Why are you still mad about it now?”, “It’s not like I had anything to do with it”, are just some of the many things I hear said, but strangely enough it’s these same people making arguments about the depiction of white people in movies like 12 Years a Slave. Is it really such a shock to certain people that white characters are going to come off as morally deplorable in a film about the discrimination faced by black people? Because that’s exactly what it was, so there is no reason not to depict it. And besides, why the hell does anyone think that these characters were written with the goal of making white people feel bad? No one watching personally committed these atrocities and the writers obviously know that, so why do some people still think there are writers out there penning these scripts with the sole intention of getting under white people’s skin? Out of all the complaints, this one is rooted more than any other in stupidity.
“Why do the keep making these films? We get it, racism is bad, stop trying to make us feel guilty”
This is an objection that could apply to World War II films as well, but one I only see directed at films that depict prejudice on black people. If one were to think about it for a bit the answer is clear. The slave trade is one of the greatest tragedies in history, racism in the United States is a culturally relevant and important issue that deserves examination, and these human stories are exactly the kinds of films that are rife with dramatic potential. I’d say these reasons are far more likely as explanations than this absurd theory about an anti-white agenda in Hollywood that people have concocted.
“Critics only liked it because they were afraid of being called racist”
Or maybe they thought it was a legitimately good film based on its own merits? Perhaps they are smart enough to discern for themselves whether or not a film is good, while not suffering from an irrational paranoia almost no one has? Have people who made this claim ever met a critic? They love to say movies are bad, and if the reception of a film has been overwhelmingly positive, it could be that the movie was good enough to merit that. I could be wrong, but I think if a movie was almost universally well received by critics, it was because it was good, and not because of some vast Hollywood conspiracy to make individual white people feel bad about something they had no direct part in. I don’t know, that could just be me.
After reading through these claims, one should quickly be able to point out why they are total crap, but answering why people come up with them in the first place is a different matter. You would rarely see Germans claiming the large amount of WWII films are “German Guilt” films or Japanese people claiming that movies about Pearl Harbor are “Japanese Guilt” films, so what is it about covering the tragic history of black people that makes certain people uneasy? What is it about acknowledging these parts of history that inspires such an unwarranted and defensive response? Is it the fact that any reminders about racism and the legacy it has today is bothersome to some people? Is it because of a natural human aversion to watching the prolonged suffering of others? Could it be that some people are closet racists who don’t have the desire to articulate legitimate flaws in these films? And there are flaws to them, every movie is fallible and critics have pointed out things that were done wrong, but it’s something about these films in particular that inspire these enormous leaps in logic. I don’t know the answer to all these questions, but there is one thing on this I can be absolutely sure in. There is no conspiracy, Hollywood is not an industry that caters to black people alone. You could literally be the most powerful man on Earth, and people over in Hollywood would still pass racist judgments over you based on the colour of your skin. It isn’t a cesspool of liberal apologists catering to the whims and needs of black people, and if it produces movies that our about black history, that does not suddenly change. There are no such thing as “White Guilt Films”, but if you’re the type of person who likes to attach that moniker to any film that has to do with black history, then maybe there is something you should be feeling guilty about.
“Achievement has no color”
– Abraham Lincoln