Warning! This post contains instances of nitpicking (and spoilers). Proceed at your own risk.
Have you seen Forever? It’s only on it’s sixth episode, so you’d be forgiven for having missed it. The premise is this: an immortal medical examiner in New York City solves murders with his trusty cop sidekick. I’m really enjoying it so far, though I have to wonder when the whole “protagonist is involved in every major historical event” will become too implausible to be borne.
In the fifth episode, Henry, the aforementioned immortal, is trying to solve the murder of a black man in Alphabet City. It quickly becomes apparent that this man was fighting against the arrival of a new, shiny set of million-dollar apartments in the poor neighborhood he lived in, and it appears that the developer building the new apartments is the murderer.
The episode actually does a good job laying out the problems inherent in such gentrification. Henry is fully on the side of the neighborhood people who resent being priced-out of their homes by new buildings they will never be able to benefit from. The developer is a smarmy, dislikable ass. There’s even a tie-in to historical instances of gentrification, presented through Henry’s experience as a doctor for poor immigrants living in tenemants.
I was happy to see a show address these problems rather than just portraying new development in poor neighborhoods as the best thing ever. And there were some really nice sentiments in the show about fighting injustice even though the game is inherently rigged. However, I still felt a the tiniest bit icky while watching the episode because I got a whiff of a common and harmful trope: the white savior.
Some background: “white savior” is a trope that refers to the idea of a minority or disenfranchised group being helpless to save themselves until a white person comes along to do it for them. The trope originally arose out of colonialism. It’s essentially the damsel-in-distress model, but with racism instead of sexism.
So, as you may imagine, having a white man (with a British accent no less) running around trying to save this black neighborhood didn’t create the best visual. Then there’s the fact that the only people of color in the neighborhood needed to be saved in one way or another. The victim, obviously, couldn’t save the neighborhood because he got killed instead. The victim’s friend who runs the local community center was took a bribe from the villian to champion the development project (even though he was planning to use the money to run for city council). The victim’s young mentee was kidnapped by the murderer and needed to be quite literally saved from certain death. Henry even calls the victim a pawn.
Instead, it was mostly the white, British Henry running to and fro in his metaphorical cape and spandex. After he had saved Alphabet City from certain gentrification, the mentee had a new role model (Henry), the friend had been shown the error of his ways (no more mention of that city council run), and the crime had been solved. A sequence of smiling, black faces was all that was required to demonstrate that all was right with the world again.
The problem with this rosy world-view is that it makes communities of color – and poor communities, though they’re often one and the same – appear to be helpless to change their lot in the world. It doesn’t even allow them the dignity of assisting in their salvation. It puts them in the dichotomy of being both oppressed by the majority power structure and also requiring the majority group’s help to change that oppression.
It might not have been so bad if the victim’s friend had actually started to run for city council at the end, or at least the show had acknowledged that life was not perfect for residents of Alphabet City just because a white guy had shown up. As it stands, the outcome is not only an unrealistic, it’s insulting.
The show did have one realistic note, though more realistic as a metaphor than an actual series of events. The white, rich developer who masterminded the murder got off with only a bribery charge; meanwhile, the black man who was convinced to commit the murder got hit by a garbage truck.