We've seen this trope time and time again: - I wanna interview you.
- The White Savior.
- We've improved the lives of savages all over the world.
- A white hero who swoops in to save people of color.
This tired narrative is even more frustrating when it's inspired by true events.
That was the case for this 1989 film, "True Believer".
This film follows a jaded civil rights lawyer, Eddie Dodd, who takes on the case of Shu Kai Kim, a Korean man doing time for a crime he didn't commit.
It's inspired by a real life movement to free Chol Soo Lee, a Korean immigrant who was wrongfully convicted of a murder in 1973.
(crowd protesting) His case galvanized the Asian American community.
But the fictional version of this Asian American story lacks in, well, Asian Americans.
So, what did we lose in the Hollywood translation from Chol Soo Lee to Shu Kai Kim?
And how does the white savior trope impact our understanding of Asian American history?
(Typing clicks) Let's talk about the white savior trope.
This trope in film is part of a larger phenomenon known as the white savior complex.
It's a pretty big topic to unpack, but in short, it originates from Western imperialism.
For centuries, Western colonizers justified the exploitation of other peoples and lands in part because they claimed that it was the white man's burden to bring "civilization" to non-white groups.
Now, bringing this back to "True Believer": it centers Eddie Dodd, a fictional version of Chol Soo Lee's white lawyer, Tony Serra, and is a classic case of the white savior trope in cinema.
- Look, ok, it's not the face of a killer.
- In real life, Chol Soo Lee had already been in prison for four years when journalist K.W.
Lee got a tip that he was innocent.
read the court records, he was struck by the inconsistencies in the case.
Lee ultimately wrote over 100 articles sounding the alarm on Chol Soo Lee's case, but he's completely erased from the film.
In fact, this is the closest we get to even seeing a journalist in the film.
And we know, that is not K.W.
's reporting galvanized lawyers, activists, students, churchgoers to all advocate for his innocence.
Yet, despite the community's uprising, in the film, Eddie Dodd is presented as the only person who can save Kim, setting this white man up to be the hero.
In fact, Kim's mother is the one who turns to the lawyers for help, symbolizing an Asian community in need of rescue, further cementing Dodd as their one and only savior.
Kim himself barely speaks in the film and is completely dependent on his lawyer for his freedom.
But the real Chol Soo Lee had agency, and even documented his own narrative; in fact, he wrote a memoir, a good deal of which is used in a new documentary that tells a more accurate account of his life.
Now, you might be thinking, "'True Believer' is just a movie!
It's an interpretation of real life.
Why does it matter how accurate it is?"
It matters because the history of people of color have long been threatened by white mainstream narratives, including white saviorism.
Historian Carter G. Woodson once famously wrote, "True Believer", by giving a white savior credit for the work of Asian American activism, strips the community of their shared struggle, identity, and perhaps most importantly, their history.
Even at the end of "True Believer", when Shu Kai Kim's character leaves prison, the film gives us one final inaccurate impression: a small group of Asian friends and family at his exoneration - a sad representation of the massive support that the real Chol Soo Lee received.
In reality, the Asian American community was pivotal in the outcome of this case.
They were not passive, nor were they victims.
They organized rallies, showed up in droves to court hearings, and raised money and attention to free Chol Soo Lee.
So much so that they clearly caught the attention of Hollywood.
Unfortunately, white savior films like "True Believer" are still being made today.
Even though there are more stories about people of color, a lot of those lead roles often will still go to white actors.
From 2007 to 2019, less than 4% of films had an Asian American or Pacific Islander lead.
A 2022 report found that most people in the US couldn't even name a prominent Asian American, and when they could, it was often a martial arts actor.
So, we still have a long way to go before Asian Americans truly take the reigns over telling their own stories, but there's some glimmer of hope coming from the most recent Hollywood hits.
Today, documentary filmmakers like Julie Ha and Eugene Yi are righting some of Hollywood'’s wrongs by retelling the story of Chol Soo Lee through his memoirs and interviews with activists.
If you want to learn more about Asian American history, I highly recommend you watch this documentary "Free Chol Soo Lee".
There's more info in the links below.