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McFarland USA succeeds because its white characters own up to their privilege

(Walt Disney Studios)

Your first hunch in seeing the trailer for Disney’s recent, excellent sports movie McFarland USA might be to dismiss it as just another White Savior movie. After all, it seems to perfectly hit every beat of this particular trope: a white, middle-class straight guy helps a cast of down-on-their luck Mexican-American boys shoot for the stars and become one of the best cross-country teams out there.

You would be wrong.

From its very first scene, McFarland resists easy categorization. Its protagonist, played by Kevin Costner, is not really any kind of savior. In fact, the character defies most of the conventions of the genre.

What makes McFarland USA so successful, and so bracing, is the way that its protagonist becomes aware of something that is rarely broached in these sorts of narratives — his own privilege.

Defining the White Savior narrative

To be clear, telling a story where a white person helps out a nonwhite person is not inherently and always bad. What is problematic, however, as Matthew W. Hughey notes in The White Savior Film, is what happens when the trope "saturates our contemporary logic."

Such imposing patronage enables an interpretation of nonwhite characters and culture as essentially broken, marginalized, and pathological, while whites can emerge as messianic characters that easily fix the nonwhite pariah with their superior moral and mental abilities.

The theme of white people helping nonwhites achieve their dreams is such a Hollywood mainstay that when Disney started advertising McFarland USA, it seemed like just another example of the studio playing into the trope with one of its sports movies.

But McFarland director Niki Caro finds fresh ways to push against this trope.

McFarland 2
(Walt Disney Pictures)

A cross-country coach by accident

Costner plays Jim White — yes, his last name is White; yes, there are plenty of jokes about this — a high school football coach with anger issues. In the film's opening scene, White throws a shoe at a back-talking player. The shoe bounces off a locker and knocks the boy in his face, and White loses his job.

But it's 1987, and times are tough. The only opening Jim can find is one in McFarland, California, one of the poorest towns in America, with a predominantly Hispanic population.

Jim only becomes a cross-country coach circumstantially: he's booted from coaching football, and he discovers his students are very fast, since they'll often run between McFarland and the fields surrounding it, where many of them work. One in particular, Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratt), can run a 5-minute mile.

Jim's lack of experience in coaching cross-country isn't some throwaway plot point meant to give the character one more thing to overcome. It's actually a carefully planned detail, one that seems intended to push against the White Savior trope. (Also, since the film is based on a true story, it has its roots in what really happened.)

Jim is not a particularly skilled teacher. In fact, he's learning how to coach runners, just as the runners are learning how to improve their stamina. Sure, he helps the students organize into a team. He sets a practice schedule and drives them to meets. He does the usual coach things. But it's only because the kids are already disciplined and talented that they find the success they do. Arguably, most of the help the kids receive is from their own families and community, not the supposed "White Savior" in their midst.

For example, Jim wants the team to have flashy uniforms and running shoes like the prep school kids they're competing against. But the White family income is squarely middle class, so he can only afford cheap-looking kicks and shorts purchased on sale. It's the mother of two teammates who actually raises money to buy the runners flashier track suits. This isn't a story about the haves helping the have-nots. It's a story about a bunch of have-a-littles helping each other make do.

Acknowledging the differences

Importantly, though, McFarland USA doesn't downplay the differences between the White family and the community they live in, nor the family's initial racist assumptions. Early in the film, for instance, Jim mistakes a group of Hispanic car enthusiasts for "gangbangers." The film never suggests Jim, his wife, or two daughters have to deal with such instant prejudice, and he seems honestly chastised when he realizes his jump to assumptions later in the film.

The White family might have financial issues, but even their experience of poverty is different from others in McFarland. For example, if Thomas's father lost his job, would he be able to sell his home, secure another, and begin a salaried job as easily as Jim did when he was fired?

Jim might not have that many nickels to rub together, but he has a home. And a career. And a vehicle. The film is very clear here: Jim might be down on his luck. But he still has something the students he coaches never will.

Privilege.

What's more, the film explicitly talks about this, in ways that finally, definitively mark it as a film that skillfully navigates around the pitfalls of the White Savior trope.

McF6
(Walt Disney Studios)

How McFarland understands privilege

Jim comes face to face with his privilege in the labor fields. When the father of the Diaz brothers pulls the two from the team, Jim goes to the Diaz house to convince the family to let them continue with cross-country. As their father explains, every hour his boys spend running is an hour they lose working the fields.

Jim has a solution: the Diaz brothers will continue to run, and in exchange, he'll provide their family an extra hand in the fields. But as he quickly learns, he's not cut out to be a "picker," the boys' word for workers who pick crops.

Jim's experience picking lettuce with his team members proves pivotal in terms of his arc. Just before the hotly-anticipated state finals, he gives his students a pep talk, which manages to be both predictable and surprising. He begins by acknowledging that every team at the meet "deserves" to be there. Yes, the white runners might have been born into wealth, and might behave like entitled jerks, but they still worked hard, and that should be rewarded.

But even if McFarland's competition deserves to be there, says White,

They haven't got what you've got. They don't get up at dawn like you and go to work in the fields. They don't go to school all day and then go back to those same fields. That's what you do. And then you come out with me and you run eight miles, 10 miles and you take on even more pain. These kids don't do what you do. They can't even imagine it.

He pivots to the key monologue of the entire film:

When I went out into the field with you Diaz kids, I'll be honest: that was the worst day's work I ever had to do in my life. And I said to myself, whatever kind of crappy job I wind up in, it will never be as tough as that. You kids do it every day. Your parents hope they can do it every day, and they'll do it for a lifetime if it means a better life for you. You guys are superhuman. What you endured just to be here, to get a shot at this. The kind of privilege someone like me takes for granted. There's nothing you can't do with that kind of strength, with that kind of heart. You kids have the biggest hearts I've ever seen. Go run your race.

Go run your race, White tells them. This is not the coach's state final: it's the team's. And what they do on the course — their sweat, their success, their failure — is theirs. Yes, the White family are at times front and center in this film, and their character transformations are integral to the plot. But importantly, the film, like the race, belongs to a group of kids from McFarland High.

To Caro's credit, the entire film takes the audience back time and again to this group of kids and their families, which results in a bolstered sense of community onscreen. Whether they're hosting a car wash to raise money for McFarland's track team, throwing a Quinceañera for White's daughter, or wrestling around together in the ocean, the community of McFarland genuinely loves each other, and you can feel that love emanating through the screen.

Caro also managed to capture the religious convictions in the foreground of many Latino communities. Most of the time, this is done subtly, with the camera briefly showing crosses or pictures of saints in the Diaz home. But one moment really stands out. When McFarland qualifies for states, the boys, unlike other teams, do not at first congratulate themselves or high five each other. They drop to their knees, as a group, and bow their heads. We know they're praying and thanking God for their win because Thomas crosses himself.

How McFarland avoids becoming a White Savior film

Jim's acknowledgement of his own privilege actually prevents the kind of self-congratulatory response the White Savior trope usually invites. Too often, stories like this offer white audience members the easy out of believing they, too, would offer a helping hand to a good kid in need, rather than trying to understand just why that good kid was in need — and they were not — in the first place.

Jim, in contrast, isn't giddy that he helped disenfranchised kids succeed — he's actually slightly embarrassed that, by virtue of his skin color, he won't know the hardships his students endure daily. Of course, this realization doesn't mean he's overcome his privilege, and it doesn't mean he won't continue to enjoy certain benefits related to whiteness. But it does cultivate in him the one quality that can most actively combat privilege — humility.

We often talk about our own privilege as if awareness of it will allow us to undo it. That's not correct. Privilege isn't something to be undone or overcome; it's a constant, everyday reality.

Being aware of our privilege means that we, like Jim, realize that even if we've faced our fair share of difficulties, those difficulties might have been much more trying had we been born a different race, or gender, or sexual orientation. This honest acknowledgement ought to create within us empathy for those who were born into a situation beyond their choosing — just as we all were.

The kicker to Jim's pep talk is the singing of the National Anthem. The song starts out old hat — O, say, can you see — but when the crowd gets to the words "And the rocket's red glare," the words drop out, replaced by the beautiful licks of a Mexican vihuela — a guitar-like instrument common to mariachi groups. The camera pans the crowd, showing a sea of Latino and white faces, and flags both Mexican and American.

The beauty of the moment keeps its message from being too obvious: the power of America is that we each hear "The Star Spangled Banner" as we choose. The melody is constant, but the experience of that melody is open to interpretation. Coach White and his team are able to honor the National Anthem from their own perspectives: E pluribus unum.

McFarland USA is currently playing in theaters nationwide.