THERE was a time when Hollywood studios didn’t tell any stories about race. Then they did, and for a while, people were satisfied. In 1962, President John Kennedy opined on civil rights in his state-of-the-union speech, and later that year, “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Lawrence of Arabia” were released. Off-screen, the civil-rights movement was led by black activists, but as Hollywood became concerned with the plight of African-Americans, Native Americans, Latinos and others, it told stories about benevolent white men (they were usually men) who fought to lift them out of subjugation and poverty. The “white saviour” film was born.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the white-saviour narrative grew so fast in popularity that it quickly became a cliché. There was the white teacher in an inner-city classroom (“The Principal” [1987] and “Dangerous Minds” [1995]); the white coach who helps black athletes realise their potential (“Wildcats” [1997], “Cool Runnings” [1993] and “The Air Up There [1994]); and, taking a page from “To Kill a Mockingbird”, the white lawyer who defends unfairly accused black clients (“A Time To Kill” [1996] and “Amistad” [1997]).

These films did not all succeed, but critics and moviegoers appreciated them as earnest attempts to start conversations on race. Over the last decade, however, they have been pejoratively reclassified by critics and activists. If a film depicts non-whites as dependent on whites, the thinking goes, then it reinforces the systems it claims to be fighting.

As critics have turned against the white-saviour genre, more movies have shown people of colour acting as their own heroes, like Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” (2014), or in which everyday racism is cleverly dissected, like Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” (2017). “Hidden Figures” (2016) and “12 Years a Slave” (2013), both outright hits, may have featured white saviour characters—played respectively by Kevin Costner and Brad Pitt—but these stars were relegated to supporting less well-known black actors in the lead roles.

Certainly, fewer white-saviour movies are being made, and the ones that do sneak through are held up to scrutiny. Last year, the seemingly innocuous “La La Land” was the early front-runner for a best-picture Oscar, but after critics complained about the optics of a film in which a white man saves jazz, it lost momentum and eventually the race. This year, two films with the genre’s typical elements came and went with relatively little fanfare. “Wind River” (pictured), the directing debut of Taylor Sheridan, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter (“Sicario”, “Hell or High Water”), is about the murder of a Native American teenager on a reservation in Wyoming. The case is investigated and—spoiler alert—eventually solved by a grizzled Fish and Wildlife Service officer (played by Jeremy Renner) and a green FBI agent (played by Elizabeth Olsen). Financed in part by the Tunica-Biloxi Tribal Nation, the film features prominent Native American characters and actors—including Graham Greene, a member of the Oneida nation—but they are a backdrop to the white actors in every single scene. Despite being well-reviewed, “Wind River” won no Oscar nominations.

Similarly, the sci-fi comedy “Downsizing” engages in the white-saviour trope through the journey of its lead character, a white-collar midwesterner (Matt Damon) who utilises new technology to shrink himself and live in the luxurious Leisure Land, a micro-community, with others who have “gotten small”. His plans for early retirement change, however, when he sees that the luxuries of his life are propped up by the immigrants who live on the outskirts of town and work menial jobs. He falls in love with one of them, a Vietnamese refugee (Hong Chau), who enlightens him as to the real cost of his bourgeois lifestyle. It’s an earnest, inventive film by Alexander Payne—a frequent Oscar favourite—but after being criticised for its white-saviourism, the film has been ignored by the Academy.

“Wind River” and “Downsizing” recall an era in Hollywood in which white artists making movies with white characters for white audiences was the norm. That norm is now making room for some much-needed diversity. But that doesn’t mean these films have no value. They raise issues that would otherwise not receive the attention. A film chiefly about immigrant workers would never get the high-profile release that “Downsizing” did. Native Americans are so invisible to much of white society today that many Americans hardly think of them when they think of persecuted groups; there has never been a mainstream film populated entirely by Native Americans. Even the best of the genre, like “The Last of the Mohicans” (1992) and “The New World” (2005), have white protagonists.

These films may seem antiquated by today’s standards, but they pushed boundaries when they came out. Clearly, white-saviour movies of eras past led to some progress for people of colour. Even better, they provided great roles for actors of colour. “Dances with Wolves” (1990) introduced America to Mr Greene. “The Help” (2011) did wonders for the careers of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, while “42” (2013) made a star of Chadwick Boseman (next seen in the title role of Marvel’s “Black Panther”). “Downsizing” may yet make a star of Ms Chau, whose dynamic performance is the only thing in the film critics can agree on.

The two kinds of racial films aren’t mutually exclusive. Voices of colour need to be elevated without ignoring the conversations that “Downsizing” and “Wind River” start. In this time of racial conflict, white people need to be listening, but they also need to be talking to each other, identifying blind spots and examining prejudices. That’s what these movies do. They should be watched and not applauded. They should be made but not lavished with awards. There is nothing wrong with a white-saviour movie, as long as it’s not the only way Hollywood takes on race.