“The Good Lie” has been sold as a bit of a “The Blind Side” retread (from the same executive producer). The trailer emphasizes culture clash (ha ha, the Sudanese think there might be lions in America) and a spirited Reese Witherspoon fighting on the behalf of Sudanese refugees rather than focusing on the refugees themselves. The poster feature a beaming Witherspoon and the gag-worthy tagline “Miracles are made by people who refuse to stop believing.” It’s exactly what the world doesn’t need: another white savior movie. The only problem: that’s not actually what the movie is about.
The mixed-to-mildly-positive reviews for “The Good Lie” have criticized the film’s clunkiness, its sentimentality, and the occasional “Blind Side”-ish tones the it takes on whenever Witherspoon’s brassy character takes over a scene, but the film is primarily focused on the plights of its three refugee characters (Arnold Oceng, Emmanuel Jal, “I Heart Huckabees” supporting player Ger Duany). Witherspoon’s employment agent isn’t introduced until 35 minutes into the film.
Up until that point, the film depicts the destruction of the refugee’s village when they were children, their travel to Kenya while braving starvation and gunfire from soldiers, and the 13 years it takes for them to finally see America. Even when Witherspoon comes into the picture, she’s a supporting player, as the film focuses on the refugees’ difficulty adjusting to America and their attempt to bring another member of the refugee group (Kuoth Wiel) from Boston to Kansas City.
Scott Tobias of The Dissolve writes that the film “fully recognizes the problem of telling stories of black hardship through the prism of white charity, and does everything it can to avoid those pitfalls. Keith Uhlich of Time Out New York, Peter Debruge of Variety, Ed Gonzalez of Slant and James Rocchi of The Wrap all take pains to note that Witherspoon’s character is not the protagonist. “The Good Lie” ultimately comes off as an honest (if awkward) tearjerker rather than the dishonest film it was sold as. What’s sad, then, is that it had to be sold that way at all.
It’s hardly new for a studio to take the most marketable aspects of a film and play them up in a trailer, regardless of whether or not they’re actually representative of the movie. It might even be a necessary evil to get people to see the film. But the implication here isn’t just that audiences won’t care about a film about Sudanese refugees without a movie star in it, or even that it needs a white star to sell it. It’s that the marketing team felt that there was no chance for the film to find an audience unless it was sold specifically as a white savior movie, as if the film needs to appeal to that easily patronized side of white audiences to succeed.
It’s not as if the film is inaccessible, either. It seeks to uplift, to make overwhelming issues with life-threatening stakes seem conquerable. Is this level of cynicism in marketing surprising? No, but it’s plenty dispiriting, particularly if they were right.