White savior narrative in film
The white savior is a cinematic trope in which a white character rescues people of color from their plight. Certain critics have observed this narrative in an array of genres of films in American cinema, wherein a white protagonist is portrayed as a messianic figure who often learns something about him or herself in the course of rescuing characters of color.
The narrative trope of the white savior is one way the mass communications medium of cinema represents the sociology of race and ethnic relations, by presenting abstract concepts—such as morality—as innate characteristics, racial and cultural, of white people, rather than as characteristics innate to people of color. In the praxis of cinematic narrative, the white savior usually is a man who is out of place within his own society, until he assumes the burden of racial leadership to rescue non-white foreigners and minorities from their plights. As such, white savior stories "are essentially grandiose, exhibitionistic, and narcissistic" fantasies of psychological compensation.
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In "The Whiteness of Oscar Night" (2015), Matthew Hughey describes the narrative structure of the subgenre:
A White Savior film is often based on some supposedly true story. Second, it features a nonwhite group or person who experiences conflict and struggle with others that is particularly dangerous or threatening to their life and livelihood. Third, a White person (the savior) enters the milieu and through their sacrifices, as a teacher, mentor, lawyer, military hero, aspiring writer, or wannabe Native American warrior, is able to physically save—or at least morally redeem—the person or community of folks of color, by the film's end. Examples of this genre include films like Glory (1989), Dangerous Minds (1996), Amistad (1997), Finding Forrester (2000), The Last Samurai (2003), Half Nelson (2006), Freedom Writers (2007), Gran Torino (2008), Avatar (2009), The Blind Side (2009), The Help (2011), and the list goes on.
The white savior film arose from the occurrence of "racial schizophrenia" in the culture of the U.S. in the latter half of the 20th century. Following the release of cinematic adaptations of the play A Raisin in the Sun (1959), by Lorraine Hansberry, and the novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), by Harper Lee, in the 1960s, the films of the blaxploitation genre of the 1970s reflected continued discontent over the social and racial inequality of non-white people in the United States and functioned as counterbalance to the trope of the white savior. Then in the 1980s, continued cultural hypersegregation led to the common misbelief, by many American white people, that the nation had reached a post-racial state of social relations, which resulted in a backlash against the racial and ethnic diversity of the cinema of the previous decades, on screen during the 1960s and the 1970s; thus, the popular cinema of the 1990s and the early 2000s featured the white savior narrative. That reappearance of the white-savior narrative occurred because the majority of white people in the United States had little substantive social interaction with non-white people of different races and ethnic groups. Therefore, the initial rise, and continued popularity, of the white-savior film trope likely offered interracial experiences to the mostly white viewers at the cinema, who usually do not encounter nonwhites in real life.
As a literary trope, the white-savior narrative antedates the audio-visual narrative of the cinema. In the late 19th century, with the poem "The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands" (1899) Rudyard Kipling appeals to the white people of U.S. society to assume racial stewardship in civilizing a non-white people of Asia, and in the novella The Man Who Would Be King (1888), the explicit objective of the protagonists—ex-soldiers Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnehan, formerly of the British Indian Army—is to become kings to the tribes of Kafiristan, a part of Afghanistan then unexplored by white men from Europe.
In each medium of mass communication (literature, cinema), the plot and themes undermine the racial superiority of the white-savior narrative, despite the narratives of the novella and of the screenplay representing the tribes of Kafiristan as stereotypes of people of color, as benighted natives who must be led to civilization (i.e. be Westernized), as Kipling recommended in the poem "The White Man’s Burden". Hence, the film version, The Man Who Would Be King (1975) retains Kipling’s racist representation of the Kafiristani peoples as "uncivilized natives", a literary trope usual to the colonial literature of the 19th century. Likewise, the novel King Solomon's Mines (1885), by H. Rider Haggard, features Europeans exploring Africa who encounter the rightful (native) king of a kingdom—as yet "undiscovered" by white Europe—whom they restore to power by actively intervening to the internal politics of an "undiscovered" nation.
Types of story
The white-savior teacher story, such as Up the Down Staircase (1967), Dangerous Minds (1995), and Freedom Writers (2007), "features a group of lower-class, urban, non-whites (generally black and Latino/a) who struggle through the social order in general, or the educational system specifically. Yet, through the sacrifices of a white teacher they are transformed, saved, and redeemed by the film's end." As an inspirational tale of the human spirit, the storyline of the white-savior-teacher is not racist, in itself, but is culturally problematic for being racialist, because it is a variant of the white-savior narrative that factually misrepresents the cultural and societal reality that there exist minority-group teachers who have been successfully educating (racial, ethnic, cultural) minority-group students in their communities, without the saving stewardship of white people.
Man of principle
The white savior's principled opposition to chattel slavery and to Jim Crow laws makes him advocate for the humanity of slaves and defender of the rights of black people unable to independently stand within an institutionally racist society, in films such as To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Conrack (1974), and Amistad (1997). Despite ostensibly being stories (fictional and true) about the racist oppression of black people, usually in the Southern United States (American South), the white-savior narrative relegates characters of color to the story's background, as the passive object(s) of the dramatic action, and in the foreground places the white man who militates to save him, and them, from the depredations of racist white folk, respectively: a false accusation of inter-racial rape, truncated schooling, and chattel slavery.
Historical period drama
In "12 Years a Slave: Yet Another Oscar-nominated ‘White Savior' Story" (2014), Noah Berlatsky identifies the white-savior narrative in film as essentially racist, because the films in that genre are thematic variations of a single narrative about the lives of black people being oppressed by "bad white people". The black people thus cannot achieve their physical freedom, social independence, and economic self-sufficiency without "the offices of good white people". In Recognizing Race and Ethnicity: Power, Privilege, and Inequality (2014), Kathleen Fitzgerald, said that, although the white-savior narrative is "a successful film genre, this image is problematic, because it frames the person of color as unable to solve their own problems, as incompetent."
Reviewer A. O. Scott said the opposite, "This is not yet another film about a white savior sacrificing himself on behalf of the darker-skinned oppressed. Nor, for that matter, is it the story of a white sinner redeemed by the superhuman selflessness of black people. Free State of Jones is a rarer thing: a film that tries to strike sparks of political insight from a well-worn genre template";.
And in "The Historical Imagination and Free State of Jones" (2016), reviewer Richard Brody said "it's tempting to shunt Free State of Jones into the familiar genre of the white-savior tale, but [the] Newton Knight [character] appears as something else—not so much as a savior, but as an avatar of a new South."
List of films
The list shows films that have been associated with the cinematic trope.
|12 Years a Slave||2013||In the historical film set in 1841 onward, free-born African American Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is kidnapped and sold into slavery. In the film's denouement, a white Canadian (played by Brad Pitt) rescues Northup from enslavement. While 12 Years a Slave focused mainly on Northup's resilience, and a Canadian did in reality rescue Northup, the film was identified as a cinematic representation of slavery that depicted a white savior.|
|42||2013||Based on a true story, the white baseball executive Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), selects the first African-American Major League baseball player, Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers.|
|The Air Up There||1994||A disgraced white basketball coach (Kevin Bacon) travels to a village in Kenya to recruit a prospective player.|
|Amistad||1997||In the 1830s, a group of African slaves who commit mutiny are captured by the U.S. military, and a legal battle ensues in which the white lawyer John Quincy Adams (played by Anthony Hopkins) defends their right to be freed.|
|Avatar||2009||In the science fiction film, a white former Marine (played by Sam Worthington) goes to another planet and becomes part of an alien humanoid tribe, ultimately leading them to victory against his people's military.|
|Basmati Blues||2018||A white American scientist (played by Brie Larson) is sent to India by the corporation she works for to sell a genetically modified rice to the locals.|
|The Blind Side||2009||A white woman and football fan (played by Sandra Bullock) takes a black teenager (played by Quinton Aaron) into her home, and he plays football with her support through his high school and college years.|
|Blood Diamond||2006||A racist white Rhodesian mercenary (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) rescues a black Sierra Leonean (played by Djimon Hounsou) and his son from black villains.|
|City of Joy||1992||A white American doctor (played by Patrick Swayze) travels to India to find enlightenment. He sets up a free clinic to serve the poor, and though reluctant at first, he decides to stay with the people.|
|Cloud Atlas||2012||In the ensemble science fiction film that spans multiple eras and settings, white actor Jim Sturgess is depicted as a Korean hero who rescues a Korean clone slave, played by Doona Bae, and gives her the awareness she needs to lead a revolution.|
|Conrack||1974||A white teacher (played by Jon Voight) is sent to an island off the coast of South Carolina, where he teaches children of poor black families.|
|Cool Runnings||1993||In the comedy film, black Jamaicans who want to form a national bobsled team are helped by a disgraced former bobsledder (played by John Candy).|
|Cry Freedom||1987||The film features white journalist Donald Woods (played by Kevin Kline) who learns to appreciate the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and its black leader Steven Biko (played by Denzel Washington). Woods leaves the country to report the apartheid system to the world. Based on historic events.|
|Dances with Wolves||1990||In the 1860s, a white Union soldier (played by Kevin Costner) becomes part of the Sioux, a Native American tribe. He leads the Sioux against their rivals the Pawnee and later helps them escape the army he once served.|
|Dangerous Minds||1995||A white teacher (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) teaches African and Hispanic American teenagers at an inner city high school.|
|District 9||2009||A white South African government official (played by Sharlto Copley) works to relocate extraterrestrials to a new internment camp. When he is infected by a fluid and gradually changes into an extraterrestrial himself, he fights against the transition and is motivated to free extraterrestrials so they can provide a cure for his condition.|
|Django Unchained||2012||In 1858, black slave Django (played by Jamie Foxx) is freed by the white German bounty hunter Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz), and they work together to free Django's wife.|
|Elysium||2013||In the science fiction film, a white assembly worker (played by Matt Damon) from a mostly nonwhite community travels to a space station and ends up sacrificing himself so medical devices could be used to heal people on Earth.|
|Finding Forrester||2000||A white reclusive writer (played by Sean Connery) sees potential writing skill in a black high school student and helps him with his writing.|
|Free State of Jones||2016||A historical film taking place during and after the American Civil War, about the events surrounding the rebellion of Jones County, Mississippi against the Confederate States of America.|
|Freedom Writers||2007||In the mid-1990s in Long Beach, California, a white teacher (played by Hilary Swank) strives to educate nonwhite high school students despite their neighborhood conditions.|
|Ghosts of Mississippi||1996||True story of white assistant DA Bobby DeLaughter (played by Alec Baldwin) managing to win a conviction against Byron De La Beckwith (played by James Woods) for the murder of black civil rights activist Medgar Evars over 30 years after the fact. Evars's widow is played by Whoopi Goldberg.|
|Glory||1989||During the American Civil War, a regiment of African-American soldiers fight for the Union, led by white Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (played by Matthew Broderick). Through Shaw, they are able to fight back against slavery.|
|Glory Road||2006||In the 1960s, men's basketball coach Don Haskins (Josh Lucas) coaches a team with an all-black starting lineup and leads them to victory.|
|Gran Torino||2008||A racist white Korean War veteran (played by Clint Eastwood) helps a Hmong American teenager and ultimately protects him and his family from a Hmong American gang.|
|The Great Wall||2017||William (played by Matt Damon) is a white European mercenary who travels to China in search of gunpowder. He stumbles upon the Chinese army fighting against alien monsters and helps them save China. Actress Constance Wu noted one day after the launch of the film's trailer, "We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that only a white man can save the world. It's not based in actual fact. Our heroes don't look like Matt Damon." After the film's release, Ann Hornaday, chief film critic for the Washington Post, writes that "early concerns about Damon playing a 'white savior' in the film turn out to be unfounded: his character, a mercenary soldier, is heroic, but also clearly a foil for the superior principles and courage of his Chinese allies." Jonathan Kim, in a review for the Huffington Post, writes that "having seen The Great Wall, I can say that...on the charge of The Great Wall insulting the Chinese and promoting white superiority, I say: Not Guilty. The question of whether The Great Wall is a white savior movie is a bit trickier, but I'm still going to say Not Guilty. ...On the charge of whitewashing, I say: Not Guilty."|
|The Greatest Showman||2017||A musical following P. T. Barnum (played by Hugh Jackman) and his creation of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Kristen Lopez of The Daily Beast opined that the film utilizes white savior narrative for disabled people rather than racial minorities, and that Barnum's portrayal "not only flies in the face of history—Barnum profited off the disabled for years—but it's also undermined by the film's narrative, which can't present Barnum as the unlikable, capitalist phenom he truly was." Conversely, Scott Mendelson of Forbes argues that "Ironically, since the movie gives us very little time with Jackman interacting with his star attractions, the movie avoids the whole 'white savior' thing", further saying "it is through their own bonding that they become a surrogate family".|
|The Green Berets||1968||The Vietnam War film depicts a white U.S. Army Special Forces commander (played by John Wayne) who fights for the people of South Vietnam.|
|Half Nelson||2006||A white teacher with a drug addiction (played by Ryan Gosling) teaches at an inner city middle school, and befriending a black student, learns to overcome his addiction.|
|Hardball||2001||A white gambler (played by Keanu Reeves) is required to coach a baseball team of black children from Chicago's ABLA housing projects to pay off his gambling debts.|
|The Harlem Globetrotters||1951|||
|The Help||2011||In 1963 in Jackson, Mississippi, a young white woman (played by Emma Stone) strives for a career in journalism and encourages black maids to share their personal experiences despite the racism prevalent at the time.|
|Hidden Figures||2016||In the biographical film about three African-American women at NASA in 1961, one of the women's white bosses (played by Kevin Costner) stands up for her to use the nearest bathroom instead of a farther one intended only for her race. He also lets her into Mission Control to witness the launch. Neither scene happened in real life, and screenwriter Theodore Melfi said he saw no problem with adding the scenes, "There needs to be white people who do the right thing, there needs to be black people who do the right thing, and someone does the right thing. And so who cares who does the right thing, as long as the right thing is achieved?"|
|The Hurricane (1999 film)||1999||Wrongly convicted black boxer Rubin Carter (played by Denzel Washington) is exonerated with the help of a group of white people who adopted a black child who took an interest in the case.|
|Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom||1984||White archaeologist and adventurer Indiana Jones (played by Harrison Ford) rescues Indian peasants from a cult that sacrifices them.|
|The Jackie Robinson Story||1950|||
|Jim Thorpe – All-American||1951|||
|La La Land||2016||The romantic musical film portrays a white musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), amidst falling in love with an aspiring actress, questing to save the traditionally black musical genre of jazz. John Legend, who plays the black character Keith who invites the white musician to join his band, said Keith represented "a viable alternative [of jazz]" and that the film did not necessarily approve of Sebastian's traditionalism. Legend said, "I don’t think Sebastian is seen as the savior people are saying it is. He’s a flawed character that is a bit dark and stubborn, but he’s also an interesting guy. Part of the story is the love story and why him being so stubborn may have gotten in the way of him falling in love."|
|The Last Face||2016||The film, directed by Sean Penn, stars white doctors in West Africa. IndieWire reported, "Critics chided Penn for making a treacly white-savior movie that attempts to shame its audience with bloody war imagery."|
|The Last Samurai||2003||In the 1870s, a white former Union Army officer (played by Tom Cruise) travels to Japan and ultimately joins a group of samurai, helping them to resist corrupt advisers to the Japanese Emperor.|
|Lawrence of Arabia||1962||The white British Army officer T. E. Lawrence (played by Peter O'Toole) leads Arabs in a revolt against the Ottoman Empire.|
|The Legend of Tarzan||2016||Tarzan, raised by apes in Africa and then returned to England as Lord Greystoke, returns to Africa and fights the slave trade.|
|Lincoln||2012||The historical film focuses on the efforts of President of the United States Abraham Lincoln (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) and other white figures to win the American Civil War and end Slavery in the United States. Historian Kate Masur found that Spielberg took liberties with the historical record and said, "For some 30 years, historians have been demonstrating that slaves were crucial agents in their emancipation." Masur said in the film, "African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them."|
|Lion||2016||Based on a true story, a lost child from India is adopted by a white Australian family, only to go back to India to later find his biological family.|
|Machine Gun Preacher||2011||A white ex-convict (played by Gerard Butler) travels to South Sudan to rebuild homes and finds himself having to save its residents from soldiers involved in a civil war.|
|The Man Who Would Be King||1975||Based on the story The Man Who Would Be King (1888) by Rudyard Kipling, two white British adventurers (played by Sean Connery and Michael Caine) in the 1880s are crowned kings in a non-white country (Kafiristan). While the narrative is depicted as ironic, the natives are portrayed in a cliched manner.|
|The Matrix||1999||The science fiction film features the white computer hacker Neo (played by mixed-race actor Keanu Reeves who passes as white) who becomes The One to save humanity. Matthew Hughey in his book The White Savior Film says the film has a white protagonist "entering... the multicultural landscapes outside computer-simulated reality [and] must begin, through his grace, to save nonwhite people from an impending disaster." Hernan and Vera in their book Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness describe Neo as "the white messiah [who] has a racially diverse team of helpers". They say, "The movie's potential critique of white racism is contradicted by the mythic plot, in which the black characters—Morpheus, the Oracle, and Morpheus's crew members Tank and Dozer—are disciples who serve the white Messiah Neo." Adilifu Nama in his book Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film said of Morpheus and the Oracle's key roles, "On the whole, the quest... appears to be more a mission led by a black man and woman than one led by a white savior... the black characters are easily read as symbolic cultural touchstones and respective reminders of the civil rights and Black Power movements."|
|McFarland, USA||2015||A white coach (played by Kevin Costner) trains an all-Latino high school cross country running team. The Atlantic said, "[It] has invoked some groans among critics who recognize its 'white savior' premise. Some say it transcends its paradigmatic trappings—others have claimed it's a film about easing white people into a more diverse America." Director Niki Caro said, "We were very conscious of not making a white savior movie, and you could have with the material, but it was really important for us that he be a flawed guy who was ultimately redeemed by the community. You see him become a better coach, a better father and a better man through his interaction with this place and these people."|
|Million Dollar Arm||2014||Based on a true story, a sports agent J. B. Bernstein (played by Jon Hamm) organizes a talent contest in India where he discovers a pair of youngsters who will demonstrate enough baseball skills to receive a contract by the Pittsburgh Pirates.|
|Mississippi Burning||1988||In 1964, two white FBI agents (played by Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe) travel to Mississippi to investigate the murders of civil rights organizers, one of whom is black. They are depicted as heroes in the black struggle. Director Alan Parker said of the casting, "Because it’s a movie, I felt it had to be fictionalized. The two heroes in the story had to be white. That is a reflection of our society as much as of the film industry. At this point in time, it could not have been made in any other way."|
|Music of the Heart||1999||Based on a true story, a white music teacher (played by Meryl Streep) teaches nonwhite students at an inner city school.|
|One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest||1975||A white protagonist (played by Jack Nicholson) is in a mental hospital and confronts its cruel nurse, ultimately inspiring a Native American patient to escape the hospital.|
|Our Brand Is Crisis||2015||In the comedy-drama film, a white political consultant (Sandra Bullock) helps a Bolivian politician win the presidential election in his country.|
|The Principal||1987||A white teacher (played by James Belushi) teaches nonwhite students at an inner city school.|
|Radio||2003||A white high school football coach (played by Ed Harris) helps a mentally handicapped black football fan (played by Cuba Gooding Jr.) become more involved with the team.|
|Remember the Titans||2000||A white high school football coach (played by Will Patton) gives preferential help to the school's black players and helps the black football coach (played by Denzel Washington) during a game that has been rigged by the white referees.|
|The Ron Clark Story||2006||A white teacher (played by Matthew Perry) moves from a small town to New York City to make a difference in the lives of nonwhite students.|
|Schindler's List||1993||German industrialist Oskar Schindler (played by Liam Neeson) rescues Jews from Nazis.|
|Sheena||1984||A young daughter (played by Tanya Roberts) of a white couple is orphaned in the wilderness of a fictional African country, and adopted by a local Shaman woman who raises her as her own. In a twist on the Tarzan story, she is viewed by the native people as a child of the gods who has telepathic communication with the animals. When her mentor is arrested by government officials, she leads a rescue that eventually transforms into a citizen revolt against the country's young corrupt prince and his hired mercenaries bent on opening the country for strip-mining.|
|Snow Falling on Cedars||1999||A white journalist (played by Ethan Hawke) possesses information that can exonerate a Japanese-American fisherman (played by Rick Yune) on trial for murder.|
|The Soloist||2009||A white man (played by Robert Downey Jr.) helps a black mentally handicapped and homeless man (played by Jamie Foxx) revive his passion and skill in music.|
|Stargate||1994||In the science fiction film, a white Egyptologist and linguist (played by James Spader) and a white military colonel (played by Kurt Russell) rescue a nonwhite population on an alien planet from their extraterrestrial slavers.|
|Sunset Park||1996||A white physical education teacher (played by Rhea Perlman) who coaches a basketball team of black players and succeeds in taking them to the city championships.|
|Tears of the Sun||2003||A white commander of the United States Navy SEALs (played by Bruce Willis) decides to save the Nigerian refugees from advancing rebel troops, in violation of their primary and secondary orders.|
|Three Kings||1999||The white leader of a United States Army team (played by George Clooney) has the respect and loyalty of his racially mixed team and the Iraqi rebels.|
|A Time to Kill||1996||In rural Mississippi, a white lawyer named Jake Brigance (played by Matthew McConaughey) is appointed to defend Carl Lee Hailey (played by Samuel L. Jackson), a black man accused of murdering two white supremacists that raped his 10-year-old daughter Tanya.|
|To Kill a Mockingbird||1962||A white attorney (played by Gregory Peck) defends a black man falsely accused of rape; he loses the case but is applauded for his noble effort.|
|The Warriors Gate||2016||The fantasy film, a Chinese-French co-production, stars a white teenager who is transported to China and becomes a kung fu warrior and rescues a princess from villains.|
|Wildcats||1986||A white woman (played by Goldie Hawn) becomes the coach of an inner city football team and leads them to a championship.|
|A World Apart (film)||1988||White woman Ruth First (played by Barbara Hershey) fights apartheid in South Africa.|
- Noble savage
- Magical Negro
- "The White Man's Burden"
- List of Magical Negro occurrences in fiction
- Whitewashing in film
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In interviews, Ross has insisted that he didn't want 'Free State of Jones' to become another white savior movie, but that's precisely what it is, especially during scenes when the murderous injustice of slavery is refracted through Knight's frustrated tears.
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Critics contended it was yet another film showcasing a White savior with Pitt (who also produced the film) positioning himself as such.
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The casting of Jim Sturgess as a Korean hero who rescues Doona Bae's clone slave and brings her to heightened consciousness so that she in turn sparks a revolution was read as yet another iteration of the 'white savior' trope in the line of The Blind Side (2009), The Help (2011), Amistad (1997), and countless other films.
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Hidden Figures's narrative trajectory involves not just progress that emerges, too often, from pettiness, but also thematic elements of the white savior, and of a culturally enforced tiara syndrome. All those things effectively temper the idealism of its message.
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His character has been called a 'white savior' by critics including Wired, New York Magazine and MTV News for his quest (and eventual success) to save the traditionally black musical genre from extinction, seemingly the only person who can accomplish such a goal.
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By having Neo occupy the time-honored role of white male savior, the racial and gendered otherness of the rebels is paradoxically underscored and dismissed while also being appropriated because their cause is now his.
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