How Phoenix Wright Avoids the White Savior Complex in Spirit of Justice

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How Phoenix Wright Avoids the White Savior Complex in <i>Spirit of Justice</i>

In Spirit of Justice, the newest installment of the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney series, established lawyer Phoenix Wright finds himself in the foreign country of Khura’in in the middle of a revolution. A resistance group led by a former defense attorney is fighting against the legal system in the country to have fair and just trials. At first, this seems like the perfect situation for Phoenix to be in. Who else would know how to fix the courts but Phoenix and his jolly band of colleagues?

Khura’in is troubling in its problematic defense of accused criminals. In what is known as the Defense Culpability Act, if someone is found guilty, then the lawyer and the accused are punished together. In most cases, this means their death. By the time Phoenix arrives to Khura’in, all defense attorneys are either dead or in hiding. To make matters even more complicated, the people of Khura’in are very religious, and incorporate divination into their legal system, deciding a person’s guilt through séances, which provide a court with a victim’s final moments before their death These brief glimpses of the murder are only a small piece in the puzzle of the crime, but the people of Khuar’in take them as the absolute truth. As a result, they usually punish the wrong people.

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The problem isn’t that Khura’in is portrayed as having a fatalistically flawed legal system. The problem is that Spirit of Justice positions Phoenix in the trope of the Western hero, which relies on the white savior complex. While the original Japanese version of the Ace Attorney series takes place in Japan, the localization takes place in the United States, a country known for imposing its own ideologies and cultures onto smaller, developing countries. Khura’in and the U.S. are poised as defense attorneys are respected in America, they are killed in Khura’in; in the United States, the law relies on facts based off evidence and testimony, in Khura’in it depends on divination and faith. In this colonialist context, Phoenix plays the role of white savior, and saving Khura’in from itself is now, as the imperialist Rudyard Kipling wrote, the white man’s burden.

But Phoenix does not carry an entire revolution in his hands; in fact, the people of Khura’in all but forbid him to overstep his role. After all, he is the foreigner, not the Khura’inese. There are many ways he is forced to remain secondary in the fight for justice. For example, Phoenix is not tasked with solving the case on his own. Khura’in’s princess Rayfa Padma Khura’in accompanies him during his investigations throughout the game. They work together to understand each crime and come up with solutions together.

Another, more important, example is illustrated through the Defiant Dragons, a band of revolutionaries that has been fighting to overthrow the country’s legal system. Former defense attorney, Dhurke Sahdmadhi, is their leader and among the most feared of the group. Accused of killing his wife, former queen of Amara Sigatar Khura’in, Dhurke fled and went into hiding after he was falsely accused of forging evidence. Dhurke’s case catalyzed the country’s distrust of attorneys, forcing the Defense Culpability Act. In response, he created Defiant Dragons , forming an underground network to prove his innocence and disrupt the oppressive regime. When Phoenix arrives, the revolution had been going on for years. Phoenix did not start, nor end, the resistance. He merely helped it move forward.

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In Phoenix Wright’s United States, a law like the Defense Culpability Act and the backlash and resistance , may seem unfathomable, but in reality, the country has its own issues with murdering innocent people and denying right to fair trial. While Spirit of Justice was not written as a reflection of the current issues in the country, it’s difficult to not find parallels between the (fictional) Defiant Dragons and the (real) Black Lives Matter movement.

Created by Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors, the movement was organized in response to the extrajudicial killings of Black people in order to recognize the discrimination against people of color, especially within the criminal justice system. The last moments of a Black person’s life are often used to justify their death, as is the case of Trayvon Martin, the case that started the movement. There’s also Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, and so many other cases of Black people dying by the hands of cops who, statistically, are rarely indicted for their crimes. But the movement seeks to address that by starting a dialogue around the issue of racial discrimination within law enforcement and the judicial system.

Like Black Lives Matter, the Defiant Dragons cannot succeed without the support from those outside of their oppressed circle. Phoenix amplifies the voice of the Defiant Dragons, instead of speaking for them. He never starts nor finishes the revolution.. Instead, he helps maintain the revolution by leveraging his access to the courts, an area the Dragons cannot reach.

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I don’t think Phoenix is a perfect ally. In fact, he’s more of an accidental one. He fell into a country already knee-deep in a revolution. And though his help is appreciated, he still has the privilege of flying back to his own country, where he can escape from whatever new conflicts may arise Khura’in. Still, Phoenix’s departure means the people of Khura’in will have the only say in how their country is managed after the revolution. With Phoenix’s assistance, Khura’in dissolved an unjust legal system; in his absence, they now full say in how they will rebuild it.

In a developer’s blog about the process of designing Khura’in,, background artist Takanori Ishikawa writes, “It’s not me who creates the Kingdom of Khura’in; it’s the people of Khura’in who will create their own country.” While the legal system of Khura’in is altered to prevent any fatal errors in the future, it still rules by divination, and the country maintains its identity. Khura’in will continue to thrive without dependence on foreign help. Phoenix Wright offers his support, but not his leadership, and that’s how an ally should be.

Shonté Daniels is a poet who occasionally writes about games. Her games writing has appeared in Kill Screen, Motherboard, Waypoint and elsewhere. Her poetry can be seen at Puerto del Sol, Baltimore Review, Phoebe, and others literary journals. Check out a full archive, or follow her for sporadic tweeting.

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