Re-Visiting the Racism in James Cameron’s “Avatar”

After a recent discussion on Twitter, I’ve been thinking a lot about the colonial politics in James Cameron’s atrociously offensive (albeit aesthetically pleasing) film “Avatar.” I have done a quick scan of the various articles written on the racism in “Avatar” and have decided to include choice excerpts here (although I recommend you read each piece in ints entirety, as usual):

1. From David Brooks’ Op-Ed in the New York Times entitled, “The Messiah Complex:”

“Avatar” is a racial fantasy par excellence. The hero is a white former Marine who is adrift in his civilization. He ends up working with a giant corporation and flies through space to help plunder the environment of a pristine planet and displace its peace-loving natives.

The peace-loving natives — compiled from a mélange of Native American, African, Vietnamese, Iraqi and other cultural fragments — are like the peace-loving natives you’ve seen in a hundred other movies. They’re tall, muscular and admirably slender. They walk around nearly naked. They are phenomenal athletes and pretty good singers and dancers.

The white guy notices that the peace-loving natives are much cooler than the greedy corporate tools and the bloodthirsty U.S. military types he came over with. He goes to live with the natives, and, in short order, he’s the most awesome member of their tribe. He has sex with their hottest babe. He learns to jump through the jungle and ride horses. It turns out that he’s even got more guts and athletic prowess than they do. He flies the big red bird that no one in generations has been able to master.

Along the way, he has his consciousness raised. The peace-loving natives are at one with nature, and even have a fiber-optic cable sticking out of their bodies that they can plug into horses and trees, which is like Horse Whispering without the wireless technology. Because they are not corrupted by things like literacy, cellphones and blockbuster movies, they have deep and tranquil souls.

The natives help the white guy discover that he, too, has a deep and tranquil soul.

The natives have hot bodies and perfect ecological sensibilities, but they are natural creatures, not history-making ones. When the military-industrial complex comes in to strip mine their homes, they need a White Messiah to lead and inspire the defense. […]

…would it be totally annoying to point out that the whole White Messiah fable, especially as Cameron applies it, is kind of offensive?

It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.

It’s just escapism, obviously, but benevolent romanticism can be just as condescending as the malevolent kind — even when you surround it with pop-up ferns and floating mountains.

2. This is a response to Brooks’ piece, which argues that the natives in the film were not saved by the white male lead, but rather he was saved by them. Since Brooks’ somewhat addressed this in his piece, you might find this response tiring or shallow. I disagree with it but it is worth reading because it takes into account that the white male lead actually assumes the native form in the film (i.e. he leaves his white body for a native Na’vi body).

3. From Matt Goldberg’s “Avatar Review” from Collider:

Avatar is a noble savage story.  For those unaware of what that means, the “noble savage” concept came about in the 18th century and says that a civilization untouched by modernization is the most pure.  Man’s ambition is the undoing of his natural good, and in order to reclaim that good the modern man must leave behind the corruption of the modern world and go live with the noble savages.  But that’s just the dumb part of the concept.  The offensive part, although not inherent but often present, is that the modern man is white and he not only regains his humanity by living with the “savages” but turns out to be nobler than all of them and their true savior.

4. From Jesse Washington’s “‘Avatar’ Critics See Racist Theme,” published by the Huffington Post:

Robinne Lee, an actress in such recent films as “Seven Pounds” and “Hotel for Dogs,” said that “Avatar” was “beautiful” and that she understood the economic logic of casting a white lead if most of the audience is white.

But she said the film, which so far has the second-highest worldwide box-office gross ever, still reminded her of Hollywood’s “Pocahontas” story – “the Indian woman leads the white man into the wilderness, and he learns the way of the people and becomes the savior.”

“It’s really upsetting in many ways,” said Lee, who is black with Jamaican and Chinese ancestry. “It would be nice if we could save ourselves.”

Annalee Newitz, editor-in-chief of the sci-fi Web site, likened “Avatar” to the recent film “District 9,” in which a white man accidentally becomes an alien and then helps save them, and 1984’s “Dune,” in which a white man becomes an alien Messiah.

“Main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color … (then) go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed,” she wrote.

“When will whites stop making these movies and start thinking about race in a new way?” wrote Newitz, who is white.

Black film professor and author Donald Bogle said he can understand why people would be troubled by “Avatar,” although he praised it as a “stunning” work.

“A segment of the audience is carrying in the back of its head some sense of movie history,” said Bogle, author of “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films.”

Bogle stopped short, however, of calling the movie racist.

“It’s a film with still a certain kind of distortion,” he said. “It’s a movie that hasn’t yet freed itself of old Hollywood traditions, old formulas.”

Writer/director Cameron, who is white, said in an e-mail to The Associated Press that his film “asks us to open our eyes and truly see others, respecting them even though they are different, in the hope that we may find a way to prevent conflict and live more harmoniously on this world. I hardly think that is a racist message.”  (emphasis added)

Palestinian protesters dressed as Na’vi. Photograph: Darren Whiteside/Reuters

5. From Joseph Mayton’s (problematic) “Why do Egyptians love Avatar?” which was posted on The Guardian’s ‘Comment is free’ section:

“Egyptians don’t like to see reality on the big screen, this is why films such as Syriana and The Hurt Locker are not popular. Egyptians want an escape,” said Mohsen Goma’a, an aspiring filmmaker. But their support for Avatar also misses the mark. They have escaped from reality only to enter a new imaginary world where a film speaks directly to their struggle. “Through Avatar I lived the story of the Palestinian, Iraqi, Afghan and Lebanese peoples and the wars waged against them; where the west treats these peoples as if they were the children of the Na’vi” wrote the blogger South Lebanon.

There are numerous short films on YouTube paralleling the stories of the Na’vi and the Palestinians. One Arabic blog argues that Avatar is delivering a message to Americans that is “optimistic and hopeful despite the current situation”. What are Americans supposed to be optimistic about? That they are the holders of the world’s destiny, much in the same manner that Jake Sully is with the Na’vi? Sully, not the Na’vi, is the hero of the film. He becomes their leader in order for the Na’vi to defend themselves from the vastly superior technology of his former brethren.

Egyptians want something to believe in and Avatar offers a vague picture that is being co-opted into something it isn’t. These arguments that Pandora represents the modern Middle East are essentially people pulling an idea out of the sand in order to connect with a very entertaining film. One could see the struggle of the Palestinians and other occupied societies as akin to that of the Na’vi in Avatar, but why would we want to? If Palestinians are dressing in blue and going to the streets in protest to show how connected they are to the fictional people of Pandora, does it not also reveal a stark reality that they would deny: a foreign saviour is needed if they are realise their goal of throwing off the yoke of Israeli occupation?


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