"How can a film about aliens be racist?" you ask. There haven't been anti-'Avatar' protests by actual 10-foot-tall, blue-skinned Na'vi people, have there? (Then again, there aren't any movie theaters or 3-D glasses in the jungles of the planet Pandora, so maybe the Na'vi are just the only people in the universe who haven't seen James Cameron's blockbuster yet.)
Still, the movie's signs of racial paternalism are, to some critics, as apparent as its borrowed plot, with echoes of 'Dances With Wolves,' 'Pocahontas,' 'The Last Samurai,' and other Hollywood films in which a tribe of people of color depend on a white protagonist, who's immersed himself in their culture, to save them from their oppressors.
A new Associated Press article lays out the arguments for and against the notion that 'Avatar' is racist. (Warning: Spoilers follow.) The Na'vi may be tall, blue aliens, but they seem to resemble the noble savages in older Hollywood movies -- they're played by actors of color (from Dominican/Puerto Rican Zoë Saldana to Cherokee Wes Studi), they live a primitive (by Western industrial standards) lifestyle in harmony with nature, they sport tattoos and dreadlocks and exotic jewelry, they have a closed and tight-knit society that's suspicious of outsiders, they have an animist religion that worships gods and spirits residing in trees and animals, and they have courage and athleticism but not necessarily rationality or ambition.
This all is what makes white Western human Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) their ideal leader: his brain, which does have those attributes, operates inside a Na'vi body. In just three months of immersion in their culture, he learns enough about the Na'vi -- their folkways, their animal-taming skills, and even the secret to their ultimate test of warrior prowess, something no other Na'vi has mastered in five generations -- to become their leader in their struggle against genocide by his own former allies.
"It's really upsetting in many ways," says actress Robinne Lee, who is black with Jamaican and Chinese ancestry, talking to the AP about 'Avatar''s white savior fantasy. "It would be nice if we could save ourselves."
Cameron denies any racist intent. In an e-mail to the AP, he writes that 'Avatar' "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."
There are elements in 'Avatar' that frustrate a reading of it as a typical Hollywood racial allegory. For one thing, the white folks (and almost all the human characters are white) are unequivocally the villains, out to steal the natural resources beneath Na'vi territory even if they have to wipe out the Na'vi in the process. And there's no can't-we-all-just-get-along melting-pot solution to the racial conflict. Not just the Na'vi but their entire planet regards the humans as a disease, an invading organism with which there can be no peaceful coexistence; the only solutions are either the forceful expulsion of humanity from the planet, or Jake's even more radical transformation, the complete abandonment of his human body in order to become fully Na'vi. It's assimilate with the natives or go home empty-handed.
You don't have to be a black or Native American observer to see a troubling racial subtext in 'Avatar.' Annalee Newitz, who edits the sci-fi news website io9, notes that 'Avatar' plays not just into standard Hollywood narratives about race but even standard sci-fi narratives about race (the white-savior plot also occurs in 'Dune,' 'Flash Gordon,' 'John Carter of Mars,' and last year's 'District 9,' which is explicitly a parable about racial divisions in South Africa). "Whites need to stop remaking the white guilt story, which is a sneaky way of turning every story about people of color into a story about being white," Newitz writes. "Speaking as a white person, I don't need to hear more about my own racial experience."
You also don't have to be a critic from the left to spot racism in 'Avatar.' For some conservative critics, like Will Heaven of The Telegraph, ''Avatar''s racial paternalism is of a piece with its liberal politics. "As Left-wing conceits go, this one surely tops all the others: the ethnic Na'vi, the film suggests, need the white man to save them because, as a less developed race, they lack the intelligence and fortitude to overcome their adversaries by themselves," he writes. "'Avatar' is artistic evidence of the ugly mindset which underlies so much of Left-wing thinking today: the belief that only the superior Western liberal is fit to lead the world into a better future." Conservative blogger kungfupoo at Cinemaroll argues that the movie is racist, but against white people.
Certainly, not all people of color agree on whether 'Avatar' has a troubling racial subtext. Over at African-American-oriented Essence.com, there's a lively debate going on regarding "Avatar''s racial subtext and a poll in which respondents who don't believe the movie is racist currently have a slight edge over those who do. The YouTube critic who calls himself "Angry Black Man" has a hilarious review of the movie; he liked it despite what he sees as Cameron's lazy racial stereotyping. (See video below.)
African-American scholar Donald Bogle, who literally wrote the book on how black people have been portrayed throughout Hollywood history ('Toms, Coons, , Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films'), tells AP that many viewers come to 'Avatar' mindful of that often shameful history. He says he doesn't believe the film is racist but does call it "a movie that hasn't yet freed itself of old Hollywood traditions, old formulas."
Given how much criticsm 'Avatar' has received over the thinness of its story and characters, of how Cameron seemed to expend all his imagination on the movie's gorgeous visuals and none on its formulaic plotting, it's not surprising that the script would resort to familiar racial shorthand to move the narrative along, even if that shorthand seems to undercut the film's do-gooder politics. Still, it's worth asking: What if Jake Sully had been played by Will Smith? Or what if Cameron had decided that his new planet and its inhabitants were so fascinating on their own merits that he didn't even need a Jake Sully?
|Yes. James Cameron seems to think people of color are primitives who need a white savior.||3589 (7.8%)|
|No. C'mon, it's a movie about blue aliens, not people of color here on Earth.||19534 (42.5%)|
|Well, it does have plenty of lazy stereotyping and patronizing attitudes, but the movie stops short of malicious racism.||10445 (22.7%)|
|Who's paying attention to its racial politics, anyway? The visuals are dazzling. 'Avatar' rocks!||12346 (26.9%)|