Is the highest-grossing film of all time racist?
Nominated among the Academy Award’s ten best pictures, Avatar is the most spectacular tech-wiz sci-fi film of the century. And it may remain so until full blown holograms have ray gun battles in theaters and make love with willing audience members (that comes next summer, possibly). Some social critics, however, are unimpressed with the film’s racial politics and say that beneath its hypermodernity lurks a tiresome white-man-saves-natives plot.
Hero Jake Sully, played by Sam Worthington, is a white mercenary who switches sides to align himself with nature-loving, tree-dwelling, sky-colored Na’vis on the planet Pandora. He comes to their world as part of a multiracial coed paramilitary force which, despite diversity, is basically a stand-in for Col. George Custer’s troops. Naturally, they want to exploit the land and are eager to throw the baby out with the bath water.
Sully is a paraplegic, injured as a Marine in combat. The science of the year 2054 allows him to liberate his spirit by projecting his mind into an avatar, a virtual being that looks and acts like a Na’vi. It allows him to mingle with the indigenous people and, as they do, soar on the backs of flying dinosaurs, and live with nature through respectful ingenuity. And like the protagonists of Little Big Man, Dances with Wolves, and The Last Samurai, he develops an allegiance to an oppressed group and emerges as a leading figure in their struggle.
Blue Fun, White Privilege
Annalee Newitz, editor-in-chief at i09.com, writes: “Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege. Jake never really knows what it’s like to be a Na’vi because he always has the option to switch back into human mode.”
Director-writer James Cameron says in an AP interview, “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.” That’s hardly racist, he says.
His argument does not preclude Newitz’s. Though 3D Avatar jumps off the screen, it is captive to basic action flick conventions and those require that somebody has to be rescued (after a chase, of course). Critics like Newitz suggest the Na’vi were perfectly capable of defending themselves without the intervention of Sam.
Avatar Still More Realistic than Pretty Woman
Rescue on film has become a tricky business in more politically sophisticated times. Cross-gender and cross-racial rescues are bound to get certain viewers rolling their eyes. So it is now less common for distressed damsels to stand by as the hero makes quick work of the villain. Today she, too, gets off a few shots (or arrow attacks).
Despite the often absurd devices of action vehicles, the most ridiculous rescue of 20th century film was posed in the 1990 romantic drama Pretty Woman, in which a Prince Charming-like wealthy businessman saves a prostitute from a life of degradation. By comparison, the juxtaposition in Avatar is realistic. Statistically the odds that any given citizen might look out the window and witness a white saving the life of a tree-dwelling blue person are one hundred times greater than the likelihood of a rich man marrying a hooker (on purpose, at least).
But unlike Pretty Woman, Avatar is not clueless and apolitical. It is undeniably antiwar, pro-green, and racially sensitive. Sensitivity and insight are not the same, though. And it is unreasonable to expect Cameron to portray the mangled complexity of the human soul while sending blue cowgirls across the screen flying pterodactyls through floating fjords.
Heart and Spirit Trump Money and Power
Different directors express different worldviews in their films. Suspense master Alfred Hitchcock’s repeated message became: ordinary people are not safe anywhere (kind of like my grandmother’s credo). Cameron’s filmsThe Terminator, Alien, The Abyss tend to lean to the left and warn of white male destructiveness. His cinematic slogan, especially in Titanic and Avatar, is that money and power are less important than a determined spirit and a loving heartnot exactly a unique missive.
Avatar sports a conventional modern storyline in which a courageous hero falls in love with an equally brave heroine, played by Zoe Saldana, who just happens to be beautiful and possess an unbelievably thin waist.
Like Saldana, key members of the Na’vi are portrayed by blacks, including under-recognized veteran CCH Pounder (Baghdad Café, X-Files, ER) as Queen Mo’at. But the azure body coloring universalizes the film’s racial dynamics.
The actors’ bodies are computer-stylized, eliminating the need for hours in the makeup chair. But the expressions and movements are their own. Furthermore, Avatar’s performers acted largely on sound studios. That meant they had to use their talents to fake responses to the perils and pleasures of the story’s phantasmagorical world. Saldana did no less work than did Kate Winslet in Titanic, for which that actress received an Academy Award Best Actress nomination in 1997. Yet Saldana was not among the Avatar’s nine nominations, possibly because the technology allowed viewers to think she was merely an animation model.
A Lion’s Revenge
Avatar’s technology does at times overwhelm its human essence, but racially, at worst, it is a case of come-a-long-way-got-a-long-way-to-go.
In a century of American movies, when indigenous people and roaming Caucasians meet on celluloid, the contrasts are catastrophic. The whites are intelligent, the natives are ignorant; the whites are safe and civilized, the natives are maniacal and godless; the whites are attractive and lovely, the natives are aesthetic zeroes. That takes Avatar quite a distance from Tarzan and more recent pale-boy-meets-colored-jungle flicks too.
In The Ghost and the Darkness (1996), very loosely based on a true story, Michael Douglas plays the proverbial great white hunter, who is called in to get rid of two pesky lions in East Africa so that a railway project can continue. Problematically the hungry lions keep eating the help. Initially Douglas’s character has a group of dancing Maasai warriors at his finger-snap disposal. This would be comparable to my walking around with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in tow. But eventually the hunter gets eaten when one of the lions momentarily digresses from a preference for dark meat. Perhaps that is the film’s way of apologizing.
Even when rescue statuses reverse, political discomfort arises. In Sidney Poitier’s 60’s-era films he comes to the aid of throngs of needy whites, from a flock of singing nuns (Lilies of the Field) to a suicidal hysteric (A Slender Thread) to the blind daughter of a foul-mouthed floozy (A Patch of Blue). And at least one book about black film history, likely more, has taken negative note of this frantic heroism. Still, to make that connection with white audiences he had to be a superhero sans cape.
Fantasies of Turning against Their Own
Some realities have not changed. The entertainment industry believes that for majority culture audiences to identify with a personality in that intimate billion-dollar way, the person has to be white and male or Oprah. Or maybe blue.
Another thing long-standing is Hollywood’s both sincere and superficial sympathy for those of us not among the rich and powerful even though they, themselves, are of that world. Then again and again they make movies about the privileged turning against their own. As critics like Newitz suggest, is it guilt? Freud could have explained it; but he’s dead (besides, he had his own prejudices). Oh, well. That’s why you pay your hard-earned ten-plus dollars to see the blue girl fly a giant prehistoric bat as happily as if it were a new rollercoasterso you won’t have to think about complex stuff like money and power and race.
Janet Singleton is an award-winning freelance journalist. DOES AVATAR SOAR ABOVE STEREOTYPES? OR IS IT THE SAME OLD WHITE-THY-SAVIOR STORY? Reprinted with permission from Defenders Online .
Copyright © February 9, 2010.