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Will Avatar's Racial Politics Bother Oscar Voters?

James Cameron’s science fiction blockbuster Avatar is nominated for nine Academy Awards. But should we worry about its controversial racial politics?

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Despite the many eye-rolling moments, in the end  Avatar doesn’t neatly follow the expected narrative. 

In ‘White Messiah’ films, the native’s world, even when romanticized, is marked as clearly inferior. In  Lawrence of Arabia , the ‘Arabs’ have rather barbaric ideas of justice, and it is evident they’ll have trouble managing on their own once Lawrence is extricated from their midst. The native, though noble, is backward; wanting in various aspects of ‘civilization.’

Not so much in  Avatar. For one thing, the Na’vi’s lush habitat is profoundly more beautiful than the humans’ “dying world.” We are told that this "strange, bewitching place" with a "dreamlike landscape reminiscent of a  Magritte painting " represents "hope for our race, for our planet and future of all living things."

The Na’vi’s pantheism, community solidarity and oneness with nature (the "symbiotic relationship between all things Pandoran") are celebrated wholeheartedly, while the American way of life – associated with corporate greed, ruthless individualism and misappropriated science – is squarely and unambiguously condemned. 

The US Marines, give or take a few, are depicted as a warmongering and boorish horde (yes, the real Marines are  upset!).  They kill thoughtlessly and hurl heartless jeers at the disabled Jake (“meals on wheels”).  By the end of the film, the thought that the Na’vi are “savages” seems utterly preposterous.  

It’s also clear that the Na’vi need nothing from Jake’s ilk – not their promise of ‘development’ (“medicine, education and roads”), “light beer and shopping channels,” or military technology. The Na’vi may lack the coarse firepower of American bombs and guns, but they have “arrows dipped in a neurotoxin that can stop your heart in one minute.” In fact, it is with these instruments of precision that Neytiri ultimately kills Quatrich. Yes, it is  she who technically saves Jake.

Finally, in a fundamental departure from the 'White Messiah' narrative, Jake “goes native” in a total, self-incinerating way. The Na’vi perform a ritual that permanently transforms Jake’s human body into his alien avatar. 

So Avatar is a curious film: it follows the ‘White Messiah’ model faithfully, but then ruptures it at critical moments.

I’m hesitant to subject  Avatar to prolonged philosophical analysis – after all, Hollywood movies are known for being inconsistent.  Yet the film’s hybrid narrative is not without significance.  It reflects how multiculturalism, environmentalism, feminism and indigenous struggles have shifted conversations about culture and imperialism while leaving every economic fundamental unchanged. 

Indigenous movements, in particular, have issued powerful critiques of imperialism, condemning not only the cruel mechanics of colonial rule, but also their devastating cultural impact via the reification of science, rationalism, and industrialization.  The demands of indigenous movements have stretched beyond inclusion and space in dominant ‘white’ cultures to equal regard for difference, marked by oral traditions of knowledge, communitarian political structures, and spiritual systems based in ancestor worship. 

How remarkable that the radical multiculturalism born of indigenous struggles is reproduced in  Avatar, a thoroughly mainstream production! It’s no wonder that  Evo Morales , Bolivia’s first fully indigenous head of state, has  praised the film for its “profound show of resistance to capitalism and the struggle for the defence of nature.”

Morales’s pithy tribute left me wondering if behind the racism allegation lie deeper anxieties about the film’s glib indictment of modern notions of progress, including monotheism.   Telegraph blogger Will Heaven – who wrote a  scathing review  of Avatar’s “racist subtext” in December – recently  defended a Vatican spokesman’s concern  that Avatar will turn environmentalism into a “new divinity.” “He’s right to be worried,” Heaven declared.

Perhaps if Cameron had foregone the economic logic of casting Worthington in the lead, he would have made a ridiculously subversive film, one worthy of all the fuss.  

 
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