Will Avatar's Racial Politics Bother Oscar Voters?
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James Cameron’s science fiction blockbuster Avatar stands nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture. But should we worry about its controversial racial politics?
Is Avatar a racist film that doesn’t deserve an Oscar?
Avatar has been labeled a “ white guilt fantasy ,” and “ a racial fantasy par excellence ” that “rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic, and that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades.”
I am not alone in wanting to dismiss if not ridicule the relentless fuss over the politics of this predictable Hollywood movie (visually enchanting though it admittedly is).
That is until I begin to think of just how many Hollywood films have shown various peoples of color (minorities, colonial subjects, the Third World poor) struggle against various social ills (poverty, authoritarianism, imperialism) only to be swiftly arrogated by white men (and, from time to time, white women).
Other than being infuriatingly patronizing, such misguided cinematic altruism can be dangerous: it reinforces pernicious stereotypes of the ethnic ‘other’ as disorderly, meek and stupid. Stereotypes like this not only undermine the hard-won voice of marginalized peoples of color, but justify their continued marginalization.
Arguably, the more popular the film, the more the potential for harm. Avatar, the highest grossing movie of all time and multiple Academy Award nominee, could prove a particularly weighty addition to this irritating genre, which includes films like The Last Samurai , At Play in the Fields of the Lord , and David Lean's multiple Academy Award-winning epic, Lawrence of Arabia , widely regarded the classic of ‘White Messiah’ films.
At first glance, Avatar appears to fit the bill.
It is 2154. Jake Sully, a former US Marine, is sent to Pandora to befriend its indigenous population, the Na’vi, so that his current employer, an American mining corporation, can more easily access the planet’s rich stores of Unobtanium, a mineral with “exotic properties” worth “twenty million a kilo.”
“Killing the indigenous looks bad,” Jake is told. “Find a carrot to get them to move, or it’s going to have to be all stick.”
Throughout the film, Cameron is clear about whom the Na'vi represent. They are repeatedly referred to as “indigenous,” “aboriginal” and “savages,” and the lead Na'vi characters are played by Black or Aboriginal actors ( Zoe Saldana , Laz Alonso and Wes Studi ).
Jake (played by Sam Worthington ) plunges into the Na’vi’s midst as an ‘avatar,’ but soon comes to neglect his mission, falling “in love with the forest, the people,” and predictably, with Neytiri, a Na’vi chief’s daughter. Neytiri teaches Jake her people’s ways because she senses in him a “strong heart” – a good investment, it turns out, as Jake’s “strong heart” guides him to oppose the corporation, and its hawkish security chief, Colonel Quatrich, who later accuses Jake of “betraying his race.”
Though Jake describes himself as “just another dumb grunt,” we learn that he is extraordinary well beyond his “strong heart.” He quickly adapts to Pandora's “savage terrain and fierce creatures,” and to Na’vi society, learning their language with enviable speed and matching their physical prowess.
Jake is also a skilled military strategist and negotiator. He inspires the various Na’vi clans to join forces against the “sky people,” and even subdues the fierce Toruk, a giant bird-like creature that only five Na’vi have ever managed to tame.
Jake prances through the last quarter of the film with fist thrust in the air, showering the Na’vi with stirring calls to action, swooping down on Quatrich’s troops on the newly obedient Toruk, and basking in the warmth of Neytiri’s devotion: “I was afraid for my people,” she coos. “I am no longer afraid.” In an early version of Avatar’s script, Jake becomes the leader of Neytiri’s clan.