Will Avatar's Racial Politics Bother Oscar Voters?

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 SamuraiAt 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 SaldanaLaz 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.

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.  

But the point is that he didn’t. And as the possibilities of genuine dissent unravel into a confusing carnival of their cooptation, the racism charges stick.  

Cameron delivers his anti-modernity, pro-indigeneity and deep ecology parable through the most advanced of cinematic technologies and the body of a handsome white man.

We get to revel in our equal regard for Na’vi culture from the safest distance possible –“4.4 light years from Earth” to be precise – while adjusting our 3D glasses and munching on overpriced popcorn. Cameron has it both ways, knowing that we do too.

I'd forgive Cameron’s doublespeak and give Avatar Oscars for art direction, make-up, visual effects and costume design. But the coveted Best Picture award should go to Up in the Air, a far more down to earth film (pun intended).  

[This article is adapted from a video essay by the author, “Race Relations Light Years from Earth,” on Ryeberg Curated Video.] 


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