It’s Monday, and that means I should be writing a movie review. But instead I want to talk about Avatar again. If you haven’t seen Avatar, you may want to skip this article. Some critics over at io9 and elsewhere have been surprisingly negative about it. For example, see io9’s When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like Avatar? and Avatar: It’s not this weekend that counts, luckily (in reference to Avatar’s weekend box office take). Now, the latter can be easily dismissed since Avatar actually grossed $232 million worldwide over the weekend. However, there are some valid points in the former article dealing with colonialism, and also some about “white man’s guilt” that I strongly disagree with.
Another reviewer stated that they felt James Cameron took himself “too seriously”. I would point out that, rather than coming up with some sort of exotic name for the precious mineral the humans want, he simply called it the old sci-fi staple “unobtainium”. Is that taking himself too seriously? It’s not like he tried to explain The Force by inventing metaclorians.
Another example: when Sigourney Weaver is introduced on screen for the umpteenth time exiting a pod, she immediately asks where her subordinates are, who should be waiting on her hand and foot with cigarettes. Weaver is, after all, a bit of a veteran when it comes to sleeping in pods on screen. When Sam Worthington’s character first puts on his tribal clothing, we can see him picking the thong out of his ass. And he behaves as most of us would when he finds some cool flora that lights up or retracts when touched; he immediately starts playing with it just for the sheer joy of it. Is this taking things too seriously? This same reviewer also commented that some of the tribal scenes look like a yoga class – apparently they’ve never seen Baraka.
Anyway, on to the io9 review:
These are movies about white guilt. Our main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color – their cultures, their habitats, and their populations. The whites realize this when they begin to assimilate into the “alien” cultures and see things from a new perspective. To purge their overwhelming sense of guilt, they switch sides, become “race traitors,” and fight against their old comrades.
Yes, there are absolutely parallels to America’s colonial history (Na’vi, Navajo – duh!). But there is a fundamental problem with this: are the heroes of Avatar motivated by guilt or by conscience? Certainly one could say that Cruise’s character in The Last Samurai was primarily haunted by his past. But I would argue Jake Sully and his human allies are not motivated by guilt, but by compassion, empathy, and a sense of right and wrong (justice) that transcends race and, in a first, species.
But then they go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed. This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare. It’s not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color; it’s not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It’s a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.
Avatar is the only case I know of where the outsider goes on to become the tribe’s leader. In Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, etc. the characters do not become leaders but rather respected comrades of the indigenous people. They give advice but do not truly lead. The notion they do this because they feel guilty is disingenuous. They change sides when they realize they cannot participate in the unjust act; they realize that they have been on the wrong side of good and evil.
Avatar has a couple of characters who are not white, such as Michelle Rodriguez’s character. How do they fit in to this “white guilt” paradigm?
Think of it this way. 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.
It appeared to me that unlike Dances With Wolves and The Last Samurai, by the end of Avatar Jake can never go back to his old self: his human body was essentially dead and he was permanently stuck in his Na’vi form. If Jake intended to keep using his “white privilege” body, Neytiri would not have removed its oxygen mask. Besides, Jake didn’t even want to remain in his human body because he was paralyzed from the waist down.
Interestingly, Wikus in District 9 learns a very different lesson. He’s becoming alien and he can’t go back. He has no other choice but to live in the slums and eat catfood. And guess what? He really hates it. He helps his alien buddy to escape Earth solely because he’s hoping the guy will come back in a few years with a “cure” for his alienness. When whites fantasize about becoming other races, it’s only fun if they can blithely ignore the fundamental experience of being an oppressed racial group. Which is that you are oppressed, and nobody will let you be a leader of anything.
I think most people really enjoyed District 9, precisely because Wikus is a pretty unlikable guy. He wantonly torches the Prawns’ egg sacks near the start of the film and almost revels in the distinct popping noises they make. He is essentially murdering children. District 9 is interesting because it forces an inherently evil character like that to understand first hand the injustice being perpetrated against the oppressed people. Of course he hates it, and his main motivation is his desire to return to white privilege. In other words, he becomes a hero in spite of himself. Jake Sully is a more typical hero who takes the initiative not on behalf of himself, but others, but I don’t see that as a negative.
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. Speaking as a white person, I don’t need to hear more about my own racial experience. I’d like to watch some movies about people of color (ahem, aliens), from the perspective of that group, without injecting a random white (erm, human) character to explain everything to me. Science fiction is exciting because it promises to show the world and the universe from perspectives radically unlike what we’ve seen before. But until white people stop making movies like Avatar, I fear that I’m doomed to see the same old story again and again.
This isn’t a story about being white or blue, but about following the path of righteousness. I don’t view Avatar as another “white guilt” story, but more of the old “Empire vs Rebels” kind of story that is a slam against colonialism, regardless of what race is doing it. The fact it comes from a white director for a predominantly white audience means the main character will probably be played by – surprise! – a white dude.
In Avatar, it is not just white people who are colonizing Pandora; if you look at the soldiers during their conference scenes you will see representatives from many races. In other words, it transcends the “white guilt” story we’ve seen before and presents us with the simple truth that colonialism itself is about taking what you want from another group of people by turning them into your enemy. You don’t need to look back to the historical record for an equivalent; we are currently living one: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We now know that there were no WMDs, that the majority of the hijackers on 9/11 were actually Saudis, and that the main issue is an oil pipeline through Afghanistan, that the US has used torture. America and its allies are actively engaged in colonialism – it’s just not as obvious as (for example) British and French imperialism was in the past.
Avatar’s story can be read in a number of different ways. Avatar presents Pandora within the framework of the Gaia theory: of a living, semi-conscious planet. So in a way, the planet itself is a living organism. In the film, Weaver’s character Grace explains that the trees make up a neural network more complex than the human brain, and Sully describes Earth as a planet with no green left. From this perspective, the Na’vi are like the antibodies fighting off an infection, and unfortunately the infection is played by the humans. On a planetary scale, the humans essentially multiply until all the resources have been sucked dry, and then they move to another host planet to continue the cycle, like a virus. So Avatar is not only condemning colonialism but also our obviously destructive impact on the Earth.
I’ve also long held the belief that the alien invaders or robot overlords seen in so many sci-fi films are in fact mirror images of humanity’s dark side. It was, therefore, refreshing to see a science fiction film where this mask was removed. Speaking of masks, it’s general knowledge that people will behave differently when wearing masks – or uniforms. Throughout history, people have used masks to take on the persona of gods or animals. I like to think of the Avatars as the ultimate version of this.
In conclusion, despite Avatar’s outlandish sci-fi setting and obvious parallels to Europe’s colonial past, it is also quite contemporary. It deals with the major issues of our time; from America’s dangerous foreign policy to the threat of global warming and climate change. It is also in the mold of the classic “Empire vs Rebels” story. In light of all this, I find io9’s read on the film to be incredibly narrow-minded. Perhaps it is influenced by the reviewer’s political bias – I don’t know if Annalee Newitz fits into this category, but I imagine when conservative right-wingers see Avatar, they will probably feel like they’ve been kicked in the balls, and they will naturally dislike the film.