My friend Minh sent me an article which addresses the undertones of racism in Avatar, somewhat similar in his opinion to The Last Samurai. Evidently, I have eschewed my responsibility as a minority woman to address racism and exoticism in this film. Perhaps I intentionally shied away from these topics so as to avoid being defined by them.
Racial Superiority and Imperialism
While I had a wry attitude towards the idealization of the noble savage, I wouldn’t go so far as to say the film was racist so much as it was drawing a parallel to war in Iraq. Racial superiority belies all imperial ambitions, be they American (Latin America, now the Middle East), British (most of the world), or Japanese (the only non-white empire, short-lived but highly oppressive).
While the film does not condone imperialism (quite the opposite), Minh felt that it was racist in the sense that the white man had to protect and save the indigenous people. Not only that, but he then became a semi-godlike figure after easily taming a very large, flying dragon, an event which has happened only five times in the history of the Na’vi.
The Navi have dark skin (blue is Cameron’s preferred color), look vaguely African and/or Native American and speak a language invented expressly for the film that sounds like Swahili meets Zulu. Throw in the exotic, Pocahontas-like princess, and you start to wonder. If this is starting to sound a bit like Joseph Conrad, it is.
Avatar makes a sweeping assumption that the Navi are completely disinterested in what the invading civilization has to offer: roads, schools, and education. All symbols of modernity. Native Americans while skeptical, were interested in trade. East Indians too. This is how a band of merchant adventurers transformed into the world’s first multinational corporation, the East India Company, and then staged a piecemeal takeover of the country as British government proxy, mainly to secure tea and opium export revenues.
There are counterpoints in Avatar, the most significant of which being Jake Sully’s renunciation of his race, world, and culture. According to Minh, the Navi are presented as “superior culturally and spiritually, though not in military power” (arrows and horses versus machine guns and Gundam-like tanks).
Marketing and Demographics
These negative sentiments, even if perceived and possibly ingrained, are not deliberate. The issue has a lot to do with marketing. The problem also concerns narration. It is the external power that is narrating. The Navi don’t possess a voice of their own. The typical American person wouldn’t be interested in an indigenous person saving another indigenous person. Perhaps Hollywood reinforces stereotypes, but this will change as the market changes.
Quoting Sitting Pugs:
When whites actually do become the minority visibly and in the census, themes won’t change in movies. The casting choices will be different. Question is, who is up next to take position of Subject? Blacks? Homosexuals? Women?
The demographics of the movie itself are not very diverse – yes, there are bit roles from Dileep Rao and Michelle Rodriguez, but little else.
Does the film community have an obligation to address these concerns – in some ways, it’s just entertainment and marketing. But is it entertainment that reinforces some stereotypes?
Quoting Sitting Pugs:
I don’t think arts and entertainment *should* be obligated to address these concerns but many artists and art products do, both intentionally and unintentionally. Literature, cinema, and music invite aesthetic appreciation and critique, amusement, but also function as propaganda.
It would be silly for a writer, filmmaker, or musician *not* to take advantage of the potentially very big discerning or non-discerning audience.
Flash forward 500 years. Hypothetical Chinese Empire. Will it be making movies portraying Americans in a negative light? After a Sino-American joint venture takes us from Earth-that-was to a distant galaxy where the imperial Alliance fights a war with the Browncoats to . . .never mind.
Myth and politics including the reincarnation bit, environmental destruction, and the Iraq/Blackwater commentary come through strongly in Avatar. The science-fiction itself, aside from the beauteous botany (synonymous with the graphics) is weak. Sigourney Weaver describes the neurological makeup of the world as a “global network” where “something biological is happening.” O-K then. Like what?
The author of the article referred to in the beginning is African-American. Were I him, I would be concerned about taking my son or daughter to a movie which perpetuates eye-rolling stereotypes. But I’d take them anyways, and point it all out. My own parents were offended by the portrayal of Indians in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. They made sure I saw the movie and knew how ridiculous it was.
Extreme portrayals are probably the film’s major weakness. The white man had no redeeming qualities – ah, but wait, there’s this one white man, savior-figure who makes up for it all! Maybe the real problem is that films like The Last Samurai, Avatar, and Dances with Wolves (all which I love) allow the chance for redemption through film for wrongs committed in reality. Atonement explored this idea and concluded it’s not possible, or at best disturbing. The beauty of art as opposed to reality is that you can step away from it and ask what is this telling me and what is it not telling me?
We may have a whole new take on “the white man’s burden.” Rudyard Kipling is often criticized for being a mouthpiece of British Empire and racist. I’m sure he had conflicting feelings. The man is a master of irony. Look deeply and you will see that he was slyly getting away with criticism of Empire. Look deeply into Avatar, and you will see that this movie is mostly entertainment. I’m sure it will be a massive overseas box office hit.