It wasn’t until several weeks after Avatar’s release that my wife and I managed to squeeze into Raleigh’s iMax theater (mid-afternoon in the middle of the business week and it was packed) to experience the phenomenon. To keep it one hunit… despite some slight reservations I thought it was awesome! It was astounding to watch, especially in iMax, the cinematography was spellbinding and the writing and acting were quite good. It’s no surprise that the sci-fi thriller managed to sink the Titanic and become the highest grossing movie of all time. As a life-long science fiction junkie it would be easy for me to get swept up in Pandora-maina with praise for the innovative film. However, the professor and cultural analyst in me demands more. It is because of Avatar’s unprecedented commercial success and cultural significance that I feel the need to delve into some of the deeper issues.
One only needs to look historically to understand why it’s so important that we interrogate cultural phenomena like Avatar. For example, take the 1915 drama Birth of a Nation. Birth of a Nation was the Avatar of it’s time, having broken revolutionary ground with state of the art cinematography, special effects and unprecedented box office sales. It was actually the movie that coined the term “blockbuster” because folks were wrapped around the block waiting to watch it. One can learn a lot about early-20th century social and cultural politics by watching and analyzing Birth of a Nation. It was a Ku Klux Klan propaganda film, which depicted Blacks in the reconstruction era as a vicious threat to society. The film reflected the sentiment of many white Americans of the time, who sought to undermine Black progress through the media, Jim Crow, lynchings and other means. The fact that Birth of a Nation was so ridiculously popular reveals the extent to which it resonated with the people of that time. The same can be said about Avatar. We can learn a lot about Americans in this century by critically analyzing the implications of her pop culture juggernauts. That being said, I want to tread lightly. I could be guilty over-analyzing a film that has nauseatingly saturated the media and blogsphere as of late. Writer Dave Itzkoff tackles our obsession with Avatar in his hilarious and introspective article, “You Saw What in ‘Avatar’? Pass Those Glasses!”
Over the last month, (Avatar) has been criticized by social and political conservatives who bristle at its depictions of religion and the use of military force; feminists who feel that the male avatar bodies are stronger and more muscular than their female counterparts; antismoking advocates who object to a character who lights up cigarettes; not to mention fans of Soviet-era Russian science fiction; the Chinese; and the Vatican. This week the authorities in China announced that the 2-D version of the film would be pulled from most theaters there to make way for a biography of Confucius.
I guess Itzkoff can add me on his list of over-analytical scholars. It is, after all, my job. WARNING: if you have been living under a rock since December and have not yet seen Avatar, go watch it (or read this synopsis of the plot) before reading this article. Spoilers await you.
I’ve spoken with friends and colleagues on both sides of the fence that have had strong opinions about Avatar’s racial and cultural implications. My sister, for example, had observed through the trailer that the film was about a conflict between white humans and a tough, “hard to kill” dark skinned race. For her, red (black and green) flags went up at notion of yet another movie which juxtaposed white heroics with exotic “savagery” of color. Pun intended: she’s seen this movie before. It’s a Hollywood staple epitomized in the majority of the Disney catalogue (except, maybe The Frog Princess. Anybody seen it?). In the other camp, some of my people applauded the revolutionary, anti-imperial/colonial slant to the film. Dr. Ray Winbush over at the blog, Reparations for Enslavement and the Blackside of Things saw Avatar as the perfect venue for social critique:
I loved the film because it is one of Hollywood’s best attempts to deal with the horrors of white supremacy and the African response to it… Historically, violent, rapacious, imperialistic, white supremacist attacks have not only been directed toward Africans, but indigenous people as well. Indeed, if Avatar doesn’t do anything else, it shows that white supremacy directs its malicious onslaught against all people of color both inside and outside of Africa.
While I agree with Dr. Winbush’s observation that Cameron exposes the historically sinister pathology of European Imperialism, I feel like he dropped the ball on the “African (and Indigenous) response to it.” How can we applaud Cameron for championing Black (or Blue) self-determination, when the revolutionary N’avi resistance was only successful at repealing the colonial invasion after they were lead by the white main character, Jake Sully? Cameron successfully challenges some notions of white supremacy, only to fall into the trap of others. Blackademics interviewee, Paul Mooney (March 2007) addressed Hollywood’s penchant for white supremacy in his Chapelle’s Show skit, Movies with Mooney. In the skit, Mooney comically reflects on the Hollywood blockbuster, The Last Samurai with two white counterparts:
|Mooney on Movies|
Film Critic: The Last Samurai centers around Tom Cruise, a Civil War veteran who goes to Japan and teaches the Emperor’s troops how to fight.
Mooney: Another movie I was offended by. Hollywood is crazy. The Last Samurai starring… Tom Cruise? He’s the Last Samurai? Give me a break. The movie was offensive. Hollywood is crazy. First they have The Mexican with Brad Pitt and now they’ve got The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise. Well I’ve written a film, maybe they’ll produce my film. The Last Nigga on Earth. Starring Tom Hanks. How about that?
Mooney elucidates a common thread in Hollywood where white men are placed in desperate situations within communities of color, then emerge as the focal point and heroes of the story. It’s not enough for Cruise to partake in the cultural experiences, and gain the trust of the Japanese – he must also become the trailblazing hero and leader of the Japanese people as well. Likewise, look at Avatar’s main character and protagonist Jake Sully. He is a Marine who infiltrates, befriends and falls in love with the blue-skinned Na’vi people, and ends up almost single-handedly rescuing the entire civilization from imminent destruction. In addition to becoming their moral and strategic leader, he’s physically stronger than the Na’vi alpha male, he conquers the most feared and spectacular bird on Pandora and is sleeping with Zoe Saldana – the baddest sister on the planet! This has dual implications. On one hand it reinforces the myth of the “white savior” as the sole source of liberation for people of color, rendering them almost defenseless without the aid of the white super-hero. It also perpetuates what journalist Annalee Newitz calls the “white guilt fantasy” in her article “When will white people stop making movies like Avatar”
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. 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.
Despite the “white savior” undertones, what saves Avatar for me is its social, political and religious messages. The film is an out-right condemnation of colonialism, imperialism and genocide, and a celebration of environmentalism, spirituality and revolution. Just look at the “bad guys” in the movie. The language of the corporate military antagonists is clearly meant to represent the historical language of Western colonists, slave-holders, war-mongers and capitalists. They disparagingly call the N’avi “savages,” as Indigenous Americans, Africans and Black people have been (and still are) called. They refer to N’avi warriors as “terrorists,” as Harriet Tubman, John Brown and Toussaint Louverture were called. They uncompromisingly pursue profit at the expense of people’s lives just as Napoleon, George W. Bush and Christopher Columbus did. Film critic John Nolte calls Avatar,
“a thinly guised… fantasy/allegory critical of America from our founding straight through to the Iraq War.”
The film is meant to reflect real historical (and contemporary) examples of corruption and the extortion of people of color. This, for me, makes the “white savior” complex tolerable. It’s like The Matrix. It doesn’t really matter that the main character in The Matrix, Neo, is white. The most important aspect of the movie is its revolutionary substance. At the end of the day, the biggest movie of all time is a condemnation of racism, greed and oppression and a celebration of a grassroots, people’s Revolution. What does this say about where the average American’s (or global citizen’s) head is at?