16 Jan 2010
PHILADELPHIA — Near the end of the hit film Avatar, the villain snarls at the hero: “How does it feel to betray your own race?” Both men are white — although the hero is inhabiting a blue-skinned, 2,75-metre tall, long-tailed alien.
Strange as it may seem for a film that pits greedy, immoral humans against noble denizens of a faraway moon, Avatar is being criticised by a small but vocal group of people who allege it contains racist themes — the white hero once again saving the primitive natives.
Since the film opened to widespread critical acclaim three weeks ago, hundreds of blog posts, newspaper articles, tweets and YouTube videos have made claims such as the film is “a fantasy about race told from the point of view of white people” and reinforces “the white Messiah fable”.
The film’s writer and director, James Cameron, says the real theme is about respecting others’ differences.
In the film (read no further if you don’t want to know the plot) a white, paralysed United States Marine, Jake Sully, is mentally linked to an alien’s body and set loose on the planet Pandora. His mission: persuade the mystic, nature-loving Na’vi to make way for humans to mine their land for unobtanium, which is worth $20 million per kilogram back home.
Like Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves and Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, or as far back as Jimmy Stewart in the 1950 Western Broken Arrow, Sully finds that his allegiances soon change. He falls in love with the Na’vi princess and leads the bird-riding, bow-and-arrow- shooting aliens to victory over the white men’s spaceships and mega-robots.
Adding to the racial dynamic is the fact that the main Na’vi characters are played by actors of colour, led by Dominican Zoe Saldana, who is the princess. The film is also an obvious metaphor for how European settlers in the United States wiped out the Native Americans.
Robinne Lee, an actress in recent films such as Seven Pounds and Hotel for Dogs, said that Avatar is “beautiful” and that she understands the economic logic of casting a white lead if most of the audience is white.
But she said the film, which remained number one at the box office in the U.S. for the fourth straight weekend with $48,5 million, and is second among all-time top-grossing films worldwide, still reminds her of Hollywood’s Pocahontas story — “the Indian woman leads the white man into the wilderness and he learns the way of the people and becomes the saviour”.
“It’s really upsetting in many ways,” said Lee, who is black with Jamaican and Chinese ancestry. “It would be nice if we could save ourselves.”
Annalee Newitz, editor-in-chief of the sci-fi web site io9.com, likened Avatar to the recent film District 9, in which a white man accidentally becomes an alien and then helps save the aliens, and 1984’s Dune, in which a white man becomes an alien Messiah.
“Main white characters realise that they are complicit in a system that is destroying aliens, aka people of colour ... [then] go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed,” wrote Newitz, who is white. “When will whites stop making these movies and start thinking about race in a new way?”
Black film professor and author Donald Bogle said he can understand why people would be troubled byAvatar, although he praised it as a “stunning” work.
“A segment of the audience is carrying in the back of their head some sense of movie history,” said Bogle, author of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films.
Bogle stopped short, however, of calling the movie racist.
“It’s a film with still a certain kind of distortion,” he said. “It’s a movie that hasn’t yet freed itself of old Hollywood traditions, old formulas.”
Writer-director Cameron, who is white, said in an e-mail to the Associated Press that his film “asks us to open our eyes and truly see others, respecting them even though they are different, in the hope that we may find a way to prevent conflict and live more harmoniously in this world. I hardly think that is a racist message.”
There are many ways to interpret the art that is Avatar. What does it mean that in the final, sequel-begging scene, Sully abandons his human body and transforms into one of the Na’vi?
Is Saldana’s Na’vi character the real heroine because she, not Sully, kills the arch villain? Does it matter that many conservatives are riled by what they call liberal environmental and antimilitary messages?
Is Cameron actually exposing the historical evils of white colonisers? Does the existence of an alien species expose the reality that all humans are actually one race?
Although the Avatar debate springs from Hollywood’s historical difficulties with race, Will Smith recently saved the planet in I Am Legend, and Denzel Washington appears ready to do the same in the forthcoming Book of Eli.
Bogle, the film historian, said that he is glad that Cameron made the film and that it makes people think about race.
“Maybe there is something he does want to say and put across” about race, Bogle said. “Maybe if he had a black hero in there, that point would have been even stronger.”