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In the recent flurry of debate about whether or not Avatar is racist I would like to offer a possibility that resists the dichotomy of yes or no. Certainly the film plays into old, tired tropes of the courageous white guy who learns the sacred, carefully-honed skills of a people in a few months. Yes, the salvation of a people seems to hinge on the peculiar knowledge and/or strength of the hero.

But Avatar shifts from this paradigm in one important way. Not only does Jake Sully enter into the Na’vi, but he literally becomes one of them. That is, while the characters of Kevin Costner, Tom Cruise, and others took on the ways of a people, they also maintained a privilege in their given locations based on their whiteness. Costner’s character, Lt. John Dunbar, in “Dances with Wolves” could always go back into town, he would continue to be a representative to the white world even from within his adopted people. Return was always possible for the white hero.

And yet in Avatar Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington) literally forsakes the privilege of his humanity. Undoubtedly, speculators from earth will return and who will Sully be? Perhaps he is a revered leader among his adopted people, but he also now has no standing among humans who may return to Pandora. He can be represented as nothing other than a Na’vi.

Does the fact that Sully can no longer be recognized as human, as apart from the native people change how we conceive of the movie’s racial undertones?

In fact, it could be said that Cameron offered a slightly more complicated (albeit still problematic) display of Western intellectual caprice. The Avatar Project’s premier scientist, a botanist, at once understands the “spiritual” aspects of Pandora better than the Na’vi’s mythic explanations of natural phenomenon. And yet despite her desire to be a part of the Na’vi it is precisely her knowledge that prevents her from entering into the people. Ultimately, she must die. And it is upon her death that she comes to understand that what she saw as a scientific phenomenon was, in fact, something far more. Perhaps the Na’vi were not as naive as the humans imagined.

While I am not considering Cameron’s “Avatar” a sophisticated portrayal of racial existence in the world, I am not sure we have given him enough credit for beginning to blur some of the certainty that previous instantiations of the assimilated hero myth.

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5 thoughts on “Avatar – Racist?

  1. Thanks for these insights, Brian. I was bothered by the problematic white man-savior trope, and I thought the movie had real potential to offer a remarkable plot as well as special effects. One way I thought it could have been better is for Sully to have remained a Na’vi novice, who becomes part of a culture that responds to violence/invasion in a way that doesn’t simply mirror typical human violent responses. So, I would have developed the Na’vi’s connection with the planet to an even greater extent so that they would have “supernatural” power — resulting in such things as enabling mold growth, disease infestation, poisoning of water supplies (a “natural” consequence to mining), etc. as “weapons” against the humans. In this way, we’d have a native people clearly superior to the humans (but not just a more powerful same), and part of Sully’s conversion would entail unlearning his military formation in order to become one both with the Na’vi people and thus also with Pandora. In this way, he’d really learn “how to see.”

  2. I agree that the movie offered a more complicated analysis than many previous ones (though not as rich as the one in District-9, I think). In fact, to the question of the “white male savior,” Avatar does force us to ask at what point, if any, did Sully stop acting as a white male. In other words, what is the possibility/actuality of conversion for white men?

    I haven’t read it yet, but someone recently pointed me to Du Bois’s biography on John Brown, the white male abolitionist who embraced violence. It might make for an interesting comparison.

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