Despite its Socio-politically Charged Criticisms, I Enjoyed Avatar! What About You?
Annalee Newitz cites Scifi writer Nalo Hopkinson for stating in the Boston Globe that “In the US, to talk about race is to be seen as racist. You become the problem because you bring up the problem. So you find people who are hesitant to talk about it.” She further states that the main mythic story you find in science fiction, generally written by whites, "is going to a foreign culture and colonizing it." Does this describe Avatar? Is it a film about race? Is Hopkinson correct in her assertion that to talk about race is to become racist? (For the record, I agree with her assertion. In my experiences talking about it, I have been labeled racist many times because I unabashedly engage it in my lectures, presentations, and classes). More so, is it even difficult for people uncomfortable with discussing race, or any significant socialized differences, to even go and see Avatar once the hype about its socio-political message is out there? Is it possible that people will be afraid of what they see, or afraid of what it might say about them?
Should we allow the criticisms of the new James Cameron film “Avatar” to prevent us from seeing the film? In the article When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like Avatar, by Newitz, she asserts that “Critics have called alien epic Avatar a version of Dances With Wolves because it's about a white guy going native and becoming a great leader. But Avatar is just the latest sci-fi rehash of an old white guilt fantasy.” The author goes even further in drawing comparison to the films “District 9” and “The Last Samurai.” Can you think of any others?
Newitz further states that “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.”
I love the article because I thoroughly enjoy most anything that challenges my way of seeing. I also agree, to a certain extent, with the author's assertion that Avatar is a new-age version of "Dances with Wolves" and "Enemy Mine" etc. However, what I don't agree with is the somewhat veiled assertion that these movies should no longer be made, or at least Whites should cease making them. The writer, Newitz, makes the mistake that the world has as sophisticated a lens, a way of seeing, as she does, which more than often is not the case.
The overriding moral of the story is that people are selfish and hence act selfishly until motivated to act differently. Yes, Whites do tell these stories with Whites as heroes in the end after some huge epiphany, but would the author herself ever have arrived at her "way of seeing" these stories if she hadn't seen a plethora of them herself? It may be that Ms. Newitz needed to see a certain amount of these films to acquire the consciousness that she obviously has achieved. If we liken racism to a fort, the fort that represents racism needs to be attacked from all sides, and removing these types of films from the collective efforts would be a mistake. If Ms. Newitz and others who are so-called conscious no longer need to see these movies, then they should stop watching them. However, don't assume others won't benefit greatly from seeing them and moving from phase one into phase two of social consciousness about social justice.
Ms. Newitz’s description of the Jake Sully character, and generally many White protagonists who become change agents, or activists for social justice, practically ridicules historic figures like John Brown (whom Quentin Tarantino is supposedly considering making a movie about). What is really wrong with a White person changing her/his perspective and then taking a lead to right social wrongs? I hope you will really dig deep on this question and philosophically extend an answer for consideration.
Is a cause actually better served if arguably the best leader takes a back seat because her gender, class, race, etc. provides her too much privilege or could divert the focus away from the project she perhaps should be leading? Would "Avatar" have been more/less socially relevant if Cameron had made the Jake Sully character Jacquelyn? With that change, then would the movie’s socio-political message have changed so much that our focus on Jacquelyn’s leadership as a White female would have been adversely affected because of her interracial and now lesbian relationship with Zoe Saldana’s character “Neyteri?” If Jake Sully had been Black, Hispanic, or Native American, would the racial critics then have been kept at bay? He was already a member of an underrepresented community by the mere fact that he was physically challenged, having lost use of his legs as a soldier, but is ableism so far off our radar screens that most of us don’t consider the depth of Sully’s compassion for the other fused in his being social ostracized and marginalized?
What are your thoughts about Avatar as a social statement? Are the social statements it is being taken to task for undercutting the film’s worth, or adding to it?