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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?

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I thought the movie was great, and look forward to the sequel :-) Moreover, it's a futuristic story (unfortunately) about our country/world and the same colonization that the Europeans undertook of my people the native Americans and succeeded. Interesting yet again, how fantasy might meet reality again in the future...

Hey J.W., I haven't talked to you in a while but I saw you post about this on facebook.

I don't have much to say about the main point of your post other than that I like that films like this are being made because they pose racial issues in a way that isn't politically charged. People don't feel quite as attached to futuristic, fictionalized cultures and so are free to chose which culture they sympathize with, without bias.

But my main thought about films like this is that I find it somewhat offensive that in movies like The Last Samurai, and Avatar (according to what I've heard) a non-native white person steps in, and after a brief adjustment period, is able to be a better leader than the majority of the indigenous population. It gives off feel good emotions that even an outsider can overcome cultural differences and rise to greatness, but I feel a bit uncomfortable that it is so often the white person so easily rising to greatness in these kind of movies. It makes me wonder if there is perhaps some kind of veiled assumption that white people can most easily assume positions of power in society.

And as an aside, I had no idea that Tarantino was thinking about making a film about John Brown but I'm sure it would be interesting if he made one. I've always been fascinated by John Brown and hopefully some day I'll be able to visit his former cabin near Lake Placid.

Fear of how others see me holds me back from being myself. In an attempt to blend in with the crowd, I often avoid certain conversation topics so that my wit remains unchallenged and near perfect in my own eyes. This may be how the would-be viewers of Avatar feel when they decide not to watch the film.

Like you JW, I enjoy films about leaders coming into their own, despite their race, class, gender, ability, sexual orientation, etc. For me, this hits home because I see myself as a developing leader who has not quite come into who she wants to be yet. This is coupled with the expectations of the people who have helped her along the way, people within her race, class, gender, ability, sexual orientation, etc., that feel I am speaking for them as I guide them to new heights (they have contributed to my success and should proudly be acknowledged). If I am in a group that has been known to oppress others, my voice may be discarded by the oppressed because of what I represent, not the message I carry out. If we can’t please everyone, do we ever really win?

It would be ideal if every white person could/would change their perspective to that of globally oppressed people of color (prior to colonization); but then you would be out of a job. On the flip, maybe you wouldn’t need one at all!

There is nothing wrong with whites changing their perspectives to one that enables oppressed people of color to rise to greatness. I have had discussions with black folk recently who are turned off to the idea of a “white messiah” coming to save the black (all people of color-if you’re not white you’re black) masses because they feel this job is reserved “For Blacks Only.” What about the whites that blacks cannot reach due to prejudice that is surface deep? The black masses need whites who are “down with brown” who can reach those whites who “hate what they ain’t.”

If Avatar was not made into a movie, this discussion would not be taking place. To me (as I feel comfortable extending this feeling to you, JW), the conversation is the point of film viewing and Newitz’s statements do less good than she appears to want to portray. She comes off as flaunting her intellect and is possibly unaware that her desire to forego movies like Avatar may further oppress and colonize people of color because we will have no story to show us what has, is, and could continue to happen. If written from a white woman perspective or a black perspective, it may not have related to the very people who are in the ideal economic, racial, social, etc. situations to enact a change.

Last note, Sully’s desire for saving the Pandora Indigenous people may have been a direct reaction to his being disabled in the human world. In the Avatar world, he had his legs. Could his act that appeared to result in unselfish honor and praise have stemmed from selfishness for an ideal physical form in the given new environment of the Avatar?

OK I lied, side note…it was a pleasure engaging this film with you!

Corporate or Societal Racism in Avatar?

I truly can’t begin to unpack what I feel about Avatar. Thoughts about power, race, class, ability, relationships, loyalty, science and spirituality are bouncing in my head. I’ll try now. The film reminds me of the extermination of many Native American groups at the onset of the American democratic experiment. My mind immediately goes there because I’ve been entrenched by the ideas in Howard Zinn’s book “A People’s History of the United States.” But beyond this, and regardless of how it recreates the same thematic plot of other sci-fi movies, it brings up some interesting questions about race and power in the future.


Furthermore, think about the question the movie asks about the corporate involvement in the oppression of vulnerable people. The potential colonization or extermination was driven by a corporate agenda. This I think is where the root of the problem is in the film. How will the need to make a profit in a time of crisis push individuals or groups to set aside their moral compasses? And isn’t the behavior of some existing corporations similar to the actions seen in the movie when people of color in developing countries and in already developed ones are displaced, mistreated, underpaid and abused due to corporate ventures? Isn't this racism? At what level do we engage racism in order to end it? Attacking all fronts is a great idea but I also suggest looking deeper into the matter. In Avatar, the racism was a byproduct of the intention to get the precious material below Na’Vi land. In essence, as long as we create conditions that allow people with privilege to pursue, without accountability, their goals to attain more privilege and power through direct or indirect oppression, racism and all the other forms of the oppression will be byproducts of this cycle.

Angel-

I haven't seen the film as of yet, so I can't comment directly on it's content. However, I have a question about your response.

You wrote..."In essence, as long as we create conditions that allow people with privilege to pursue, without accountability, their goals to attain more privilege and power through direct or indirect oppression, racism and all the other forms of the oppression will be byproducts of this cycle."

My question is probably more like five or six questions, but the general idea is that I'm curious what you view of human nature is.

You say that we "create conditions" that ultimately result in racism. And what I hear in that statement is an attack on capitalist principles. Maybe I read into that, but that's the impression I got from your statement. Are you suggesting policing capitalism? You say "without accountability" in your statement...but there ARE laws, are there not? And the fundamental principle of capitalsim is freedom...are we to curtail freedom to ensure equal treatment of everyone? And what type of governing body do you want to oversee this?

Do you think that capitalist principles arose from people being inherently greedy? Or more positively, do humans have a natural inclination to better their standing in life? Or do you think we are all running around willy nilly doing whatever we please without concern for our fellow man?

I'm just curious about some of the foundation under your statement. It sounds reasonable on the surface...but the more I dug into it, the more problematic it seemed to me.

Whaler,

I'm glad you asked those questions. Fundamentally, I think that capitalism, or to be more precise, free-market democracies have made so much progress in gradually alleviating the ills caused by hierarchical oppression in all its forms (Men over Women, Rich over Poor, Lord over Peasant…etc). If it were not for the economic opportunities produced by capitalism, I would not be typing this response right now. Therefore, I’m not anti-capitalist. Especially now that the system has opened the doors for social entrepreneurs to develop for-profit business ventures that make an impact in the world while bringing in revenue. But, even though there are laws, do you really think everyone follows them?? When you get a chance, check out this segment on Fiji Water, its partnership with the military junta and environmental record in Fiji (http://www.democracynow.org/2009/9/3/spin_the_bottle_expose_raises_alarming).

You ask if we should curtail freedom to ensure equal treatment of everyone. Well, in the case of Avatar, corporate freedom should be curtailed if their endeavors are wiping out communities. On another note, think about the privilege we have to live in this beautiful country, have running water, efficient roads and modes of transportation, respect of the rule of law and relative safety. These benefits are a byproduct of the amazing and often aggressive moves the U.S Government, corporations and business people have made to bring home the bacon. This is understandable. Now, let’s not be naive. Don’t you think that some of these governmental and/or corporate endeavors have negatively impacted some communities, while we have benefited from them? I’m not saying capitalism is wrong. I’m somewhat suggesting that the market has no morality and needs laws and systems of accountability, some that are already in place, to ensure a relatively leveled playing field. Maybe this is a bit Utopian and is connected to the fact that I think human nature is dynamic with its ability to push us towards irrationality and evil, BUT it inherently brings out our sense of compassion, good and sense of community.

Lastly, as for what governing body should oversee this, I think a social democracy that is in continuous improvement might do the deed.

I haven't seen Avatar yet, so I won't comment on the details I've heard of. That said, I think that those of us who disdain "Dances With Wolves", "The Last Samauri", "Avatar," etc. for always have "white guys" become sensitized and "go native" have a reasonable point. It's definitely a theme that suggests a degree of paternalism that may be the liberal's version of racism. However, I agree with what I think JW is saying ... that there are loads of other viewers for whom these rather cliched themes are genuinely new and ground-breaking. I may yawn and say, "Not again?!", but others may sincerely think, "Wow, I never thought of that!" To the extent that creates a new level of sensitivity and thoughtfulness, it's a valuable contribution.

Social statements in the movie are only ADDING to its worth!
isnt that the sole purpose of film? to make a statement? what use is a film without a statement?
thats like an art without paint.

I loved the movie "Avatar" watched it twice in a week. enjoyed the animations more on the second viewing.

I think if you look beyond the "Whites" "native americans" issues... (although the first thing that popped into my head was the spanish coming to south america and killing millions of natives by emplying them in mines and taking as much gold as possible to europe and to the bottom of the atlantic) .. this film shows what greed and tunnel vision we humans are capable of and what extent we can go to gain the riches we THINK can make us happy.

whoever is advising against watching this movie needs a good old knock on the head.

Like Angel, I do not know where to begin unpacking the thoughts that are dancing around my mind on Avatar. I have seen it twice and plan on seeing it again in theaters. First, let me say, it has immediately become one of my favorite movies for the issues James Cameron addresses and yes, also for the grandeur. But let's try to dig deeper...


The Omiticaya (American name = Na' Vi) remind me of another once "mystical" people known now as Native Americans. Not only because of the parallels in treatment they received from Whites/America but also for the connection possessed with their environment, the passion for community, and the difference in beliefs from that of the Capitalist society we live in.

After viewing the film a second time, I watched the television program "Inside Planet Earth." The show was about the layers of earth beneath the ground, how it works, and the history behind what made the surface we continue to destroy today. I could not help but recall the great connection the Omiticaya people had with their planet and how much we, as a people, have lost touch. The green movement may be positive but is it enough to save mother earth? Do we take enough time to marvel at the astonishing environment around us? Are we missing the connection that the Native Americans and Omiticaya had with their respective planets? Just food for thought.

The turmoil that took over Pandora is, in many ways, like that which the Native Americans endured... but this is not what pains me. The fact that still today, humans are being purged from their homelands and sacred grounds (in many ways because of Capitalism) deeply saddens me. Certain scenes in Avatar made me sick to my stomach as my mind linked the Na'Vi treatment with ours of Native Americans. Sacred strongholds like Tibet or Jerusalem are still under siege today and in our own country Native Americans are being forced to new reservations as corporations find mines on land given (awarded to as a thanks for getting the hell off of their own land) to the natives.
Finally, I believe the film shows what greed has done to the idea of capitalism and why we need to make progress toward a new economic strategy (like that will happen!?). Capitalism has become a way to disguise the devil as an angel. It is simply a scapegoat for corporations to continually purge all obstacles in the way of its goal (In Lil Wayne's words: you know what they say bout when your palm itch. I'm gonna get money, money I'm gonna get). While the idea behind Capitalism is something I cherish, it is just no longer plausible. The gap between the rich and poor in the United States continues to widen to ridiculous proportions. The deficit continues to grow. And our focus continues to be on "fixing" the countries around us. Maybe it's time we stop focusing on mining Pandora, and start mining abundant goods of the elite.

Okay, so I went on a bit of a hate-fest there but it's all love. The film was amazing and addressed a lot of pertinent issues. Anyone have any responses to my assertions? I'd love to listen!

Science fiction, as a genre, uses the guise of technology, aliens, and other worlds as metaphors in which to engage the essential questions that make us uncomfortable as regular humans. Of course Avatar is about race and colonization. As Nalo Hopkinson observes, colonization is a main storyline of science fiction. Avatar brought this storyline to Hollywood, with 3D glasses. By separating elements of consciousness and body and combining them in ways only possible in the technological imagination, Avatar braves questions such as "What determines race?" "Can a person be of two races?" and as basic as "What is a person?" James Cameron obviously read a bunch of science fiction, stole the good ideas, and packed them into an oversimplified plot with flat characters and a happily-ever-after ending. But with the beauty of that neon forest in 3-D, who could look away? My point is: good science fiction, like all good literature, is complex. James Cameron's Avatar, much like most racial dialogue in our country, is too black-and-white. I recommend Octavia Butler, a black American whose science fiction mirrors the complexity of her own human experience. Her short story Bloodchild is able to ask essential questions about gender and yes, race, by imagining a world where males are impregnated.

Dana,

I would argue, in favor of Avatar, that in order to reach the masses through a highly touted motion picture while also producing enough "hype" to meet financial, fan, and personal expectations AND yet act as a catalyst for intellectual conversation, a movie needs to appear a bit simpler in plot. If Cameron, instead, focused on a more intellectually stimulating plot, he would risk losing the majority of viewer's attention as many subjective movies do. While Butler's science fiction may provide a better intellectual challenge for you, Cameron's Avatar has a better chance to connect with those who have not yet hurdled those "simpler" challenges and at least provoke conversation.

Avatar is a good film if you completely ignore all of the assumed truth Cameron liberally injects into it. It is riddled with unfounded clichés and anecdotes assuming that a pure/peaceful people can overcome an evil capitalistic/militaristic one through moral integrity and ironically a little help from a member of the evil capitalists.
This oversimplified amalgam does a disservice to the complexity of global/cultural/racial societal interrelationships of the past, present and future. It is rolled up like a bowling ball and slammed down the brain lane right into the “open minds” of everyone who just loves to applaud the underdogs, bask in moral superiority and generally ignore the reality of how things really work in favor of unfounded simplistic “pristine myths.”

Ultimately this movie is a fantasy epic and unapologetically reeks of social justice, exhibiting “pure beings” savagely mutilated in the name of a “military-industrial-capitalist-corporate-evil-unjust progress.” Basically, we were wrong; they were perfect and pristine, in this movie and in real life, according to James Cameron.

Last point, but not least, WE ALL know that if the Avatar Ewoks had the technology and ability to mine unobtainium they would tread lightly, respect customs, never take advantage of that technological superiority and ultimately act like the hyper moral supreme beings they are: never exploiting the world or peoples around them for their personal gain… LOL

Great visual effects, good movie, poor plot and connoted an ulterior motive to entertainment. I think this guy says it best JW:
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/08/opinion/08brooks.html

Seen this film (the non-special edition) about eight times and i must say the 3-D tech in it is astounding. The first time i didn't see much of the film for picking my jaw up off of the floor. This film is 9000/10 when watching in 3D but with standard viewing its still awesome, but need a little more imagination. Also look out for the novel James Cameron is planning to write, its basically a novelisation of the film! EPIC!

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