Avatar: Commentary and Race Observation

The below quote is a review from Annalee Newitz, the co-editor of a foundational Critical Whiteness Studies volume, White Trash: Race and Class in America. The “harsh” critique of James Cameron’s recently released, expensive (production cost $200 mil) and bonafide(?) blockbuster Avatar, the tale of a human soldier on a beautiful planet of blue-hued humanoids.

“When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like ‘Avatar’?”

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. Spoilers…

[It’s] undeniable that the film — like alien apartheid flick District 9, released earlier this year — is emphatically a fantasy about race. Specifically, it’s a fantasy about race told from the point of view of white people. Avatar and sci fi films like it give us the opportunity to answer the question: What do white people fantasize about when they fantasize about racial identity?

Avatar imaginatively revisits the crime scene of white America’s foundational act of genocide, in which entire native tribes and civilizations were wiped out by European immigrants to the American continent. In the film, a group of soldiers and scientists have set up shop on the verdant moon Pandora, whose landscapes look like a cross between Northern California’s redwood cathedrals and Brazil’s tropical rainforest. The moon’s inhabitants, the Na’vi, are blue, catlike versions of native people: They wear feathers in their hair, worship nature gods, paint their faces for war, use bows and arrows, and live in tribes. Watching the movie, there is really no mistake that these are alien versions of stereotypical native peoples that we’ve seen in Hollywood movies for decades.

And Pandora is clearly supposed to be the rich, beautiful land America could still be if white people hadn’t paved it over with concrete and strip malls. In Avatar, our white hero Jake Sully (sully – get it?) explains that Earth is basically a war-torn wasteland with no greenery or natural resources left. . . .

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 from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.

Think of it this way. Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege. . . .

I would like to say she’s reading too much into these tales, which she is, but I also have to admit that she makes solid points. It has long been known that movies about [superior] alien invaders coming to conquer humans/ Earth are metaphors for European colonialism; and if that’s true, then movies about humans reaching distant planets/ being among other cultures where they struggle for acceptance represent the redemption of whites. it’s the equivalent of taking the alien invader and putting him among the people he’s trying to conquer, where he learns to see it from their perspective. Avatar tells this common tale. In Avatar, the lead protagonist actually has his consciousness downloaded into an alien’s body, hence the title of the film. This is the equivalent of a white person getting a tan, painting his face and wearing his hair and clothes in the fashion of the adopted race. It’s designed to make him empathetic to their cause. In these tales, also, the protagonist becomes the hero of the story, the one that saves the race, by utilizing his superior skills and intelligence to the benefit of the adopted race/species.

I have long known the aforementioned point to be true, but to have Newitz articulate it so well, breathes new understanding into it. Observe also, the cinderella movie, The Blindside, about a young, homeless black male who’s rescued by a white couple and later goes on to become a superstar football player in the NFL. Of course, part of the movie’s appeal is the redeeming white character played by Sandra Bullock. The heroes of the movies are the whites who rescued the poor black boy, and it’s these whites that boost the feel-good hormones in the [mainstream] white audience, who can only understand discrimination through the eyes of redeeming whites like Sandra Bullock’s character.

A film that shows discrimination only through the eyes of impoverished blacks or other does nothing but elicit white guilt, and such a movie will never appeal to whites. The sympathetic white character is needed to provide enough redemption to pacify guilt, making it possible for some whites to sit through the movie.

That said:

‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ by Ursula K. Le Guin is a better story about a human who goes to a foreign planet of humanoids. The hero/human is black, but you don’t know it until the alien brings it up, out of sheer inquiry about humans, and the hero’s race isn’t dwelled on at all, yet he’s relatable.

Read more from Newitz here.


About TCDH

Blogger with an opinion.
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