Just to get it out of the way: Yes, Avatar is a white boy’s fantasy par excellence. This fantasy’s climax shot is when Jake Sully, the hero, joins with the Na’vi’s greatest hunter bird and leads the Na’vi rebellion to victory. Ok, now that that’s clear…
Seldom does a movie come out that touches so many issues: racism, environmentalism, imperialism, speciesism, progress, science, anthropology, ableism, white supremacy, pacifism, spirituality, pagans, anti-smoking, corporations, greed, pantheism, anti-Americanism, technology, September 11, war on terror, the role of art, representation, colonialism, identity etc.(1) Whew…
James Cameron, Avatar writer and director, has created a movie about these issues from his perspective: white, heterosexual, rich, Western, abled, liberal, man. Therefore, I wasn’t shocked to see the representation of all the issues he raised in his film come from, well, his perspective.
Cameron is talking to himself, made the movie for himself — himself being all those in his likeness. That doesn’t make him the bad guy. That makes him like most folks. We see what we want to see, from our point of view, filtered through our beliefs and experiences. In interviews, Cameron implicates the imagined “we,” his view of who “we” is: “We know what it feels like to launch the missiles. We don’t know what it feels like for them to land on our home soil, not in America. I think there’s a moral responsibility to understand that.”(2) Similarly, the hero, the transformation, the voice speaking and the one who is spoken to in Avatar is his mirror, regardless of how universal he believes his message to be. This is not written from the Na’vi’s perspective, for the Na’vi or to the Na’vi. Translation: it’s not written from the perspective of Native Americans, people of color or the “third world.” When Cameron says “we” he means some Americans, Westerners. So, to all those who felt left out and misrepresented or disrespected, I gotta say, “What do we expect?”
A lot of history written about, for example, slaves, is taken from sources that are at best unreliable. It’s taken from travel logs, letters, and court records written by slaveholders. The historian reads the accounts, and discerns, through the filters, prejudices, hatred, self-interest, self aggrandizement, to see the people, the humans, they called slaves. Amidst all the perceptions and opinions of the slaveholders, came through some of the precious lives that lived and survived. And historians take those glimpses and amplify them. We can do the same with Avatar. Within the white man’s fantasy of acceptance, belonging, superiority, sex with the “Other,” heroism, “we,” the other “we,” can discern the voices, faces, traditions, and wisdom of the humans, animals, and earth that Cameron sometimes only glimpses. More, those in Cameron’s likeness also get a dose too, that even though it’s distorted, still contains some truth.
This is not a small thing.
The ultra conservative right wing is certainly getting the message: “[Avatar is] an abhorrent New Age, pagan, anti-capitalist worldview that promotes goddess worship and the destruction of the human race.”(3) We can only wish for that kind unity and clarity amongst the left.
From one side, and they are sides, comes a deluge of utter disdain for Avatar from some segments of the left.(4) From the other side, comes the strident, wholesale defense of Avatar from other segments of the left.(5) One side cries Avatar is racist, the other side says Avatar is the best anti imperialist thing since Evo Morales. Really??
It’s not that these two sides don’t have good points to make. It’s that their deep attachment to being right and to their beliefs doesn’t allow them to actually see the movie, in its wholeness, clearly. One side is invested in attacking. The other is invested in defending. It’s the investment that’s the problem. Because then we can’t see each other or even ourselves. Those hating on Avatar can’t see those whose hearts are filled and fists raised when they see depictions of the oppressed defending themselves, victorious, over corporate backed armies of capital. Those who love Avatar can’t see those who see indigenous ways and peoples misrepresented, co-opted, and lives defined by one white privileged man in a movie that reaches millions of people. In my conversations with both sides what I principally see is the pain of what each side longs for that is unacknowledged. The more it is unacknowledged the more self righteous they get and the more alienated they feel from each other.
How can we do effective social change work from this place, hunkered down, with our positions and our few friends who agree with us shouting at no one? Who will hear us and who will care?
One of the most popular Avatar-is-just-a-privileged-white-man’s-story articles states: “Science fiction is exciting because it promises to show the world and the universe from perspectives radically unlike what we’ve seen before. But until white people stop making movies like Avatar, I fear that I’m doomed to see the same old story again and again.”(6) Actually, it’s worse. I think we’re all doomed to see the same old story again and again, no matter what we actually see, if we continue to be committed to seeing only what we want to see, to only seeing what we think should be, to only seeing our beliefs, to see ourselves as principally right and others as principally wrong. When it comes to Avatar what I see is that both sides are “right.” They’re both perceiving something that’s real.
And I see that Cameron’s not doing anything to anyone. Cameron’s just being Cameron. And we can be ourselves. And really, Cameron knows truth too. Every single human, animal, creature knows truth. We all have access to it. We all express it in our own ways or express our deep longing for it, even if it’s not in the best way. No one owns the truth. Even the most lost soul has smiled and felt love.
There are plenty of voices amongst the left and people of color who see aspects of their reality being represented well in Avatar. The Penan people and Kalahari Bushmen see the value of Avatar: “‘The Na’vi people in ‘Avatar’ cry because their forest is destroyed. It’s the same with the Penan. Logging companies are chopping down our big trees and polluting our rivers, and the animals we hunt are dying.’
Kalahari Bushman Jumanda Gakelebone said, ‘We the Bushmen are the first inhabitants in southern Africa. We are being denied rights to our land and appeal to the world to help us. ‘Avatar’ makes me happy as it shows the world about what it is to be a Bushman, and what our land is to us. Land and Bushmen are the same.'”(7)
And Black cinema historian and author of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films offers a nuanced reading of the film: [Bogle] said he can understand why people would be troubled by “Avatar,” although he praised it as a “stunning” work. ‘A segment of the audience is carrying in the back of its head some sense of movie history,” said Bogle…[He] stopped short, however, of calling the movie racist.”(8)
In his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes Cameron said, “‘Avatar asks us to see that everything is connected…’All human beings to each other, and us to the earth.'”(9) That message, however better we would like it to be communicated, is coming through and is desperately needed. Cameron has created an opening. The size of this opening is in direct proportion to his massive privilege and wealth. What remains is what we can do with the opening. And when I say we, I mean all of us.