Mitu Sengupta

Race Relations Light Years From Earth


James Cameron, “Avatar” Trailer (2009)

“Avatar” is a racist film. Or at least this has been the persistent allegation ever since its release in December 2009.

Annalee Newitz, editor-in-chief at io9.com was among the first to label it “white guilt fantasy,” another story where the “white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of colour, and become leaders of the people they once oppressed.”

David Brooks of The New York Times went further, calling it “a racial fantasy par excellence” which “rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic, and that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades.”

NaiveNaviShould the ‘White Messiah’ accusation be taken seriously? I am not alone in wanting to dismiss if not ridicule all this fuss over the politics of a silly and predictable Hollywood movie (visually enchanting though it admittedly is). That is until I begin to think of just how many Hollywood films have shown various peoples of color (minorities, colonial subjects, the Third World poor) struggle against various social ills (poverty, authoritarianism, imperialism) only to be swiftly arrogated by white men (and, from time to time, white women).

Other than being infuriatingly patronizing, such misguided cinematic altruism is dangerous: it reinforces pernicious stereotypes of the ethnic ‘other’ as disorderly, meek and stupid, only to undermine the hard-won voice of marginalised peoples of color and justify their continued marginalization.

Arguably, the more popular the film, the more the potential for harm.  “Avatar,” the highest grossing movie of all time and multiple Oscar nominee/winner, is a particularly weighty addition to this irritating genre.

The examples are many: Brooks names “The Last Samurai,” “Dances with Wolves,” “A Man Called Horse” and “At Play in the Fields of the Lord.” One can add to this inventory “Red Corner,” “City of Joy,” and David Lean’s multiple Academy Award-winning epic, “Lawrence of Arabia,” widely considered to be the classic of all ‘White Messiah’ films.

Lawrence, an officer in the British army, appropriates the dress as well as the struggle of Bedouin tribes in their fight against Turkish aggression and British imperialism. Lean’s anti-imperialist message, if there is one at all, is fully submerged by his consuming interest in the persona of Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole in the prime of his youth).

Besides being sinfully handsome, Lawrence is brilliant, just and brave; resolute in his determination to “give freedom” to the ‘Arabs.’ Though unaccustomed to guerrilla warfare and Arabia’s harsh terrain, he takes extraordinary risks, like charging fearlessly through the dreaded Nefud desert.  Here he rushes into storms of bullets.


David Lean, “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962)

At first glance, “Avatar” is nothing more than the extraterrestrial version of this tired ‘white guilt fantasy.’

It is 2154.  Jake Sully, a former US Marine, is sent to Pandora to befriend its indigenous population, the Na’vi, so that his current employer, an American mining corporation, can more easily access the planet’s rich stores of Unobtanium, a mineral with “exotic properties” worth “twenty million a kilo.”

“Killing the indigenous looks bad,” Jake is told. “Find a carrot to get them to move, or it’s going to have to be all stick.”

Throughout the film, Cameron is clear about whom the Na’vi represent.  They are repeatedly referred to as “indigenous,” “aboriginal” and “savages,” and the lead Na’vi characters are played by Black or Aboriginal actors (Zoe Saldana, Laz Alonso and Wes Studi).

Jake the AvatarJake (played by Sam Worthington) plunges into the Na’vi’s midst as an ‘avatar,’ but soon comes to neglect his mission, falling “in love with the forest, the people,” and predictably, with Neytiri, a Na’vi chief’s daughter.  Neytiri teaches Jake her people’s ways because she senses in him a “strong heart” — a good investment, it turns out, as Jake’s “strong heart” guides him to oppose the corporation, and its hawkish security chief, Colonel Quaritch, who later accuses Jake of “betraying his race.”

Though Jake describes himself as “just another dumb grunt,” we learn that he is extraordinary well beyond his “strong heart.”  He quickly adapts to Pandora’s “savage terrain and fierce creatures,” and to Na’vi society, learning their language with enviable speed and matching their physical prowess.

Jake is also a skilled military strategist and negotiator.  He inspires the various Na’vi clans to join forces against the “sky people,” and even subdues the fierce Toruk, a giant bird-like creature that only five Na’vi have ever managed to tame.

Jake prances through the last quarter of the film with fist thrust in the air, showering the Na’vi with stirring calls to action, swooping down on Quaritch’s troops on the newly obedient Toruk, and basking in the warmth of Neytiri’s devotion: “I was afraid for my people,” she coos. “I am no longer afraid.”  In an early version of the “Avatar” script, Jake becomes the leader of Neytiri’s clan.

Despite the many eye-rolling moments, in the end “Avatar” doesn’t neatly follow the expected narrative.

In ‘White Messiah’ films, the native’s world, even when romanticized, is marked as clearly inferior. In “Lawrence of Arabia,” the ‘Arabs’ have rather barbaric ideas of justice, and it is evident they’ll have trouble managing on their own once Lawrence is extricated from their midst. The native, though noble, is backward; wanting in various aspects of ‘civilization.’

Not so much in “Avatar.” For one thing, the Na’vi’s lush habitat is profoundly more beautiful than the humans’ “dying world.” We are told that this “strange, bewitching place” with a “dreamlike landscape reminiscent of a Magritte painting” represents “hope for our race, for our planet and future of all living things.”


James Cameron, “Avatar” (2009)

The Na’vi’s pantheism, community solidarity and oneness with nature (the “symbiotic relationship between all things Pandoran”) are celebrated wholeheartedly, while the American way of life — now associated with corporate greed, ruthless individualism and misappropriated science — is squarely and unambiguously condemned.

The US Marines, give or take a few, are depicted as a warmongering and boorish horde (yes, the real Marines are upset about the film too!).  They kill thoughtlessly and hurl demeaning jeers at the disabled, wheelchair-bound Jake (“meals on wheels”).  Towards the end of the film, any thought that the Na’vi are “savages” seems utterly preposterous.

NeytiriIt’s clear that the Na’vi need nothing from Jake’s ilk, not their promise of ‘development’—“medicine, education and roads”—or their “light beer and shopping channels” or military technology. The Na’vi may lack the coarse firepower of American bombs and guns, but they have “arrows dipped in a neurotoxin that can stop your heart in one minute.” In fact, it is with these instruments of precision that Neytiri ultimately kills Quaritch. Yes, it is she who saves Jake.

Finally, in a fundamental departure from the ‘White Messiah’ narrative, Jake “goes native” in a total, self-incinerating way.  The Na’vi perform a ritual that permanently transforms Jake’s human body into his alien avatar.

So “Avatar” is a curious film: it follows the ‘White Messiah’ model faithfully, but then ruptures it at critical moments.

I’m hesitant to subject “Avatar” to prolonged philosophical analysis—after all, Hollywood movies are known for being inconsistent.  Yet the film’s hybrid narrative is not without significance.  It reflects how multiculturalism, environmentalism, feminism and indigenous struggles have shifted conversations about culture and imperialism while leaving every economic fundamental unchanged.

Indigenous movements, in particular, have issued powerful critiques of imperialism, condemning not only the cruel mechanics of colonial rule, but also their devastating cultural impact via the reification of science, rationalism, and industrialization.  The demands of indigenous movements stretch beyond inclusion and space in dominant ‘white’ cultures to equal regard for difference, marked as this may be by oral traditions of knowledge, communitarian political structures, and spiritual systems based in ancestor worship.

How remarkable that the radical multiculturalism of indigenous struggles is reproduced in “Avatar,” a thoroughly mainstream production.  No wonder that Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first fully indigenous head of state, has praised the film for its “profound show of resistance to capitalism and the struggle for the defence of nature.”

Morales’s pithy tribute left me wondering if behind the racism allegation lie deeper anxieties about the film’s glib indictment of modern notions of progress, including monotheism.  Telegraph blogger Will Heaven—who wrote a scathing review of “Avatar’s” “racist subtext” in December—recently defended a Vatican spokesman’s concern that “Avatar” will turn environmentalism into a “new divinity.” Heaven declared: “He’s right to be worried.”

Perhaps if Cameron had foregone the economic logic of casting Worthington in the lead, he would have made a ridiculously subversive film, one worthy of all the fuss.

TheatreChinaBut the point is that he didn’t. And as the possibilities of genuine dissent unravel into a confusing carnival of their cooptation, the racism charges stick.

Cameron delivers his anti-modernity, pro-indigeneity and deep ecology parable through the most advanced of cinematic technologies and the body of a handsome white man.

We get to revel in our equal regard for Na’vi culture from the safest distance possible — 4.4 light years from Earth to be precise — while adjusting our 3D glasses and munching on overpriced popcorn. Cameron has it both ways, knowing that we do too.

-Mitu Sengupta

  • http://1001tales.posterous.com Siobhan O’Flynn

    I think your points re. the ambivalence are well- taken as I’ve also been embroiled in a debate over Avatar. What do you make of the film’s framing context as one component in a to-be-extended commercial enterprise? I am slightly more skeptical given that our having it both ways is also our participation in & contribution to a transnational capitalism that functions as the opposite of the Na’vi.

  • Andrew M.

    Most the media’s attention has been focused on “Avatar” simply due to the film box office haul and incredible hype machine. Naturally, this also means that a far more odious example of what I am calling “The Redemptive Power of White People” has largely been ignored – namely the Sandra Bullock vehicle “The Blind Side.” A movie which in the words of one critic “begs us to feel sorry for black people and feel grateful that there are white people in the world who can take of them.” Please, someone, anyone, notice that horrible, horrible movie for what it is.

  • john pope

    The real T.E. Lawrence was a rather short and ordinary if not unattractive man but he had the good fortune denied to so many famous historical figures of having what some have called the best posthumous casting in history by having a very young and handsome Peter O’Toole play him in the film. Many historians of Lawerence of Arabia have given up pointing out that he looked nothing like Peter O’Toole.

  • Indulekha Dutt

    Thoughtful analysis. Not kneejerk, like a lot I have seen. In one sense, though, the use of the white (American, military) man in the lead seems essential, if the director’s aim is critique — for it is they who are perhaps most distant from the aboriginalvision and most in need of being convinced.

  • http://ryeberg.com/author/mitu-sengupta/ Mitu Sengupta

    Siobhan, the sequel’s going to be interesting. Will the newly Na’vified Jake now save the human “race”? John, how lucky for Lawrence, though Peter O’Toole is more sinister than handsome (remember him from Night of the Generals?). Andrew, will check out Blind Side for sure: more misguided cinematic altruism? Indu, I hadn’t thought of that angle. Hmm… I think it’s also significant that Jake is disabled. Will think.

  • Markus Kirschner

    Patronizing to a community of imagined individuals, yes. Racist? Really? These “Na’vi” don’t even exist, despite Cameron’s attempt to bring them to life (going so far as to speak their language in his Golden Globes acceptance speech). You’re right when you suggest that what lies at the heart of the racism debate is anxiety about the death of monotheism. I found the film to be a positive spin on what happens when “God” is dead – you find a new one – in the trees, the forest, the animals…

    Despite his good looks and charisma, casting Sam Worthington was not logical economically, at least not in Hollywood. When he was cast in the film he was known in Australia, but not internationally. Casting Worthington, in Hollywood’s eyes, was an act of subversion. Think back to how hugely popular Leo DiCaprio was at the time Titanic was made. Big difference.

    There are far more truly racist, academy-nominated films playing at your local cinema right now. Thank you Andrew for referencing The Blind Side. Apparently Sandra Bullock wasn’t white enough on her own, they had to bleach her hair to make the difference between her and her black ward more striking. And what about Precious? The first movie in history nominated (for Best Picture) by a black director about an obese, illiterate dark-skinned teenager who has two children by her father and learns to become “a human” by her light-skinned teacher and social worker. And initially it’s her white principal who gets her out of the public school she’s drowning in and leads her to these light-skinned helpers. Spike Lee must be throwing up in his mouth right now.

  • Indulekha Dutt

    I agree with Markus about the Blind Side and Precious, though I think in Precious the treatment of ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’ needs a lot more comment than what can be done here. As for Avatar, I think James Cameron was asking for all the criticism he is getting. The film is *about* race, and race *on earth.* His choices make that clear: the references to the Na’vi as ‘aboriginal’, ‘indigenous’ etc., and selection of black and aboriginal actors (the author points to all of this). Even the term ‘Na’vi’ is reminiscent of ‘native.’ One critic (I believe Will Heaven) saw the Na’vi as a “childish pastiche of the ethnic” and I couldn’t agree more. And I think the racial politics of Avatar *are* important to discuss precisely *because* it is such a high profile movie. Anyway, I think Mitu Sengupta is right to say Cameron wants it both ways… he makes a film that’s all about race and then pretends it’s about ‘aliens.’ As for Worthington, he was already known for his roles in Terminator. All in all, I think Mitu Sengupta is too kind to the film, though she argues her case well.

    • Markus Kirschner

      Just to clarify – Worthington was cast in and started shooting Avatar first. It just took longer to come out because of all the CGI.

  • john Pope

    One of the many problems with this film is that fact that the writer and Cameron have created an over-idealised and over romanticised view of aboriginal peoples living in a so-called “state of nature”. Real aboriginal peoples are not multi-cultural by nature and they do not naturally live in tune with nature. Aboriginal people are no more or no less ethnocentric or intolerant than Europeans.They have been responsible for much environmental depredation everywhere. It was only their small numbers and low levels of technology that prevented them from causing the scale of ecological damage that is possible now.

    The hoary old “noble savage myth” is given a new set of legs in this extravaganza but it does not provide us with any serious critique of the modern world. A return to mindless pantheism or nature worship, is no step forward, One only has to look at the rise of this nonsense in Nazi Germany and post-war conservative thinking in Germany concerned with nature. Nietzsche does speculate about a world in which god is dead but he states that we must come to grips with this not descend back into a world of tree gods and forest spirits. Humans can live without gods of any sort, but most are not capable of doing this, that is what disgusted Nietzsche in his writings.

  • Bria

    Christ people, it’s just a human who had a second shot at life and took it. Settle down!

  • Karen Patrick

    Both sides of this debate are partially correct. The natives, the
    settlers, and the REST of the world are all to blame for what happened.
    Slavery, genocide, war, invasion was common practices of almost all
    cultures and was not considered wrong during those times. Each Culture
    felt the need for survival and justified what they did on that need. So
    stop blaming the settlers (white people) and stop blaming the natives! filing bankruptcy

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Mitu Sengupta is an Associate Professor of Politics at Ryerson University, Toronto. She has published widely in academic journals, and her political commentaries and analyses have appeared in CounterPunch, Monthly Review MRZine, AlterNet, Frontline (India), the Hindustan Times (India), The Toronto Star, Dissent Magazine, and This Magazine.