- Category: Culture
- Created on Tuesday, 02 March 2010 07:59
- Written by Eric Ribellarsi
This first appeared on the FIRE collective's blog under the title "Avatar: Condescending Racism or a Story of Transformation and Struggle?"
By Eric Ribellarsi
A debate has recently broken out about the new science fiction film Avatar. A popular review appeared on io9 by Annalee Newitz titled When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like Avatar? I'd like to try to respond to some of the points in that review and give a different view that defends that movie.
I have to strongly disagree with Annalee Newitz’s review.
Annalee Newitz wrote:
“Jake is so enchanted that he gives up on carrying out his mission, which is to persuade the Na’vi to relocate from their “home tree,” where the humans want to mine the unobtanium. Instead, he focuses on becoming a great warrior who rides giant birds and falls in love with the chief’s daughter. When the inevitable happens and the marines arrive to burn down the Na’vi’s home tree, Jake switches sides. With the help of a few human renegades, he maintains a link with his avatar body in order to lead the Na’vi against the human invaders. Not only has he been assimilated into the native people’s culture, but he has become their leader.”
This review misses key aspects of the story, and even distorts the storyline of the movie to make it fit into a rather dogmatic framework. I found the movie to be a nuanced and beautiful film that told the story of an elitist white soldier for imperialism who goes to exploit and oppress an indigenous nation of aliens (the Na’vi), but is instead transformed by them and won to take up armed struggle against imperialism alongside them.
I will point out that this is not a story about a white man who goes to lead native people’s as their condescending savior, as it is characterized in the review referenced here. It’s a story about a backward white man who is transformed by the Na’vi, much in the way that Dr. Bethune, an arrogant, elitist, white “communist” was transformed by the Chinese people through the course of the revolution in China. Dr. Bethune was able only to become a communist himself when he was struggled with by China’s oppressed masses, and taught to listen and learn from the Chinese people, and became a servant of them. In Avatar, Jake Sully finds himself in a situation where ignorant and arrogant colonist after colonist is exposed for the fools that they are, and unable to infiltrate the Na’vi. Jake is no different, but the Na’vi decide that they will see if he can be changed.
Factually, it is not true that Jake Sully becomes the leader of the indigenous aliens (as this review has stated). In fact, after the death of the chief in the movie, the new chief is the most radical of the Na’vi who wants to fight the imperialist invaders, Jake is second to this more revolutionary Na’vi, and actually asks for permission to speak from his more radical leader.
The way the movie deals with indigenous culture is not the insulting and racist way that this review has characterized it, but rather one in which Jake is first arrogant and elitist to this culture, but instead comes to understand it’s complexity and nuance. The Na’vi’s culture is shown in much more sophistication than the insulting vulgarizations that are normally given to the Native peoples in Western media, especially in terms of the way that these peoples related to the world around them and never viewed it as a commodity to be exploited but a world to contribute to.
But I would like to go back to what seems to be a central thesis of Annalee Newitz’s review:
“Whites need to stop remaking the white guilt story, which is a sneaky way of turning every story about people of color into a story about being white.”
Surely it is true that we need more films from the perspective of the oppressed themselves. There is no question about that. But why make a dogmatic absolute of that? Would it be wrong to make a film about the story of John Brown, a white man who sacrificed his life to side with the Black liberation struggle? What about movies like Sir! No Sir! which tell the stories of American GI’s in Vietnam who turned their backs on US imperialism and resisted, many of them even committing mutiny? Isn’t that a story worth telling?
Annalee Newitz said:
“When will white people stop making movies like Avatar?”
Here is where I have my differences with identity politics (and in this instance, a very dogmatic application of identity politics). Do white people really need to stop making movies like this? I think white people need to confront what they are a part of, and be transformed to side with oppressed humanity. I don’t think that is a “guilt story,” and frankly, if white people weren’t appalled by the history of slavery and genocide in the USA, wouldn’t that be more of a problem? Wouldn’t it be more of a problem if there was no internationalism, and we were all starting from our own individual identities?
Yes, it is a problem that there are not enough movies which are from the perspective of the oppressed themselves. But why does that mean there is no value to films like these? Is there really no value to the stories of John Brown? of Jews in Israel who side with and defend the Palestinians? Of Germans who refused to go along in Nazi Germany? I think there is great value to those stories, and that we should be able to unite with what is positive in them, even while we do need to point out the complete absence of the perspectives of the oppressed themselves in Hollywood.