A Response to Those Who Think ‘Avatar’ Repeats a Racist Motif

I’d like to calmly address the critics who view James Cameron’s Avatar as perpetuating a racist motif.  Critics have said that Avatar uses the “white man as messiah” motif as countless movies have before it, including, and they name, The Last Samurai, Dances with Wolves, James Stewart’s Broken Arrow, Fern Gully, even the recent District 9.  All have a white man slowly becoming a person of another culture and then leading that group to victory, escape, salvation, etc.  I don’t disagree on many of their points, but on one major point–that accusation that the “white messiah” motif is inherently “negatively” racial–I do disagree.  And its application to Avatar is unfounded as a racial comment.

But first, some things we might agree on.

1.  James Cameron’s Avatar is a breathtakingly beautiful movie, in part because of the special effects, and the high attention to detail in the world-building.  This is superb world-building.  Anyone crafting science fiction or fantasy needs to pay attention to the detail of this movie and learn from it.

2.  James Cameron’s plot is both borrowed, and in its best light, echoing the plots of other movies.  We listed those.  I think of this as Dances with Wolves in space–but with ONE major difference (explained below).  But we can all agree that the plot is not fantasically new.  One person infiltrates the “enemy” and finds out that they want to switch sides and then fights the group they had been with.  At its essence a movie like this is about prejudice, discovery, education, betrayal and, ultimately, self-sacrifice.  Some movies not mentioned but which still carry the same theme are:  The Mission, any number of movies where a cop infiltrates a “bad” organization (usually the Mafia) and the cop turns against the cops (who might be portrayed as corrupt), Tarzan, The Jungle Book, even back to the Biblical story of Saul who becomes Paul, and leads the Christians to victory, or at least to vast organization and political power.  This motif of the persecutor becoming the persecuted and learning from that experience is not necessarily a “white messiah story.”   Let’s concede that his plot is not new.  

3.  The Na’vi are quite clearly a parallel to the Native Americans of the United States.  They could also ring true in other countries where the aboriginal population was seen as inferior, and therefore moveable and extinguishable, and the atrocities done to those cultures because they were perceived this way.

The argument that Avatar is “racially charged” has several forms on the web right now.  Look here and here and here, and you will see the argument clearly.  Unfortunately, it is a reductionary argument, looking only at who leads who, who saves who, and deciding on that basis, that a film, or story, is racist.  It is a climax-oriented criticism, and misses, I think, the point of plots like this.

What some critics are not considering is WHY the plot takes a “persecutor”–usually a person who is by birth part of a group of people who is persecuting, but who has personal dignity that might make him “teachable”–and puts him in the shoes of the persecuted.  Often, writers give that person a personal failing, or handicap.  In Sully’s case, it is a physical handicap.  In Cruise’s character in Last Samurai it is alcohol; in Costner’s character in Dances with Wolves, it is recklessness and suicidal tendencies.

In all these movies, the Persecuted group TEACHES the Outsider something valuable, until the Outsider stops thinking of the other race as “other” and thinks of it as “Self” and as just as worthy of his admiration, perhaps more, as white culture.  He then has to make a sacrifice to fight for the other side, whether or not he leads or wins.  The important choice is whether that character will fight for a culture not his own–and you can see the impact on an audience of that kind of lesson.  So, in this kind of plot, the ultimate belief change happens when the main character is not only transformed into the “Other” but when he chooses to fight FOR it, AGAINST his former culture/race.

Imagine now, if a black character, Hispanic, any other character, were the one from the Persecuting race and they were transformed into the other?  There would be a huge uproar that the movie was trying to teach a black man a lesson about being a minority.  White characters are the only allowable characters (and truly Men, even over Women) that are forced to make the transformation.  Hollywood is obsessed with teaching WHITE, MILITARISTIC, WESTERN culture a lesson.  And this isn’t bad.  The number of movies used to do this is astounding.  (We haven’t even brought in movies like The Birdcage, where Evangelical, White Male is forced to dress in drag to save his family, and to show he’s “learned”.)  These movies are about teaching the White Man about otherness.

Yes, but does he have to save the culture himself?  Does he? Let’s look at Avatar for a moment.  Sully time and time again appeals to the Structure of the culture to save themselves.  He realizes late that he’s a betrayer, and by this time the Brother of the Neytiri, is the leader of the warriors.  In fact, when he returns, he defers to this man, and presents himself as a servant, even just another rider, in the cavalry to save the homeland.  Sully has been “sullied” by his culture, but seeks to redeem himself by being a part of that new culture, and fighting alongside the others.  In the resulting Air Raid, Sully is just one of a group of warriors, but the camera follows him because he’s our main character.

The basics of character and plot force him to become a leading figure.  As a former White Human, he has invaluable knowledge the rest of the tribe doesn’t have.  WHO WOULDN’T put him at the top of the pack?  He knows the enemy so well.   And his rallying cry, in the midst of defeat by a new enemy, is the only cry that can affect them.  They have suffered a huge defeat when the tree collapses–they are demoralized.  The only character who is not affected as much by the loss of that cultural icon–the Home Tree–is the only character who can help them see that they have the possibility of still defeating the Humans.  He is not motivated by demoralization but by guilt, and he sees personal redemption in helping the Na’vi.

Let’s face it: the Humans in this movie are motivated strictly by greed—either they want gold or data.  They are black, hispanic, women, men, white.  None of them are un-sullied.  However, the basics of character development must put the main character–who happens to be the person most acceptable to audiences to learn the lesson (a white guy)–in the main action all the time.  A bad plot would have had Sully not very instrumental in the saving of the people he betrayed.  This would a) not give the character any redemption, b) leave us out of the main action of the story–since we are forced to follow Sully as HE IS THE MAIN CHARACTER, and c) not give the story any cohesion.  In any story, the main character must make choices that lead to his own learning, and redemption.  The main character must solve the problem and be instrumental in its success or failure.  Anything else and it ceases to a) be his story, or b) fulfill the promise made to the audience at the beginning of the film: that they will follow this character and s/he will be important in all actions, choices, and consequences.

Avatar takes the motif and moves it forward.  The motif is really OUTSIDER LEARNS ABOUT OTHER CULTURE, AND IS INSTRUMENTAL IN SAVING CULTURE  because we, perhaps, want those “un-caring, un-listening White Western-Cultured Men” to think about another culture once in awhile and do something to help that culture.  This is why we have these movies.  And they are effective.  They are often Oscar contenders (Dances with Wolves –7 Oscars; Last Samurai nominated for 4) for the mere fact that they shine a light on an oppressed culture; they move us to care; they help us to understand; often they are well researched and a step above previous films about a culture (Japan had mostly positive things to say about Samurai, as it was a vast improvement over other American films about Japan); sometimes, they help us grieve our mistakes.

Dances with Wolves and Avatar share a basic plot, but where Costner and the Lakota Sioux must follow history, and show the atrocities done to them, Avatar takes a sharp right turn at the moment of defeat and tries to resuscitate the army of the Na’vi, and help them regain their own control.  They push out the “white man”–the ending many wish that the Native Americans had had.  I concede that there may be “white guilt” moments in this film, but not every filmmaker who wishes the Native Americans had won is white.  Wishing history had taken another turn is not about guilt all the time.  It can be merely wanting another solution.  Certainly Sully, the main character, wants another solution.

It’s not that Sully leads them to victory on his own.  He’s distracted by the main villain, Mr. Army.  And when he is defeated by Mr. Army, the Na’vi princess saves him.  Also, Sully and Na’vi fail at saving themselves.  It’s actually the planet that comes to its own rescue—hordes of animals coming out of the jungle to turn the tide.  The planet saves itself.  Critics are only superficially nodding that this has happened, but I think this is HUGE.

Sully is physically handicapped, incapable of being the “savior” of a group of warriors in this film in his “real” state.  Even this avatar body is fake.  This is shown to us time and again, as his body collapses at key moments (twice that I remember) and when, at the end, when his real body is exposed.  The tribe knows that he is no warrior in body, but that he has a good spirit.  Sully as a White Savior is woefully inadequate–and only becoming body and soul OTHER does he really find redemption, wholeness, and happiness.  If anything, the Na’vi are helping Sully, and helping themselves.

The themes in this movie are about the superiority of the Na’vi–that they have a lot to teach us.  Which is why the movie is not about how to teach the Na’vi to fight like White Humans, or not about White Culture at all.  It is about learning about another culture, and in this way, Avatar shines.

But if we want to talk about race, only a white character in our culture is allowed to learn a new lesson in being a minority.  Because it seems that we’re the only ones who don’t get it.  I agree that choosing a black character might have made an interesting movie as well, but I wonder about the critics’ reception as he “learns” from this new culture.  Critics are focussed on the Henry V moments of leading warriors to victory, they are looking at who saves who, and not on the majority of the film (more than 2 hours) which puts the White Man at extreme disadvantages, intellectual disadvantages, language disadvantages, cultural disadvantages, so that he can learn that he is ultimately disadvantaged until he understands and accepts himself as Other, and Others as he does himself.


After my post I found two amazing essays on the Movie that also take to task the simplistic “racial” reading of Avatar.

One critic who agrees that this is not race contends that this is a very old story that is present in every culture–where the outsider learns the ways of the New Culture–and is more about the fluidity of personal identity, tribe and culture.

Another critic talks about Jake Sully as an emasculated, wounded soldier who is not a privileged white character, but someone who has faced personal loss in his family at senseless violence, is in over his head in this project, has a physical disability–which might extend to impotence–and who fights for the Na’vi because of his own personal freedom to be “himself” with them, and the fact that they become family.  In this critic’s eyes, the main idea in this film–which makes it so powerful–is that you can choose your identity.  Not race.  But identity.

8 thoughts on “A Response to Those Who Think ‘Avatar’ Repeats a Racist Motif

  1. Quid Pro Gnome May 17, 2010 / 9:59

    Meh. Many of the people refuting the racial criticisms of the movie are just stealth marketers, which if they so need to defend it, is basically acknowledgment of the internal ethnocentrism of an emerging franchise. And while most of the criticisms of the movie are based on more recent movies (dances with wolves, etc), the real structure of the movie comes from James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans (the book, though the movie follows a similar theme). Avatar meets every criteria of racist art: a commercial success (while pretending to critique commercialism), an elite co-opting some overly fetishized and pornotroped minority/tribe, and using such pseudo multi-culturalism to justify perpetuating the status quo. Personally I thought the movie was sophomoric and juvenile–a three hour video game, IMO. Beyond that, it was also a pretty foreboding expression of the exceptionalism of our times–that the rationalization of our own cultural imperialism isn’t resolved by the mainstream liberal worldview, but rather that it is rooted in just such a view.

  2. jstueart May 20, 2010 / 9:59

    Well, I’m not a stealth marketer. I’m a science fiction writer. And the other essays I mentioned are not from “stealth” marketers either.

    As for your definition of racist art….hmmmm. According to you: 1) a commercial success! (they made MONEY–they must be racist! It can’t be that it has a universal appeal beyond race?? I mean, the box office contained the WORLD gross, so it seemed that the movie has a world-wide appeal–unless the world is racist. Still success equals bad is a wonky argument.

    2) an elite co-opting an overly fetishized and pornotroped minority/tribe— so it’s better if only one race does their own movies. THEN the white people would be blamed for IGNORING other races. I think the fact that an elite– I’m assuming you mean white people, or white rich people, or —heavens! Hollywood?— told a story about a tribe is a good thing. Telling stories about groups which you are not a part of helps you understand another point of view. It is part of the process of de-ghettoizing the industry. Hope you never write a story that includes ANY character but yourself–else you’ll be “co-opting” a culture. As for fetishizing and porno-troping them— uh… I think these are your own problems to work through. I saw a movie about a culture, not a movie about how sexy and fetishized the “other” was….

    3) How does Avatar promote the status quo??? It says THINK ABOUT OTHER CULTURES before yourself– that is anti-status quo!!

    I’m not sure about your last phrase—and how that applies. The natives stopped the imperialism, after some initial destruction; and Sully goes completely native which stops the movie from being imperialistic. If he had made Natives into white people, and put them in white culture, I can see an imperialism there… but this is the typical “going native” narrative from much earlier than Cooper. If you’ve read early American Literature you would have come across “captivity narratives” and narratives about people leaving Puritan society and “going native.” How is that imperialistic?

    It is the opposite of imperialism to take someone out of their privileged status (which is questionable in Sully’s case since he went from being a handicapped man who had suffered the death of his brother, the loss of his limbs, and was transferred into a culture of superhuman giants who were smarter, more skilled, and more true to their values than the culture he came from) and to put them in a more simple environment (think Harrison Ford in Witness)— that’s not imperialism. The Brits running India is imperialistic, but I don’t see anything but honor and respect from Sully at the end—as he defers to the command structure of the tribe. He doesn’t “take over”.

    I appreciate the debate though, as long as you respect those who differ from you.

  3. Nelly Mahalko June 22, 2012 / 9:59

    I haven’t checked in here for a while because I thought it was getting boring, but the last several posts are great quality so I guess I will add you back to my everyday bloglist. You deserve it my friend 🙂

  4. John June 27, 2012 / 9:59

    a rip-off

  5. Michelle September 18, 2014 / 9:59

    Not surprised a white dude can’t see the racism of a film centered on a white dude saving an oppressed race…because what, the oppressed race can’t save themselves? We need white people to do everything for us? No thanks! How about asking some actual Native Americans what they think about the film? You can still like something even while acknowledging it is problematic. And this film was definitely problematic–race from a white guy’s point of view. Because you’d know so much about what oppression for people of color feels like, right?

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