As Avatar continues to set box office records worldwide, the chorus of criticism also continues to grow and the latest rap that seems to be gaining traction is the notion that Avatar is “racist” because it takes a “white messiah” in the form of Jake Sully to rally the Na’Vi and defeat Colonel Quatrich and the mercenary Army. Dan Koeisch at MovieViral sums it up thusly:
The detractors say that the Na’vi are portrayed as helpless, dumb, religious folks who need a white male savior to rescue them. Again, this is a very common theme in movies for decades (Pocahontas, The Last Samurai, and Dances with Wolves are given as prime examples), and a stereotype racial activists have been fighting against for just as long. What makes this argument stronger is that the main Na’vi actors (including Zoe Saldana and Laz Alsono) are black. Many are arguing that someone should make a movie where the natives/minorities can actually save themselves without the white man.
What does Cameron have to say about all of this? Here’s his quote in the Telegraph.
Cameron strongly denied any racist intent. He said that his film “asks us to open our eyes and truly see others, respecting them even though they are different, in the hope that we may find a way to prevent conflict and live more harmoniously on this world. I hardly think that is a racist message.”
I think Cameron’s response is reasonable, but let’s look at the question a bit more deeply. I think the people that are criticising this are doing so without any acknowlegment of the economics of the situation. One of the basic things any film-maker (and particularly one who is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make his film) must do is create a protagonist with whom the audience can identify and for whom they will root. Cameron is hardly alone in coming to the conclusion that the way to do this is to have the protagonist come from a culture that is familiar and hence a ‘comfortable fit’ to viewing audience. Could he have chosen a ‘natural’ Na’Vi as the protagonist? As a creative choice — yes. As a practical economic choice, probably not. Consider, for example, Apocalypto, Mel Gibson’s well-made and exciting film about Jaguar Paw, a ‘noble savage’ from a culture that resembles the Na’Vi, who is captured by Mayans. That film was considered succsessful, but its global box office total of $120m falls far short of where Cameron needed to land with Avatar. Cameron, more than any other film-maker because of the amount of money being invested in his film, had to play it safe and make a shrewd calculation about how to create a protagonist that could reliably be counted on to resonate very, very widely. Viewed from an economic perspective–he clearly succeeded.
But beyond that, I think the argument misses some of the fundamental aspects of the story. One of these is that it is not the fact that Jake is somehow superior to the Na’Vi that allows him to rally them. It is that, as a human, he understands the enemy in a way that they can’t. Does that make him ‘better’ or more capable than the Na’Vi? I don’t think so. He just possesses specialized knowledge.
Also, the movie makes the point that Jake, for all his knowledge of the enemy, can’t lead them to victory. The battle is lost, until Eywa, the pantheistic deity of the Na’Vi, intervenes as a classic Deus Ex Machina and sends in reinforcements in the form of all the wild creatures of Pandora. In other words it takes the Pandoran version of Mother Earth to make the difference.
Another thought that occurs is that Jake shows no desire at all to be a ‘leader’ of the Na’Vi. He seems completely happy just to be accepted as one of them, and he seems respectful of their culture and not interested in altering it. If there’s anything in the storyline it is the corporation’s efforts to introduce human culture and technology (the school, the medicine) — an effort which the Na’Vi reject. Jake doesn’t do any of this, and it is only when the Na’Vi are attached that his specialized knowledge thrusts him into a position of importance.
And finally — come on, any serious look at this has to make the acknowledgment that the filmmaker is clearly highly critical of the white culture that he is accused of promoting with the supposedly racist theme. Jake isn’t a proponent of the white culture, he’s a victim of it. To be the kind of “white messiah” the critics are talking about, he would have to be a proponent for the technology and world view that he battles against. He’s not that at all. He buys into the Na’Vi culture and there is no sense that he’s out to “improve”it by the introduction of anything human.