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anti-racism | media criticism

Avatar - a critical review

Thoughts on why Avatar fails utterly at doing what it might have actually intended to do - and offends horribly in the process.
I can only imagine that many who watched the recently released film Avatar were offended by it's seemingly leftist anti-militarist, anti-corporate sentiments.
Others must have been heartened by what seemed like an anti-racist, anti-colonization film with some teeth to it; not only were resource hungry humans roundly denounced in the end, but they got their asses kicked too!

Well I for one had a hard time watching this movie. In fact I felt physically repulsed by the story, so much so that I had a hard time appreciating what might have honestly been impressive visual effects. Why? Precisely because it is intended to be, and is widely viewed as a progressive, anti-racist film.

Let's review the story, I'm writing this for people who have already seen the film though so I'm going to be (somewhat) brief.
A white marine (Jake) in the employ of a resource-extraction oriented corporation is sent to a distant planet with a problem: pesky native inhabitants (the Na'vi). There the corporation ponders how to remove a large community of the indigenous "humanoids" from their traditional home which, inconveniently but unsurprisingly is located directly above the largest deposit of "unobtainium," (is this intended to be humor?) which the corporation is hell-bent on mining.
The corporation has at its disposal a large military element, the marines, and also a small group of research-happy scientists with vaguely liberal leanings, both of whom represent distinct possible courses of action with regards to resource extraction (marines: outright annihilation of natives to make way. scientists: negotiated removal and resettlement, possible long-term assimilation). Think: pretty much the entire history of the united states.
But here's where things get interesting, the scientists have grown fully functional bodies identical to those of the native Na'vi which can be controlled by humans via computer-brain interface. This opens up all sorts of interesting opportunities.
One thing leads to another and the Jake, who has formed a semi-secret pact with the military forces to feed them intel about the Na'vi, gets his "avatar" body accidentally stranded in the wilderness. Supernatural forces come quickly and strongly to the aid of said marine's avatar and because of this an attractive young female indigenous inhabitant (Neytiri) decides against her first impulse to bring him to the very heart of her community. There it is determined that he will learn the ways of the Na'vi.
Surprise! Over the course of this three-month intensive program the white man falls in love with Neytiri, and she falls in love with him despite the fact that due to ancient customs she was supposed to be "mated for life" with a local important indigenous warrior (Tsu'Tey).
After learning all about the people's ways he's accepted as one of their own. Then the corporation comes and starts fucking everything up.
The white man is outed as a spy for the corporation and the marines but nevertheless he tries to convince the Na'vi to leave their traditional home in order to avoid utter destruction. The Na'vi refuse, they are attacked, their home is destroyed. Now seriously pissed off the white man Jake regains the Na'vi's trust by taming a large dragonlike creature, an incredible feat achieved only 6 times before in the history of the Na'vi!
Wow! He really is amazing! And now with his almost god-like, highly venerated position, he rallies the disorganized, frightened native peoples, and then he flies around and unites all the distant Na'vi bands together!
What a swell guy! He bravely leads a massive indigenous army to a narrow success!
The Marines and thus the corporation are defeated and shipped off the planet (the remaining scientists get to stay)! A magical tree then permanently transfers the white man's mind to the avatar body and he lives happily ever after with Neytiri and all of the Na'vi.

... So what's wrong with this picture? Those bad greedy humans lost, right? The corporation and the marines were defeated, so where's my gripe?

Well my line of thinking goes like this: some peoples articulate that there is potentially something more important and intimate than land, than resources, than any physical thing (while certainly all those things are important and ultimately involved in this other very important thing!) ... and that's a people's identity, as a specific people.

So let's review again.

First off Jake gets a Na'vi body. Attractive, tall, super strong, he literally gets to choose to become physically of another race whenever he wants to (the not-so-secret dream of many guilt ridden white liberals).

Then after three months of what essentially amounts to summer outdoor camp he has accomplished everything that it takes most real Na'vi many many years to do, and thus he is accepted into the socio/political reality of this specific indigenous people, he's a real Man with the right to speak at important functions (also the not-so-secret dream of many whites). This is a just plainly offensive implication, that complex indigenous cultures can ever be understood, mastered (and quickly at that) by outsiders.

Then due to an age-old racist axiom of films like this where there's a white man and an indigenous woman involved it turns out that the white man just happens to be much more intelligent, caring, sensitive and all around desirable than whatever indigenous men may also be in the picture. Thus it is in Avatar, where the warrior Tsu'Tey (who Neytiri was supposed to partner with) is an essentially two-dimensional character who's few lines prove that he's not capable of much more emotional expression than shallow displays of anger. What a surprise. In any case, because of this the white Jake "get's the girl" pretty early on. But not just any girl; THE politically high-ranking indigenous girl... for life, in case anyone was curious. Man, even Dances With Wolves didn't go there.
(The scholar, activist and author Andrea Smith, who writes about, among other things, the sexual conquest of indigenous peoples as an important aspect of colonization might have something to say about this dynamic)

Also in general I feel like Rudyard Kipling could have come up with a less offensive way to depict some imaginary "super-ethnic" indigenous cat people.

Then comes a point in the film where James Cameron could have, to a degree, turned things around. There was an option open for gaining just a sliver of redeeming cred... After the marines figure out what's up and arrest Jake and the other implicated scientists, after the sympathetic marine breaks them out of jail, Jake could have at that point decided to become a real, effective white (ahem, excuse me, human) ally to the soon-to-be colonized indigenous people. He had the perfect opportunity! He was certainly sympathetic to the Na'vi's situation! He was in the belly of the beast!
How easy would it have been for him, the scientists and the sympathetic marine to to rig up some improvised explosives and blow up the corporate/military base while he was there?!?! If done correctly this could have stopped the war and saved numerous Na'vi lives! I mean hell, the air on that planet is poisonous, all they really would have had to have done was break enough windows and the whole corporate operation would have folded! But no, this would have been way too practical, not nearly romantic/glorious enough.
Jake had to go and continue pretending like he was actually a Na'vi...

So then he realizes what he must do in order to win back the respect of the Na'vi, he must do what has only been done 6 other times and tame the giant dragonlike red and orange flying creature that terrorizes the other smaller flying creatures. How does he accomplish this almost impossibly difficult feat? He uses what must be his superior intellect to figure out that he must... wait for it... fly over and jump on said creature. (c'mon James Cameron) Oh yeah I guess he has to be "determined" too. Well apparently he is, and in doing so he becomes revered as one of the few brave enough to tame this kind of beast, claiming for his own an extremely important social position amongst the Na'vi.

Then Jake uses this very prestigious position to become fearless, cunning, undisputed leader of the entire indigenous resistance campaign....

Then he gets to be transferred from his human body to his Avatar Na'vi body forever....

And he gets to be mated to Neytiri forever...

So ultimately, while "the humans lost," the ENTIRE FILM is shaped by a white man (mr. Cameron), about a white human man claiming, grasping, owning, getting (stealing) absolutely everything that belongs to the Na'vi. Everything, down to their identity and down to their very blood.

So who's the real winner in this film? And why does this pass in popular culture as anti-racism?

(I can only imagine Ward Churchill urging Jake to look to his own Celtic, Gaelic, Anglo-Saxon or other Germanic etc. tribal roots if he wants to be a real ally...)

P.S. I, the person who wrote this critical review, am a white settler myself. If anyone sees anything racist or otherwise messed up/busted in this review I invite all to call me on it.