Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Is Avatar Racist?

Some critics are seeing racist themes in James Cameron's dazzling new movie, Avatar.

The story, which is told more or less in its entirety through the trailers promoting the film, is simple: An alien race makes their home over a deposit of rare ore on a strange planet. Humans coming to mine the ore are looking for a way to displace the aliens. While scientists study the aliens by using hybrid alien-human bodies that humans control via electronic telepathy, mercenaries hired by the mining company prepare to force the aliens to leave. Our hero, a mercenary, gets the opportunity to control one of the alien hybrids. He falls in love with the aliens, their way of life, and one of their princesses. He turns on his mercenary bosses and he and the scientists that control the hybrid alien bodies, or avatars, revolt against the mining company and try to save the aliens from destruction. You can guess how it ends; it's Hollywood, so it really can't end any other way.

So what about this could be racist? It's the same in many movies. A white man comes in and saves a primitive but more "spiritually enlightened" culture from his own people. As David Brooks pointed out in the New York Times recently, the "White Messiah" theme is central to Tom Cruise's The Last Samurai (2003) and Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves (1990), among many other movies.

"It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic," wrote Brooks. "It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades."

So why would Cameron use such a crude, predictable, even offensive plot? The conservative Weekly Standard's John Podhoretz (whose bitterly negative review called Avatar "among the dumbest movies I've ever seen") had a theory:
"The thing is, one would be giving James Cameron too much credit to take Avatar--with its mindless worship of a nature-loving tribe and the tribe's adorable pagan rituals, its hatred of the military and American institutions, and the notion that to be human is just way uncool--at all seriously as a political document. It's more interesting as an example of how deeply rooted these standard-issue counterculture clich├ęs in Hollywood have become by now. Cameron has simply used these familiar bromides as shorthand to give his special-effects spectacular some resonance. He wrote it this way not to be controversial, but quite the opposite: He was making something he thought would be most pleasing to the greatest number of people."
While Podhoretz's review had many of the earmarks of classic conservative cries against Hollywood liberalism ("Don't smear the profit motive!" admonished Ayn Rand in the 50s), he's spot-on about the pandering, after-thought plot.

No one, Podhoretz included, thinks the plot is the point; it's the effects. But let's take a closer look at these "White Messiah" plots.

Ironically, the White Messiah plot is a liberal device. It celebrates marginalized, colonized and "primitive" cultures, pitting them unfavorably against our more technologically and militarily sophisticated culture. They are weaker, but more in touch with the land. In American lore, they are the "Noble Savage," the Native American. They also represent the desire to leave modern society and get back to basics. They represent a respect for the environment even while they revel in a warrior's way of life.

To me, the "White Messiah" plotline is used by writers and directors of a liberal bent, like Cameron, to create a character that their audience (which they assume in America is predominantly white) can relate to instead of trying to create a sympathetic character from whatever colonized group the story focuses on. Through the white interloper, the audience learns about the colonized culture and, along with that interloper, begins to sympathize with them. Now, to highlight the cultural value of the colonized group, the writers have our hero become their champion. He doesn't merely fight for them, he saves them. Or at the very least, he sacrifices everything he can for them, firmly establishing their cultural and spiritual value by becoming one of them--as much as he can.

I don't believe that it is the writers' intention to appear racist. With a limited understanding of a different culture, and the burden of helping the dominant culture relate to the other, Hollywood has chosen to show us these groups through white eyes. It's a condescending cop out.

It reminds me of cultural critic Edward Said's charge that Napoleon's France stormed into Egypt and studied the culture so thoroughly that it owned it, and taught it about itself as a way to control it.

For a nice antidote to the "White Messiah" story, read Graham Greene's 1955 novel The Quiet American. Or see the 2002 film version starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser. This nuanced tale effectively predicted the Vietnam War and America's place in it. The story, which was taken in part from Greene's experience as a reporter in Saigon, revolves around a British reporter (Michael Caine in the recent film), an American CIA agent (Brendan Fraser), and a Vietnamese woman in love with both of them (Do Thi Hai Yen). Greene's story criticizes the liberal American temptation to "rescue" Vietnam from both the French colonizers and Northern Communists.

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