Blue and White: Is Avatar Racist?

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By Sandra Hale Schulman
News From Indian Country Feb. 2010

If you’ve seen Avatar, and at this point there aren’t many people who haven’t, you can’t help but notice the obvious similarities between the Na’vi and Native Americans. There have been a million Dances with Wolves jokes already. The movie paints them with a broader tribal brush, it throws in some African and Aboriginal Australian anthropology so as to seem less obvious. But when you’ve cast the great Wes Studi as the Na'vi chief, the filmmakers clearly want us to be imagining them as blue Powhatans, but not exactly.

Avatar’s production designer Rick Carter said to the LA Times back in September: “Take Dances With Wolves. Although God knows it was a wonderful movie and did as well as any movie could hope to do, it still had to run in that middle ground between the truthful Indian existence, as perceived today, and what is acceptable to the Indian community and then still be a Hollywood-oriented star vehicle for Kevin Costner. There was a lot of lines to toe and issues of political correctness, almost, to tell that tale. Now if you go back and make a movie that tells the story and is free of that... All of that creates a “there” where you can stage a story that you can tell with a real freedom. The three of four leaps that you’ve taken, if you make them credible, you can mirror back on those themes that you were talking about and say what you want about them.”

But does Avatar create a “there?” The Na’vi James Cameron presents is a basic New Age Native American stereotype – innocent, nature - worshipping, matriarchal, in tune with the ancestors. Half naked. Yes, it’s a positive stereotype of native culture, but it’s still a stereotype, and one that some Native Americans find demeaning.

For example, many felt Disney’s Pocahontas was a slap in the face because it showed them communing with animals and nature to the point that it made the natives seem like animals. Considering Avatar actually does make them into some kind of human / animal hybrid, it may not be positive to have them borrow Native American traits at all.

 

I’m not sure why I was offended. Cameron had gone to the trouble of designing a language for them, and for creating a CGI world full of obsessive detail.  When it came to the Na’vi, he took the shortcut  and just gave them enough Native American characteristics that we can imagine the rest. What is the daily life of the Na’vi? We spend 2 hours in Na’vi life alongside Jake Sully, but what do you really picture about the rest of their lives? Do you  picture Dances with Wolves' campfire / tepee scenes, but with blue cat people?

It borders on racial profiling considering the Na’vi are played by Native American or African American actors and actresses. A lot of stress was put on creating “ethnic” features according to designer Jordu Schell: “I certainly got no reference to go from, other than a whole stack of photos of actresses that he [James Cameron] really liked, not necessarily that he was going to cast in the role, the vocal role or... the motion capture. Not necessarily for the motion capture, but for inspiration in terms of the beauty of a kind of ethnic face. I remember he very much liked the face of a girl named Q’Orianka Kilcher, who starred in The New World, which was a Pocahontas movie with Colin Farrell. But, you know, I had pictures of Mary J. Blige and all these different people on the walls of really beautiful ethnic women.”

That might explain why  gorgeous Zoe Saldana was almost completely lost within her Na’vi face – it wasn’t her. It was a vague “ethnic” image (by Schell’s own admission, largely unchanged from when Cameron first drew it) that she managed to make into something her own. And Wes Studi was unrecognizable as the doomed chief. So is "“alien” really just human races other than white? And the enemy is the very white army. It’s all very black and white. Or blue and white.

The Na’vi are the good guys. They know better. There's nothing wrong with respecting life, being in touch with your ancestors, and being “one” with your planet and your people. But they’re still in need of a superior outside influence.

The story relies on the fact they are technologically inferior to humans - outgunned and outmatched in battle. They’re so “innocent” that they don’t understand they’re about to be destroyed until Jake Sully tells them.

No one in Hometree seems worried about the long term consequences of the humans setting up base.

Drawing parallels with American history and the implication is troubling. Will viewers walk out and think “If only the Native Americans had a white man who could save them!” Or “If only they hadn’t been so busy praying with trees and stolen some guns! Man, native people are kind of dumb unless someone helps them.”  There are people who wept because the story hit home.

And oh, the love story.

Centuries of literature and decades of film have loved portraying any foreign culture as a place where a white man can lose himself in exotic sex. Native women all over the world are supposed to be wild, sexy, and uninhibited, unlike European women. Would the Na’vi have been doomed if they’d been ugly and unsexual? Probably.

Just because the film has a nice message doesn’t excuse the fact that it delivers that message by way of tribal profiling. Shrugging off one film’s stereotype just because it makes a “big” story go down easier, is dangerous.

Where does it end? It doesn’t. Okay, okay it is only a movie. I still came out of feeling queasy, and it wasn’t the buttered popcorn.

 

 

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