Monday, December 28, 2009

Is Avatar racist?


Listened on NPR and they talked about how people see racist themes in Avatar.

Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe harumphed and said it was very 'limiting' to think of the movie in those terms (how so? Wouldn't it be more accurate to say we've uncovered yet another subtext to the picture's script, one Cameron possibly didn't even know about?). He added that the characters are 'so rich'--I had to laugh at that remark. I've sounded just like that when I'm trying to defend a film I like that had serious problems.

I don't know about racist, but the picture's not exactly what you'd call culturally sensitive. Why DOES it take some white guy to switch sides, be black (in this case blue), and fight for the helpless blacks--sorry, Native Americans--sorry, Na'vi?

This is where Cameron's use of classic storylines runs into problems--he's channeling old movies but he's channeling old attitudes too, and the old, old whiff of racial condescension seeps through the channels he's using.

(Might as well point out here that the idea of human minds being implanted into alien brains is nothing new--Poul Anderson wrote about it in a short story "Call Me Joe." And that Joss Whedon has a darker and more sophisticated take on mind imprinting in his new Dollhouse TV series)

To be fair, it's no Apocalypto; it's not the product of a raging Anti-Semite and homophobe. But still...

Could he have done a better job? Sure. He could have given the Na'vi their due, could have fully honored their culture by writing a better script, one with a more plausible psychology for both the Na'vi and the human military, and managed a more consistent integration of the cultures he borrowed from to make his aliens (as is, it's a grab-bag of Native American, South American, African and, yes, Iraqi ethnic traits--the overall impression is more of opportunism than of any real affection for his creations).

Frankly, if you're going to watch a white man go native and fight for their freedom, I'd rather see Richard Harris drive hooks into his chest in Irvin Kershner's The Return of the Man Called Horse (1976). Does not transcend its pulpy origins, but it's so well and simply done, so lyrical and passionate in its filmmaking, I can give it a pass. That could be my creed: anything lyrical and passionately done, it's easy to give a pass--or at least appreciate, despite the flaws.

15 comments:

Dominic K. Laeno said...

I don't think it's too outlandish to call the movie "racist"; yeah, it pretty much falls into the traps of those old stories (where the invader and the oppressed see eye to eye, despite their differences, by the end of the movie... largely thanks to someone from the oppressing side pulling things together [see Steven Spielberg's Amistad; har har har])...

Not just because of the stereotypes and whatnot, but mainly because the framework of the oppressor helping the oppress has a tendency to overly simplify what are usually VERY complex problems (since there has to be closure by the end of the movie... presumably to give the audience some kind of hope... but then, that could very well be escapism)...

But, yes... in an "action movie", I'm assuming that you usually don't have time to paint a more complex picture, so the simplification is kind of a consequence of what the movie actually is (not that I think that Cameron would've been more capable of doing so given a chance).

Noel Vera said...

No complexity in an action film? Seven Samurai, Wages of Fear, We Own the Night, even Public Enemies has something to say about society and humanity and all. Avatar, while being more overt about it (it's about the natives and environment, stupid) is on closer examination more simpleminded.

Dominic K. Laeno said...

That's why in it's quotation marks; like, Michael Mann makes action movies... but I wouldn't call them simple "action movies" (like your typical Hollywood summer blockbuster or whatever).

James Cameron makes "action movies", is what I'm saying.

That said, I'm actually still a little miffed that PUBLIC ENEMIES wasn't received all that well; I don't consider myself smarter than most people, but if people were actually patient enough to extract all the details, they'd discover that there's actually a lot there; I can't think of many time-period movies that give such a deep impression of the period via its police techniques (the Hoover propaganda, the wire-tapping, etc.).

It was such a good movie; god damn it.

Noel Vera said...

See, if Public Enemies doesn't pander to the lowest common denominator the way Avatar does, if it retains a stubborn integrity telling a complex story and viewpoint its way and not the conventional way--is it going to be a hit? I don't think so. I think it's a success, but not in a way that's going to put Dillinger action figures in McDonald Happy Meals.

Craig said...

Here in the States, the main gripe against Avatar has been that it's anti-military, so it's interesting to read this argument as well. My take, without excusing anyone, is Cameron is too thoughtless to be consciously aware of any racial implications. He does have a political consciousness, so to speak, one as profound here as it was in the "nukes are bad" The Abyss.

Avatar is trite stuff, but I have to admit it didn't bore me the way Public Enemies did. And, I have to give JC credit for creating a blockbuster that's managing to irk both the National Review crowd and the NPR set.

Noel Vera said...

Actually, the racism charge originated from the US too.

Racially speaking, we Filipinos aren't very conscious of skin, other than that: white skin = superior. There are a few that don't buy into that (like to think I don't), but that's the status quo. Don't even ask about our attitude towards blacks. Jews? Mentioned in the bible, that's all we know.

I like Public Enemies; it's a cold fish, but it doesn't slobber all over the place and hump your leg, demanding to be liked, like Avatar does.

And I'm willing to give the NPR crowd the benefit of doubt for maybe a few more years, they've been out of power for so long.

Dominic K. Laeno said...

Anti-military?

The usual national guard and whatever commercials ran right before the movie...

The irony is ridiculous.

Noel Vera said...

"The usual national guard and whatever commercials ran right before the movie..."

Yep; same here.

It's like Fox: conservative news, then Simpsons and T & A shows to follow. Anything for a buck.

Sikat ang Pinoy said...

Hey guys, calm down. No fight please.

Anonymous said...

Wow, anything to make something 'racist'

Noel Vera said...

An opinion does not an argument make, and an anonymous drive-by poster does not an authoritative figure make.

lilo said...

I think it's definitely ethnocentric: superior white guy leads inferior natives to victory and all that. But I also think James Cameron did it on purpose to drum up interest in his film. Controversy sells, you know?

Noel Vera said...

He has to pay bills, a quarter of a billion dollar's worth. And that's the problem--when you have that much in overhead breathing down your neck, you think of paying that off first. Making the movie good comes second.

ryeberg said...

"I am not alone in wanting to dismiss if not ridicule all this fuss over the politics of a silly and predictable Hollywood movie (visually enchanting though it admittedly is). Until I begin to think of just how many Hollywood films have shown various peoples of color (minorities, colonial subjects, the Third World poor) struggle against various social ills (poverty, authoritarianism, imperialism) only to be swiftly arrogated by white men (and, from time to time, white women)..."

From Mitu Sengupta's fabulous discussion of the Avatar racism question:

http://ryeberg.com/curated-videos/avatar-race-relations-light-years-from-earth/

Check it out!

Noel Vera said...

The link doesn't work when I try it, but that excerpt does sound true.

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