I was hoping this film would just go away, but after winning Golden Globe awards as best picture of 2009, and breaking all attendance records, it looks like Avatar is here to stay. Yet another epic spectacle of American exceptionalism and White Privilege has been playing in 3D, in IMAX and in every theater across the country.
It should not be such a big deal, but huge grossing fantasy films have a far reaching impact on their audiences, of all races and nationalities. The similarities to Tarzan, the mythical white man that becomes “King of the Jungle” were too hard to ignore.
The Tarzan tale, first written in 1912 by American author Edgar Rice Burroughs, details the story of a white man left in the jungle and raised by apes, who by his sheer skills and ingenuity goes on to become “King of the Jungle.” The idea was popular among young Americans looking for an escape for much of the last century, but it also represented the worst examples of white privilege– that a white man can “Go Native” , join the “tribe” like Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves – and then emerge as their leader!
The story would be incredible except for the fact that it is ingrained in our thinking process as Westerners. Whether the ‘tribes’ are Pacific Islanders, Native Americans or Na’Vi from the planet "Pandora" , it is very hard for Hollywood (or any American fiction) to break out of this mold.
It may seem silly, but characterizations of members of racialized groups in American fiction have a sad way of affecting public opinion, and affecting social policy toward those groups.
As for Avatar, I really thought that the juvenile plot would be exposed by folks critical enough to see the colonial baggage hanging over every “exotic” flower, every “magical” ritual of the natives and every alpha-male effort of the protagonist, (named Jake Sully, if you can believe that).
Yes the film is gorgeous, and that is the draw on the way in, but I’m afraid the lasting images on the way out of the film do a lot of damage to the “Native” in the imagination of the audiences. Since Pocahontas in the 1600s, the (false) story of the benign tribespeople enabling the courageous white patriarch has been indelibly (and often cruelly) marked on our national psyche. For director James Cameron to bring this tale to the largest venue on earth comes as no surprise.
I’m afraid this film represents the best and worst of American film-making. As a technical project, this is one of the most ambitious and overwhelming experiences ever put in a film theater. But technical achievement in Hollywood films has just as often led to some of the most backward racial characterizations.
How about these examples:
In 1915 “Birth of A Nation” was hailed as a “cinematic triumph” in 1915, replete with its fiercely racist characterizations of “free” Negroes;
In 1933 “King Kong” was one of the greatest sci-fi productions ever made at the time, complete with the giant “super nigger” chasing the white woman across the jungle and dragging her up the Empire State Building;
1939 -One of the first ‘color’ films was “Gone With The Wind” that lamented the demise of the Old South (and the old ways of the Confederacy) with spectacular visual imagery;
In 1963 the most expensive film ever made (to date) was “Cleopatra” a four hour monolith that featured a white woman in the lead role, Elizabeth Taylor commanding her multi-colored subjects.
In 1969, As a reflection of the cynical, revolutionary sixties, racial domination was flipped in “Planet of the Apes” a hugely popular film (with four sequels and a TV series) that imagined the mess that would incur once apes (read:blacks) took over the world.
In the late sixties things began to change. It was a time in which visionary sci-fi producers imagined space journeys in which the humans were not the dominant species, but mere trifles on the galactic road map. Stanley Kubrick’s essential 2001: A Space Odyssey imagined a distant – incomprehensible intelligence that sought to guide humanity through its transformational phases. It was clearly a break from the colonial mentality of so much sci fi.
Much of the appeal of the original Star Trek for many of us was that the intrepid Enterprise crew were not merely understood as space police, but that they regularly encountered beings far more advanced than humans, beings that were annoyed by the trivial and savage ways of earth beings, and the humans were lucky to get out of orbit in time without getting vaporized.
In 1979, and reprised in 1984, Sigourney Weaver single-handedly pushed the feminist envelope in sci-fi as the indomitable (yet still complex, courageous and feminine) Ripley. But by this time however, the overblown era of hyper-masculine bombast began to overtake the imagination of film makers, as steroid enhanced Austrian body builder Arnold Schwarzenegger became the #1 box office sci fi action hero in the 90’s.
We are back full circle now. With American Empire on the precipice, no Hollywood film maker wants to spend their money openly critiquing the system that created their privileged space to begin with.
So we are left with a story of a white man who “Goes Native” and joins the tribe, a la Dances With Wolves (another blockbuster white man fantasy of the other), and after disowning his own people, joins the fight against them and becomes essentially the greatest of the native warriors, the King of the Jungle, a la Tarzan.
We see once again the benevolent and naive ‘earth people’ that put their trust in the invaders without serious suspicion, and we see the European invader magically obtain powers and status of a ‘chosen one’ that outpaces the warriors and leaders of the people there. What, these natives were afraid of the big bird all these years, and the whyteboy is the only one courageous enough to fly it? Give me a break.
And don’t get me started on the tired broken English accents, straight out of movie westerns and Mutiny on the Bounty. All this praise about ‘creating a new language’ for the aliens, but the actors deliver them like Pat Morita in Happy Days.
As a film with a “message,” despite its anti war and corporate greed overtones, in terms of its characterization of the other, it is warped, tired, abusively stereotypical and ultimately unwatchable. So much energy, so much effort, so much care and precision, down the drain. But that’s just me. I’ll probably watch it again and hope I don’t feel the same way, but it is hard to hide from what you can see in 3D.