Hey Guys, Great News! ‘Avatar’ isn’t racist! (or Anti-American!)
Hey, you seen ‘Avatar’ yet? It’s been a month. No? How come? Well yeah, the holidays are busy, but it’s been a month. Surely you know one of the advantages to being a member of the human race is to experience firsthand a historical cultural phenomenon, right? I know, ‘cat people’ aren’t your thing, they aren’t mine either. But c’mon, you must have read he almost unanimous four-star reviews from our nation’s top critics, or at least seen that every screening of the film is selling out four days in advance, right? What’s that? Someone on the internet told you it was RACIST? Oh man, there’s NOTHING worse than racism. It’s ANTI-AMERICAN too?! You’ve heard the SECOND HIGHEST GROSSING MOVIE OF ALL TIME IS A BI-PARTISON HATE MACHINE?
Don’t worry, I checked and it’s not.
James Cameron (Titanic, Piranha 2) spent the last nine years perfecting his vision for a film that redefines the cinematic experience. The 3D effects are nothing short of breathtaking causing the biggest widespread theatrical migration since the dawn of file sharing. People seem to really care about the reverence and magic of the movies again, but this captivating PG film capturing the 2010 world’s attention for an entire month is the cause for some unrest among both ends of the cultural sensitivity spectrum. I like to call these ‘Avatarguments.’
The far left has blasted the film, about a paraplegic soldier who infiltrates the society of an invaded planet and becomes the center of their conflict with Earth, as a bloated white-guilt fantasy. The far right labeled it more Hollywood anti-military socialist Liberal propaganda. Both perspectives have entered my favorite echochamber known as “the internet” and have done their part to convince fringe audiences struggling for identity to give themselves something to make their Facebook statuses different. Polarizing personal politics point towards personality, right? This is why we can’t have nice things. Well, we can have them, but not without olympic level pissing and moaning.
Avatar Isn’t Racist.
The words “white guilt” get thrown around a lot these days, primarily as a super-secret codeword for “check out how smart I am.” With the release of Avatar, the race card has been shuffled back into the deck and used in a game of 52 pickup that some would have you believe undoes the good achieved with the 2008 election*. Their primary argument is that protagonist Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, Macbeth) is a white man who infiltrates an African-esqe exotic civilization, masters their customs, becomes their focal point and ultimately their savior. They see it as not only fetishizing the “other**” but a congratulatory redemption for the white man’s centuries of oppression. In their eyes, Jake Sully gets to pass in both worlds, both experiencing white privilege and acceptance in a foreign culture with none of either’s drawbacks and a free opportunity to pass between the two.
I can understand where such a reading is coming from. In a post-Dances with Wolves world, middle America loves a person they can relate to showing that they can “overcome the odds,” regardless how trivial and masturbatory those achievements are. But this “white privilege” reading doesn’t apply to our protagonist because he is a cripple. And we’re not talking a cool “I’m in dire need of a dual hip replacement but I get around with a pimp cane made entirely out of diamonds because my name is Prince and I am funky” type of cripple. He’s got two shriveled legs and in a hand-propelled wheelchair. It’s the future and he doesn’t even have a Professor X hover-z-boy. This inhibits him from taking advantage of any societal “white privilege” because he isn’t seen as just ‘another white male.’ I counted and, for the first half-hour of the film, EVERY SINGLE TIME HE IS ADDRESSED BY A NON-SCIENTIST IT IS IN DIRECT REFERENCE TO HIS HANDICAP. From “hot rod” to “meals on wheels,” his condition is at the top of every sentence. Further, his time inhabiting the Avatar form sees him endeared to those around him because he is “pure of heart.” They don’t judge him based on his handicap because it is an unknown non-factor to them. As for Sully himself, his primary concern in his new body isn’t “I get a fresh start in a new culture,” but rather excitement for his newfound mobility. His happiness with his new bipedal form results in a crashing depression as, every time he returns to his society, the first shot we see is his disappointed maneuvering back into his wheelchair. He has no “perfect white society” to return to***. As for becoming the focal point of the Na’vi people, he’s merely a major player in this ONE conflict, as his love interest Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, Center Stage) eludes in the film to her Grandfather, who had gathered all the tribes on Pandora to band together in a “time of great sorrow” for an epic conflict with outsiders, and that he was the fifth one to do so. This makes Sully the sixth. The SIXTH. He’s not the “great savior,” he’s merely another name.
I’d also like to ask the film’s accusers, if Jake Sully were black, would the film still be racist? He’s still a human in an alien society. I find most discussions of Jake Sully’s white privilege, or lack there of, devolving into a “who’s more persecuted” pissing contest. Is a white man in a wheelchair more entitled than a fully functioning black man when it comes to a society of blue kitty-people? I’m all for critical thinking at the cineplex and think, in this day-and-age, more attention should be paid to what flies in family-oriented affairs, but sometimes “deconstructing the othering” gets the better of people and does nothing except stop a misguided few from missing a truly great cinematic experience.
Avatar is NOT Anti-American
I’m really not a fan of labeling a film as “patriotic” or “Anti-American.” With the possible exception of terrorist recruiting children’s programming like “Tomorrow’s Pioneers,” I don’t think much hits my screen that screams “I hate America and willingly embrace an opposing alternative!” That being said, I think when conservative critics refer to a film as “Anti-American,” what they mean to say is the film doesn’t fall directly inline with their particular political beliefs. We all remember the uproar that singing penguin film Happy Feet caused within the Fox News crowd, as it was “liberal propaganda,” clearly signified by the acknowledging that A) ice melts and B) birds hate garbage.
James Cameron has made no secret of his own personal politics. He thinks the War in Iraq was a mistake, thinks nature should be preserved and told “60 Minutes” that “tails are cool.” However, when you read the film through the eyes of what the Republican Party has historically stood for, it’s possible to interpret Avatar as a very conservative film. Not unlike Star Wars and Ghostbusters before it, it’s a special effects laden celebration of the potential and triumph of the individual.
Jake Sully, a marine so dedicated to his country that he volunteers to travel seven years despite suffering from a physical handicap that would otherwise absolve him of duty, arrives in Pandora to take part in an experiment in intervention, solely motivated by how many doctors told him he “couldn’t.” Once there, he is met with nothing but hostility from both the military and scientific personal. The corporate/armed forces side rejects him because he is differently abled, which is bothersome as such a condition gets in the way of their cluttered infrastructure. The military presence on the planet is the epitome of an overcomplicated bureaucracy. The man in charge (Giovanni Ribisi) facilitates the poorest of communication between the wings and acts irrationally to benefit the unseen, unnamed “shareholders.” His Colonel defies standard isolationist ideas in favor of being on the perpetual offense within this other world. His head scientist, Dr. Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, Heartbreakers) sees no use for Sully as he’s some “jarhead” and shows signs of a bourgeois elitism by talking down to anyone who isn’t a scientist.
Sully’s character helps both sides find clarity and success in their aims by following his own ambitions, breaking their rules and ultimately leading his new world to preservation. Once in the Avatar body, he defies the scientists’ orders by taking off running. This rash action proves his motor skills are above average and earns him the respect of his peers, promoting him to being along the next flight into the jungle. During that journey, he wanders off from the group again and makes contact with the natives, leading to the most successful relations the two civilizations ever had. For his service, the Colonel offers him new legs once he returns home. Sully chooses not to take the dangling corporate carrot and reaches his ultimate potential saving a society he desires with a fully functioning body in a community he loves.
The Na’vi community itself is the opposite of the human “big government.” The heads of their Republic interact openly with their people. Every connection to their food and transportation is achieved through a, quite literal, direct line. The Tribe members even mate for life at the conclusion of their society’s final community ritual, promoting a strong nuclear family. The Na’vi are also monotheistic (with Pandora encapsulating the notion of ‘God is in everything’ to the point where it listens to and answers prayers) and even the human scientist who doubts this divine presence until, in the face of death, recanting and ‘confessing’ her belief is named Dr. Augustine, sharing the name of the Saint who wrote “The Confessions,” giving the film a pro-religious message. While the argument is made that the human military is portrayed as ruthless and deplorable, it’s the Na’vi’s army that drives they away as they pose an immediate threat to their nation’s security. The Na’vi’s interaction with the other nations on Pandora, a coalition of the willing of there ever was one, is an example of American diplomacy at its best. These particularities in mind there are far more parallels to draw between their struggles and success with other American armies on film than their opposition.
Do I think James Cameron set out to make a Conservative film? Do I think the outspoken critics on the right looked for a Liberal-leaning in the film because of Cameron’s own outspoken politics? Should “white people stop making movies like Avatar?” Should “black people stop making television shows like House of Payne?” And where does 8 Mile fit into all this? We may never know****. What I do know for certain is that Avatar is an incredible experience that shouldn’t be avoided in some sort of self-righteous protest. Throw some band-aids on and see the film how it was meant to be seen. Burritos aren’t to be worn as hats, Stephen Hawking isn’t to compete in a triathlon and 3D kitty-people shouldn’t be deconstructed through an iPhone.
Until next time… Let’s Agree to Agree!
*Although most of these people aren’t particular Obama fans anyway as, after all, they know he is a freemason shape-shifting reptilian illuminati puppet who engineered 9/11 and framed Chris Benoit.
**A word that also operates as a red flag to end any conversation you’re having and walk away before you’re forced to hear how “lyrical” Talib Kweli is.
***SPOILER ALERT – At the conclusion of the film, his casting off of his old body shows he isn’t ‘passing’ or ‘infiltrating’ but just finding where he’s most comfortable. Annie Hall moved to California too. Care to deconstruct that?
****ANSWER KEY: No, Perhaps, No, Yes, and in the $3.99 bin at Best Buy.