At first glance it seems that Mr. Cameron’s science fiction script about a world that needs to be saved from consumerist humans doesn’t seem like an appropriate place to be talking about racial politics. However science fiction film has been a place where many films have interesting and forward-thinking racial subtexts. Planet of the Apes, released in 1968, is one of these films. The film deals with 1960’s racial politics but places the oppressors (Whites) in the African American’s position with a new evolutionary threat to oppress them.
What is different between Planet of the Apes and Avatar is that Avatar has an oppressor (ex-marine Jake Sully, played by Sam Worthington) saving the oppressed Navi. Not only does Jake Sully become a Navi, but he saves the race from extinction. It may not seem like much of a difference however there are two ways that make the difference significant. First, in Planet of the Apes the human is the oppressed in the text and we are meant to feel sympathy for the oppressed of the subtext. Second the Planet of the Apes model doesn’t have George Taylor saving the Apes from oppression but saving himself from oppression. Planet of the Apes allows the oppressor in the real world learn to empathize with those he is oppressing.
We’ve seen the Avatar model before, Dances with Wolves released in 1990 and the Last Samurai, released in 2003. In both of these films we watch a soldier, sent to a foreign land, submerged in the culture they are at odds with, turned into an accepted member of the enemy culture, and then saving their adopted-culture from the forces of their birth-culture. What is dangerous about these films is that they support two theses: the racial superiority of whites and transference of power and agency from native cultures to whites in an effort to save the native culture. In all three of these films the white man “out-natives” the natives. In Cameron’s film Sully actually inhabits all the physical characteristics of a Navi using a genetically grown Avatar. Even though the Navi are physically superior to the human race, Sully can still out-Navi the Navi.
The first criticism of my racial interpretation of Avatar is that the Navi are an alien race. However I would like to look at who Cameron cast as the four main Navi: Zoe Saldana as Neytiri, Laz Alonso as TsuTey , CCH Pounder as Mo’at and Wes Studi as Eytukan. Two African-Americans, a Guyanan, and a Cherokee Indian, two of the most oppressed groups in American history (i.e. Slavery, Segregation, Trail of Tears). It’s obvious that Cameron wanted the Navi to be like both the Native American and Native African, both of whom share a overwhelming respect for nature. However the casting of these actors serves to reinforce the racist interpretation of the film. It also doesn’t help that Eytukan, the leader of the tribe is killed, TsuTey is killed and Jake Sully steals his bride Neytiri.
Neytiri says to Jake as he is learning about her culture: “”You have a strong heart, no fear, but stupid, ignorant, like a child.” I think we may have to say the same to James Cameron. It’s probably unintentional that his film has such strange racial politics, however that does not mean we should not address it. Kenneth Turan of the LA Times wants us to “Think of “Avatar” as “The Jazz Singer” of 3-D filmmaking.” Unfortunately I think we have to consider Avatar as the Birth of a Nation of 3-D filmmaking. Yes appreciate the technicality of the film but also consider that the message of the film is wrong. It’s unfortunate that the films technology, environmentalist and anti-war themes are steps forward, yet its racial politics are two steps backward.