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Avatar: For or Against Indigenous Rights?

While James Cameron's visually-stunning Avatar (2009), a sci-fi about earth-human's ultimately unsuccessful attempt to colonize another planet, is widely seen as expressively anti-imperialist, others claim the movie – history's fastest to make a billion at the box office – contains subtle racism against indigenous peoples.

Telegraph blogger Will Heaven, who usually writes about politics, internet and religion in the United Kingdom, charges the movie with racism and Western left-wing arrogance:

I won’t spoil the plot, but here’s the basic set-up: a group of mercenary humans have colonised a faraway planet, called Pandora, in order to extract an enormously valuable mineral found there. Pandora’s “natives” – a race of tall, blue-skinned aliens called the Na’vi – live on an area of land which is set to be mined. They won’t relocate, so the humans attack.

[…]

By far the most contemptible theme in Avatar involves the hero, a young disabled American called Jake Sully, played by Sam Worthington. Before the humans declare war on the Na’vi, Sully is sent to them (in the form of a blue-skinned avatar) in a last ditch attempt to find a diplomatic solution. But, lo and behold, he becomes one of them – sympathising so much with their plight that he decides to lead them into battle against the humans.

As Left-wing conceits go, this one surely tops all the others: the ethnic Na’vi, the film suggests, need the white man to save them because, as a less developed race, they lack the intelligence and fortitude to overcome their adversaries by themselves. The poor helpless natives, in other words, must rely on the principled white man to lead them out of danger.

Thinking for You, a Florida-based blogger, agrees:

I was rather struck that so many people in the audience would accept the corporation and the caricatures of the US military as enemies, that they would literally applaud the destruction of the strike force. But perhaps the joke is on me, because ultimately the representation of military loss is only pretend, and the message that remains attached to the visual spectacle seems to be that the fate of nature and culture depends not on right, or justice, or even on inner strength, but on the disputes and intervention of Anglo, male, U.S. Marines. Whether you are a predatory corporate enterprise, or a valiant blue native, you can't win without an Anglo male Marine on your side. Everything else is incidental, and resistance is futile.

Eric Ribellarsi, blogging at The Fire Collective: Fight Imperialism, Rethink and Experiment, disagrees:

I found the movie to be a nuanced and beautiful film that told the story of an elitist white soldier for imperialism who goes to exploit and oppress an indigenous nation of aliens (the Na’vi), but is instead transformed by them and won to take up armed struggle against imperialism along side them.

Indigenous blogger Mindanaoan's Narratives sees Avatar as “an activist’s dream movie” and draws parallels with problems in her own homeland in the Philippines:

The movie is also a reflection of the struggle of the indigenous peoples and rural communities in the hinterlands of Mindanao. Mining and other ‘development projects’ is linked with militarization and human rights violations; pitting lumads against lumads.

Jordan Poss Blog, based in the U.S. state of Georgia, takes a different view:

The equation of Na'vi with Native Americans is shameless and nauseating. Not because I think there's anything sacrosanct about the Indian experience–rather, the whole movie is so cloying and mawkish, the Na'vi so saintly and their earthly oppressors so evil I wanted to puke. This isn't storytelling, it's preaching. And lame preaching at that.

Asking the Wrong Questions, an Israel-based blog by Abigail Nussbaum, doesn't see the movie as romanticizing indigenous peoples:

When the film's production designer obliviously explains that making the film's Others blue-skinned aliens freed the filmmakers to tell a story that would have been considered racist if told about humans, and doesn't see the problem in what he's saying despite the fact that the only thing distinguishing those aliens from stereotypical Native Americans is their blue skin, what is there for a humble blogger to add?

4 comments

  • Like all allegories it’s meant to be contentious/ambiguous. The environmental aspects have also caused a furore in some quarters. From my review of Avatar:

    “Those looking for a message will probably find it, but be warned it’s not much of an allegory. It may have upset some conservative commentators, but not all tree-huggers, gaia greenies or animal libbers will embrace it either. The indigenous people are full-on meat eaters.

    Ultimately god/gaia is an anti-colonial, anti-globalisation, save-the-planet, peace warrior. She’s called Eyra on Pandora. The ‘mother” doesn’t take sides, she just gets even.” http://tr.im/K7JQ

  • Thanks for the article. Really liked it.

  • Gary Cozette

    “…this one surely tops all the others: the ethnic Na’vi, the film suggests, need the white man to save them because, as a less developed race, they lack the intelligence and fortitude to overcome their adversaries by themselves. The poor helpless natives, in other words, must rely on the principled white man to lead them out of danger.”

    I disagree. The Na’vi did not need a white man to save them. They needed someone who knew the enemy and their technology, experience that the Na’vi did not possess. Jake also had knowledge of what the white invaders were plotting to do. They were not poor helpless natives. But the Na’vi were hopelessly outgunned. The Na’vi possessed both intelligence and fortitude. That intelligence and fortitude came from living in tune with nature and a spiritualily linked to nature. It was an intelligence that transformed white human Jake to seek to become a blue 10 foot tall Na’vi. It was Na’vi fortitude that displayed itself throughout the film, with the exception of the desolation in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the Na’vi tree-structued metropolis. Their were flaws, but in my view, this film opened the reality to the American public of global exploitation of natural resources on indigenous land by multi-national corporations by the use of military force – and the struggle of indigenous peoples against their dispossession. It would help if more white people in America joined Jake to stand up against this corporate exploitaion and military violence.

  • Meg

    I agree wholeheartedly that there were resemblances to the Native Americans with the Na’vi. However, if the history hadn’t been so similar, we wouldn’t have been able to recognize it so easily either! The lesson in Avatar for me was that principled people can still overcome corporate greed, and that we all need to take a stand and fight for what we believe in.

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