Avatar (2009)

Director: James Cameron

There’s quite a lot of discussion amongst leftist “film critics” about the nature of the new film Avatar.  It’s been described as everything from a great anti-Imperialist adventure in solidarity to the most recent prime example of a White Man’s Guilt story.

One recent article that seems to have gained some popularity on the online world titled When will White People Stop Making Movies like Avatar? by Annalee Newitz where the argument revolves around the thesis that Avatar is essentially a story of “white guilt” and a fantasy of how to deal with and alleviate that white guilt.  For Newitz, Avatar is more of a story about race and the oppression of a certain race as told by the oppressor’s perspective than it is about a story of Western Imperialism, which of course has historically included race as a specific dynamic/characteristic of that imperialism.  A response to this article was posted at The FIRE Collective’s website titled Avatar: Condescending Racism or a Story of Transformation and Struggle? where the author argues that Newitz’s analysis lacks the critical points of the story of Avatar:  Imperialism and Resistance.

Both articles agree that the story is one of a white oppressor who decides to join with the oppressed after realizing that Imperialism is wrong.  Where they disagree is in what manner that resistance is executed.  According to Newitz, the story is full of “white leadership” that was required to save the Na’vi in the film.  Their resistance by themselves was not an option and required the oppressor to step in an decide to help.  The story being from the perspective of the white main character was for Newitz and example of this sort of fantasy being materialized as a “White Man’s Burden” sort of struggle: where white leadership was required.

The Kasama Project has also posted various articles on Avatar with similar discussion on whether the story is problematic or not, to what stereotypes are being appealed to throughout the film, etc.  The WSWS has also has an article titled Why are Critics Lauding Avatar? which includes many of the same criticisms about the race dynamics and the shallowness of the story line.

It seems that there is a major philosophical difference in these various interpretations rooted in identity politics versus a materialist anti-Imperialist interpretation.  That’s not to say that those who criticize the potential racism in the film are “just diving into identity politics” or that they are essentializing race over a focus on Imperialism (although I do believe that Newitz’s article does this to some extent), or that those who praise the film for being anti-Imperialist are completely ignoring the major problems with the film.

I would say that to completely dismiss the film or to uncritically praise it are both problematic.  There is some importance to having on of the biggest Hollywood productions having an anti-Imperialist message as its plot device (which can be analogous for the original colonial period to our current conflicts).  And another plot device used is that of some members of the oppressing group rejecting their role and even violently opposing the oppressed to assure an end to that Imperialism.  I do agree, however, that there are significant problems with the way in which this is played out in the film: for example Jake Sully (the main character) does become some mythical savior figure in the film, and the Na’vi are fetishized in an almost orientalist way.

James Cameron himself cited that the story is about the “sins” of humanity itself, not of any particular event or struggle.  It’s quite obvious that the various sections of actors in the film are representatives of the current and past struggles that the West has been engaged in, and that of course has inspired his writing.  But his story is indeed not a “revolutionary leftist” one, and wasn’t intended to be.  That’s not to say that we shouldn’t, as leftists, praise the anti-Imperialism of it but of course we should point out its serious flaws.

Overall, it was a film that achieved major technical achievements in the context of a left-Liberal story.  It’s problems seriously undermine it to be something that the revolutionary left should praise, but it can still be a starting point for discussion and discourse for such a popular film.

Further Reading: http://theredphoenix.wordpress.com/2009/12/20/review-of-avatar/

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2 thoughts on “Avatar (2009)

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