Wednesday, December 23, 2009; B01
If you thought James Cameron's "Avatar" was just a 3-D fantasy flick about nice cat people vs. mechanized mad men, think again. There's a fourth dimension, a shadowy back story about race that has the sci-fi blogosphere engaged in its own war of the worlds.
Annalee Newitz, writing last week on her science blog io9, criticized "Avatar" for depicting yet another white man as a hero in the liberation struggles of oppressed people of color.
As happens in movies such as "District 9," "Dances With Wolves" and "The Last Samurai," Newitz wrote, "a white guy manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member."
I came away from "Avatar" with a similar feeling, although not nearly as strong as I had after watching, say, "Mississippi Burning," which portrayed the FBI as heroes of the civil rights movement.
And yet, I'd recommend seeing "Avatar," not only for the sensational special effects but also to participate in an important discussion about race.
As a movie summary, suffice it to say that an ex-Marine named Jake Sully uses futuristic means to transform himself from a human, or Sky Person, into a Na'vi cat person. Then he infiltrates the cat people to gather intelligence for a military invasion but ends up falling in love with a cat woman. A "race traitor" to his fellow humans, Sully leads the cat people in thwarting the military invasion.
"This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare," Newitz wrote. "It's not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color; it's not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It's a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside. Think of it this way. Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege."
The Moving Image blogger picked up that same theme. "Sully has the power to choose between being a dominating Sky Person or a Na'vi victim, which in the end yields greater power -- the audience's empathy. Only white men are privileged enough to have such choices."
Some might wonder how blue cat people become stand-ins for oppressed people of color. It's more obvious than it seems.
You can tell some cat people are Native Americans, for instance, because, as Newitz describes them, they "wear feathers in their hair, worship nature gods, paint their faces for war, use bows and arrows, and live in tribes."
In addition to Native Americans, I saw some cat people as black people in disguise. This racial effect is cleverly accomplished by using certain speech patterns and body language. One cat man spoke with a West Indian accent, for instance.
"By the end of the film, you're left wondering why the film needed the Jake Sully character at all," the Moving Image wrote. "The film could have done just as well by focusing on an actual Na'vi native who comes into contact with crazy humans who have no respect for the environment."
Newitz concluded: "Speaking as a white person . . . I'd like to watch some movies about people of color . . . from the perspective of that group, without injecting a random white . . . character to explain everything to me."
Eric Ribellarsi, writing on the anti-imperialist blog Fire Collective, fired back at the critics:
"This is not a story about a white man who goes to lead native peoples as their condescending savior. . . . It's a story about a backward white man who is transformed and takes up armed struggle against imperialism alongside them."
He cited the radical abolitionist John Brown as a possible template for the Sully character. In leading the fateful raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Brown, in effect, became a black man and gave his life in the fight against slavery.
Sully becomes blue and puts his life on the line for the Na'vi.
Personally, I prefer my sci-fi movies to be mindless escapism. But when it comes to a national discussion about race -- to the extent that there is one at all -- I accept the reality that Hollywood is the moderator and the Internet is the forum.
"Avatar" certainly keeps the discussion going.