I would like to respond in part to the post by Annalee Newitz titled “When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like Avatar?” and also add some other thoughts upon the film.

First off, let me say that I am with Newitz on the sentiments of her post. Yes: racism in cinema is a perennial problem–especially in American films. Yes, there are too many films created by white men and these films often exacerbate racialized oppressions of colonialism through their themes and mythologies. I would add that films often will reflect the conservative end of power structures because of financing and profit limitations to mainstream medias. I will support the overall intention and stance Newitz takes: it is important to view films with race in mind–as well as gender, class, spectrums of abilities, etc.

However, I feel that a critique of the film as portraying a “white guilt” and a fantasy of white folk (particularly men?) escaping culpability for their privileges of skin and benefitting from colonizing programs misses other points that the film (and Cameron) is making.
Anytime we participate in a film with just one lens or one critique, we can miss facets and interpretations that may be there–even quite plainly.
A worry that I have about Newitz’ post is that if she is taken seriously, the film will then not be. One may then discredit the film as “just another white guilt fantasy” and not take the sort of social action that I think is totally implied and encouraged by the film. No movie or moviemaker is perfect. Let’s get that straight. I feel that there are times when folks concerned with colonialism and social oppressions (of which I count myself one) will write-off a piece of art because there is a perceived flaw, complain about it, and leave it at that (i.e. question ‘when will white people stop doing what I perceive them to be doing’?). This leaves the ‘progressive’, ‘liberal’, ‘anti-racist activist’ absolved from positive reaction. That is, they can remain a bitter critique of mainstream media.
Not that this is what Newitz is doing. Its just a dangerous possibility of critique.
I would like to offer as a counter to Newitz: that ‘guilt’ to me is a paralyzing emotion. It breeds inactivity, shame, and dishonesty. If one were to watch this film purely as race-drama in space–couldn’t Sully, Grace, Chacon, Norm, and Dr. Patel (not to mention the other ‘grunts’ who stay behind in the end) be seen as anti-racist allies?

Newitz compares Avatar to Dances With Wolves and I had thought the same myself when watching it. There are similarities between the protagonists: they both have been close to death–Costner’s Dunbar sees death and is himself injured. So too is Sully familiar with death (his brother’s) and severly injured. They also are in the service of military forces though they themselves are now observant and appreciative of life and less willing to goosestep in line.

I will agree that there can be parallels with Dune also. The ‘outsider savior’ is an overused myth: from Sergio Leone’s films to that story about a Jewish wunderkind. Usually in these types of (Western) hero myths the rescuer comes from without and then leaves either in the sunset or the clouds above Galilee. Stories where a hero stays with the people seems to me a different story that may point more to the transition within the hero–not focusing on their actions. I may be making a distinction between an ‘outsider savior’ and a ‘awakened warrior’.
Avatar follows this second type and is exemplified in the last shot: the opening eyes of Sully in his new (heavenly?) body. He is as Buddha said ‘awake’. But what has Sully awakened to? The situation of materialism: hunger for resources at any dehumanizing cost. The lie of might making right: the ability to violently overcome another as being “justified by the course of nature”. The false hopes of understanding another through study: anthropology (xenopology?) and sociology can distance individuals through thematization.

Is Luke Skywalker an example of white guilt because he sees the oppression of the Empire over the ragtag freedom fighting Alliance? Or is he awakened to a new way of life and being? Or are Leia Organa and Chewbacca race traitors when they fight alongside the Ewoks?

Are the Pevensie children seeking absolution from white guilt when they are introduced to a new world in their wardrobe and fight alongside badgers and centaurs (obviously stand-ins for oppressed and marginalized races)?

Newitz makes note of the protagonist’s name: “our white hero Jake Sully (sully – get it?)”…do we get what? Sully as in “ruined, tainted….”? I don’t get it and I hope someone can explain what Newitz means.
I however might find meaning in his first name, Jake. In the Bible, Jakob takes over his older twin brother’s birthright and role. Jake Sully takes over his brother’s role here. Surely the way they come to this is different: trickery versus death, but is it a stretch? Jakob also become Israel after struggling with an angel. Israel means “struggles with G-d” and Sully here struggles against social pressures and the ‘gods’ of mammon, power, physical ‘restoration’, and convention. I will stretch now: Jakob limped after his fighting the angel, Sully loses use of his limbs (next I’ll do a gematria of the film’s edits!).

Another name of note perhaps: Grace Augustine. As Augustine tried to define and explain sin in an orderly fashion, so too does Grace believe that her science and study can explain everything. Sigourney Weaver does an interesting turn here: she is essentially playing Cameron’s theme of the sinister interest of science. In his ‘Aliens’ the character of Paul Reiser’s Burke uses the idea of ‘study’ and scientific interest to hide behind ulterior motives. I believe Grace here is doing the same. In the beginning of the movie especially, I feel that she is on par with Colonel Quarich or Ribisi’s corporate CEO Selfridge (selfish–get it?) in her desires. Rather than defeat them militarily like Quarich, she wants to understand them. Feminist critique has done a great job unveiling the agendas of ‘understanding the Other’ and its great that Weaver is playing what is essentially a masculinist observer here. Rather than mine the metal from the ground like Selfridge, she wants to mine the culture. Rather than build community of vulnerability, trust, and dignity, she is the scientific onlooker trying to ‘figure them out’.
I thought about Grace’s name too. She is not too graceful towards others so it confused me. It clicked near the end when it becomes clear that her life was channelled into the planet’s ‘spirit’ and used to aid in the battle. This was a grace to her–she has a lot of transformation in the movie and again I contend that she is perhaps the most interesting and dynamic character.

Let’s keep on the theme of names: The People are called the Navi which in Hebrew means “Seer”, which can get rendered as ‘prophet’. It was no mistake that their greeting is: “I see you”. This lends itself to the idea that this story is about spiritual journeying and awakening to a different type of life rather than (just) as a story about race.

Okay–moving on….
Cameron has been clear about his politics in previous movies and they get relayed again here:
A concern for the environment and a feeling that to destroy and exploit nature is to kill alien or ‘magical’ forces is undertaken in The Abyss.
Linking military violence and corporate interests is the theme of Aliens and it is very strong here. In both instances we see how it is not for any real virtue that lives are endangered and Marines are deployed. It is by the direction of greedy corporations who see a resource to exploit.

This last note is the strongest social critique of America’s current military occupations and imperial/colonial agendas. For anyone who views this movie and finds themselves in anyway cheering for The Navi–they should ask themselves how they are any different from ‘insurgents’, or ‘terrorists’.

If you thought Sully was a cool character, check out

If you thought the Navi were cool, check out

If you were interested in Grace’s character, check out

Newitz’ referenced post may be found here:

Ryan McGivern