David Brooks has become the most recent but surely not the last in a long line of Avatar critics who level the charge of the film portraying the “White Messiah” narrative. I submit that Brooks’ analysis fails on a number of levels.

First, Brooks’ reiteration of the White Messiah critique of Avatar fails in originality. There have been numerous articles written almost verbatim before him including Annalee Newitz to whom I responded to here:

Secondly Brooks gives no idea of what consequences he would expect from the viewing audience (potential and realized). He writes: “Avatar is a racial fantasy par excellence…It’s just escapism, obviously, but benevolent romanticism can be just as condescending as the malevolent kind…” That sounds like a pretty serious charge. Are we to not see the movie? Protest it? Are considerate viewers to be encouraged to educate others about post-colonialism, systemic racism, the history of race in film? Brooks gives no hints at redemption for this film. As I am a movie lover and also a person committed to social justice and anti-racism, I take great joy in finding ways to lead viewers to make tough critical decisions about films and ‘redeem’ them through analysis. This can mean thinking through how the story fails, but also how it can still lead to positive and change-making dialogues. I feel that Brooks’ article commits a common misstep in throwing out a charge of cultural insensitivity without offering new inroads towards positive action, dialogue, or thought. Brooks stays at the (sophomoric) thesis level of ‘this phenomenon exits’. Does his list of six movies including Fern Gully create evidence that these films are alike in disparaging of non-European cultures? This is connected then to my first point: the White Messiah charge is already a tired thread on the internet. What else can a person say about this film besides a quick-reference meme tag, or Hollywood in general that may lead towards true effective and just post-colonial work?

Third, and most importantly, Brooks must misrepresent the film to the point of fabrication to fit it into his pre-conceived mold. I will explain below the statements he makes that lead me to wonder if he saw the film at all or just didn’t watch closely.

Now let me state where I do agree with Brooks. I agree with his spirit and the sentiment of where he is coming from. American big-production house movies have almost a 100% failure record as far as their depictions of cultures that deviate from the white-privileged mainstream. This is not only in issues of race, but of course gender, class, religion, LGBTQ communities, ‘outlaw’ sexuality, etc. I also am in full agreement that white folk have largely just not ‘got it’ as far as how to engage in anti-imperial, post-colonial, anti-racist work.

I will also add that I do feel that the process of greater justice will be greatly quickened through the work of allies, inclusive solidarity movements, and finding connections between oppressions of race, class, gender identities, spectrum of abilities, etc.

I applaud for Brooks listing some more movies than just ‘Dances with Wolves’ and ‘Last Samurai’ that qualify as White Messiah films beginning with ‘A Man Called Horse’. Leaving behind the need of a clear comparison of Avatar with these films (I’m sure by reason of space constraint) we are left to take Brooks’ (and multitudes of others) word for it. These movies are White Messiah narratives.

How are we to interpret White Messiah or White Savior charges? Are Jake Sully of Avatar or John Dunbar of DwW savior or messiah types?

In DwW, Kevin Costner’s character does what that is savior type? He joins the group, the Army finds his journal which threatens the Sioux by disclosing information about them, and then he flees into the snowy passes.

This could lead to some interesting conversations about what a messiah is and how historically savior types have been interpreted.

How about in Avatar? Is Jake Sully a messiah? Brooks is content to limit his characterization of Sully as a messiah by this kind of description: “he’s the most awesome member of their tribe. He has sex with their hottest babe. He learns to jump through the jungle and ride horses. It turns out that he’s even got more guts and athletic prowess than they do…” It doesn’t matter that this isn’t necessarily true. Even if it was, does that a messiah make? Sully does show leadership, by garnering support from the other Navi cultures and he does his part in battle. Is being a leader and warrior count as messiah? And does Brooks neglect that Sully works in relationship and support of both human and Navi allies? Is Brooks overlaying the Great Man theory unto this film also?
Or is Grace Constantine a messiah? She dies and becomes a petitioning saint in a sense, telling Eywa about the dangers posed by the invading humans.
Or is Tsu’tey the fallen Navi warrior? Or are they all messiah? As some traditions hold ‘messiah has a thousand faces’ and many individuals enact redeeming, divine action into the world.

Let me take Brooks point by point:
The formula [of White Messiah] also gives movies a little socially conscious allure.”
I would posit that Brooks’ own article has the easy veneer of ‘socially conscious allure’. It gives a name to a supposed genre which will sound good to justice minded folks but gives no critical depth, and offers no countering positive input.

“Academy Award voters like it because it is so multiculturally aware.”
Part of what makes science fiction such an interesting genre for me is its ability to ask questions and remain open to multiple interpretations. Is this movie ‘about’ being multiculturally aware? Or does it ask questions of us? Does it challenge us to reflect on our histories especially the ‘minority reports’ that
nationalism and European privilege would mute? Does it challenge us to consider the future we are creating? I honestly wonder how many people who enjoy the movie have said: “I like this movie because it is multiculturally aware.”

Critics like it because the formula inevitably involves the loincloth-clad good guys sticking it to the military-industrial complex.
Does Brooks have Spartacus or Jesus in mind here? Or Rocky vs. Ivan Drago?

The peace-loving natives — compiled from a mélange of Native American, African, Vietnamese, Iraqi and other cultural fragments — are like the peace-loving natives you’ve seen in a hundred other movies.
Interesting that Brooks doesn’t mention Hebrew culture. Considering that Navi means ‘to see’ with the connection to ‘seer/prophet’ in Hebrew and Eywa is obviously close to Yahweh. And how about conversations about Moses? He was another ‘in between’ identities person as a Hebrew/’Egyptian’ Prince. Can you imagine the loyalties and boundary transgressing he must have gone through?
And are the Navi peace loving? It seems that in the few Navi characters we get to know well, one is quite ready to kick the shit of Sully. Does the movie ever say that the Navi have to history of violence? They do seem to have multiple cultures separated at least by geography and specialization–can we rule out that there is no beef between these peoples?

They are phenomenal athletes and pretty good singers and dancers.
Phenomenal athletes compared to who? They’re not human. And I guess I forgot the scenes that display the Navi’s singing and dancing that was so impressive. Look. In science fiction, the aliens will have something that is understandable to us. Can you imagine a movie where an alien species we are to connect to in some way didn’t have religion, music, language, communities, physical bodies? That’s why people scratched their heads at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. There was trippy lines across the screen and a floating baby.

Along the way, he has his consciousness raised.
I suggest that Brooks take a look at this cool article about embodied cognition that states that selfhood involves at the least our entire body.

It also explains how our the title “Our Bodies Ourselves” is really insightful: consciousness is not just floating in our brains but infuses our bodies. When we experience trauma or change to our bodies, it is not like our car getting a dent. Of course Sully’s experience in a different body, created through the DNA of his deceased brother and a Navi, would change his consciousness. Add to that the blossoming love he has for Neytiri. Add to that his experience as a wounded soldier who has seen the effects of violence and war and of course you would have a character who would be ripe for a change of worldview.

Because they are not corrupted by things like literacy, cellphones and blockbuster movies, they have deep and tranquil souls.
Are the Navi illiterate? I must have missed that scene. I don’t recall them saying that they do not have a written language. I was interested to find that in one draft of the script, Grace and Sully go to an old Navi school that had been created by the humans to teach the Navi youth, including instruction of English. Grace says something to the effect “The youth are exceptionally bright.” Was this taken out because of the history of Native American schools?
(Read more at Mindflowers about this history here:)

Again, Brooks asserts that the Navi have “deep and tranquil souls”. We see a whole lot of emotion from the Navi. It appears that they are not some species of unfeeling stoic monastics. Also. Why would the Navi want or need movies and cell phones when they have neuro-jacks directly into their heads? They have an equivalent of the internet pumped into their nervous system. There are already plenty of good articles about the possibilities of future human illiteracy due to this type of developments in technology.

“[Avatar] rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic.”
But the humans in the film are depicted as not just white people. There are humans of different races, represented by men and women. Also, the Navi are spiritual in the way that physicists on Earth are ‘spiritual’. The rules on Pandora are not those of Earth. That ecosystem operated as a cohering consciousness. The Navi evolved in that milieu and they operated within the given rules of their physiology and environment. We can also assume their athleticism is similar to a couch potato here on Earth. Is it amazing to Superman that he can fly? No he is from Krypton, his lazer vision to him is as normal as me choking on chicken bones.

Is Brooks speaking here of Star Wars? A lot of the Imperial officers were white. And they loved technology. The Jedi were not always white (Mace Windu, Ki Adi Mundi, Kit Fisto) and spiritual. And athletic. Holy shit! David Brooks is right. Star Wars is about race too.

It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades.
Jake did do his part as leader in gathering alliances and acting as one leader in the battle. I get it. But remember what won the battle and defeated the humans: Grace Constantine told Eywa (the planet consciousness) that the humans would not stop in their destruction and presumably some tips on how to defeat the humans. A dead woman’s supplications to a godlike force won the day. Out of courage and conviction of what was right, Navi and a number of humans worked together. Isn’t this the way that social justice movements have often been framed? A power of balance and justice that is greater than humanity working with and through people of diverse backgrounds in alliance and community?
A clear and honest portrayal of what actually happens in the movie can lead to better discussion of our contemporary values and strategies for racial justice. While it is positive to critique white folks’ when they ‘step in’ the way of progress (even out of the best intentions), and stop them in their tracks when they presume to have the answers about white privilege, let us continue to encourage multilateral and mutually vulnerable allied action on all fronts!

Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.
This is a sentiment I agree with. Yes! Do I want more movies that depict alien species without a human protagonist? Yes. Do I want more movies that honestly depict the struggle for greater justice on Earth from the place of marginalized voices? Yes. We definitely need American movie goers to support movies that are written, directed, and produced by people other than rich white people.

In response to Brooks’ article this response was written to the New York Times:
The most galling line to me in this latest installment was when “the Messiah” personage was somehow able to rouse the spirits of all the animals and natural forces to choose sides and retaliate against the invasive forces — something that even the supposedly more naturally inclined natives were unable to accomplish.” –David E. Wilkins

And again to this I have to ask: Did the person see the movie? A dead woman, Grace Constantine told the planet consciousness about the humans and we can guess that the planet acted in its own wisdom from there. Let us not overlook the character of Grace either! She is the most interesting character to me because of the insidious threat that she herself poses as an ‘anthropologist’. Her interest in aiding the Navi originally comes from a place of scientific interest while Jake Sully’s advocacy is born of relationship, community, and love.

So let me put aside Brooks for now and continue with other Avatar thoughts:

What about the movies that Avatar gets compared to? I heard one loud voice recently saying “I thought Avatar’s story was totally a rip off of Fern Gully.” Uh uh. And of course Dances with Wolves. Are people just repeating what other people say? Or do people have a really small knowledge base of films so that every movie they see gets compared to Fern Gully? And why when people talk about DwW do they gloss over the fact that Stands With A Fist is a white woman ‘adopted’ into the Sioux culture? Isn’t the idea of multiple or liminal identities also present in Avatar?

What about Schindler’s List? There we have a German helping Jews. Was he a White Messiah by Brooks’ standards?
What about Baby? You got environmentalism and cross-species advocacy and adventure.
What about Lawrence of Arabia? The English T.E. Lawrence combating the big bad Ottoman Empire (those rationalist technocrats!) with the spiritual Arabs tribes…

If we want movies to also spark conversation about race why not also discuss
He Got Game, Mississippi Burning, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Get on The Bus, Ernest Goes to Africa, Tyler Perry’s films, Killer of Sheep, Malcolm X, Hate, …(these of course are just the tip of the iceberg of films that may be useful to beginning conversations. I know it is not a comprehensive list nor does it represent many voices)

This year’s Precious and The Blind Side also might be good starting points about race. We might start with how The Blind Side does or does not fit with David Brooks’ description of White Messiah.

Better yet, let’s look at movies that I feel really do align with Avatar: District 9, and Terminator Salvation.

In District 9, we have the theme of a human who transforms into the body of an alien species and through his experience (slowly) grows to feel empathy for their situation. This film is one of the year’s best and certainly one of the most interesting scripts I’ve seen in a long time. The question of how does one relate to sentient beings is asked. We are challenged here, as well as in Avatar to question the boundaries of our ethics and empathy. Does might make right? What are acceptable body forms? Can we learn from other ways of being? We need to start forming answers to these questions because while we may not meet Prawns or Navi anytime soon, we do interact with many cultures today and will soon be living with Artificial Intelligences and silicon based life.

In Terminator Salvation we have Mr. Jake Sully himself Sam Worthington doing a role where his identity is multiple, or liminal. Is he human or cyborg? He feels human and fights along side them, but is ‘really’ not of the human ‘tribe’. ‘Salvation’ and Avatar of course are even in their titles appealing to religious connotations. The idea of avatars appearing in different forms and Christian incarnation are all fair game with these two films. I feel that something is being said in these about the ‘limits’ of a body. How connected are we? Where is empathy born? Would Jesus have been able to understand  humanity as fully if he had not been a Meat-God?
I am so excited about the progress in the area of displacing consciousness through the work of an ’empathy machine’ that situates a person’s perspective and sensation into the body of another. Tests have shown that people projected into bodies of age, skin color, gender, or size difference feel more empathy for those bodies upon exiting. Of course my hope is that all people would feel deep compassion for all living things without any tech assists, but I won’t say no to anything that helps…

And I will conclude on that note:
I won’t say ‘no’ to anything that helps our human situation.
And I say ‘no’ to David Brooks’ article on Avatar because I feel he is misrepresenting the film to fit a type that he does not sufficiently argue for and he offers no helpful insight further than ‘Hollywood films suck at issues of race’. If and when movies are white privileging, we film and social critics need to be clear about what we find demeaning or condescending or racist. We also must be ready to face the complexities of oppressions and not rely on simplistic labels like ‘White Messiah’ and expect the conversation to be over.

I will say ‘yes’ to anything that helps the human situation. So I will enthusiastically take feedback and dialogue about this film. As a white anti-racist ally I want to always be checked and held accountable and be a helpful voice in the movement.

The Article by David Brooks is called “The Messiah Complex” and was written for the New York Times. All quotes are from his article except where otherwise cited and can be found here: