This article appeared on MyLatinoVoice the week of January 25, 2010.
Scratch the surface of James Cameron’s Avatar, and there are lots of overly-clever allusions and puns. The year is 2154, planet Earth is dying of environmental degradation, and the evil Americans are in pursuit of a rare mineral called “Unobtainium” (groan!) which is located on the planet Pandora (as in the Greek myth where Pandora opens a box and all hell breaks loose), under the Na'vi’s most sacred tree which they plan to use for fuel but which is astronomically expensive (no pun intended), so the Americans intended to force the Na’vi to relocate. Critics have compared Avatar to Kevin Costner’s celebrated 1990 Dances with Wolves, where Costner plays a Civil War-era Army lieutenant who goes on a mission to the Lakota people (in what today is South Dakota) and ends up going native.
In Dances with Wolves, Costner used an accurate but simplified Lakota language and subtitles, erring only in confusing some of the genders of words, much to the amusement of native Lakota speakers. Avatar follows Star Trek’s invention of the Klingon language, and author J.R.R. Tolkien’s invention of Elvish for the Lord of the Rings series. The Na'vi’s world is a combination of science fiction and fantasy, and the Na’vi echo both genres.
We can make fun of Dances with Wolves, but Costner laughed all the way to bank. It won seven academy awards: Best Picture; Best Directing; Best Cinematography; Editing; Music; Sound and Writing. According to the Internet Movie Data Base, it made $184 million in U.S. box office sales, and $424 million in total box office sales, though the closing date on that figure is unclear. Heaven knows how much it has made altogether. This, however, is the most interesting fact in reference to our discussion: the Sioux nation made Kevin Costner an honorary member for his positive and compassionate portrayal of Native Americans.
Critics of Avatar who are irritated by the seemingly hackneyed nature of the story forget one thing: there are only a few archetypal storylines; most such stories are popular because they are familiar to the viewers, and movie-makers are eager to tap into that familiarity. Why else would there be so many sequels to popular movies?
Is there a more formulaic story in the universe than Star Wars? A young man is chosen to do something extraordinary; an evil power turns out to be his father; two main characters fall in love but their love is tested by superhuman trials; twins are separated at their births but find each other. I could name dozens of movies with those storylines. George Lucas’s genius was in combining a number of those stories and setting them in outer space, adding a dose of strange-looking space creatures, fabulous special effects, and incredible cinematography.
Latino and Black viewers often bristle when stories of our peoples have a white hero at the center of the story. Going back to Biko, for instance, the story of the murder of South African human rights activist Steven Biko, the film focused on the white journalist who told the story. The black community was angry about this because the real hero was Biko. Mississippi Burning, about the trial of the murderer of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, focused on the white prosecutor who convicted him. Even the Matrix series has the archetypical “chosen one,” another white guy. Where have I heard that story before?
Even though there are many more blacks and a few more Latinos in show business today, Hollywood is still a very white industry. Oprah reigns supreme as the queen of daytime television but the movie studios and the television networks are owned by white men, with rare exceptions.
What if Jake the Marine, the hero of Avatar, had been played by Jamie Foxx? His avatar would still be blue, alien to the world that he is invading, and an agent of the invaders. What if no other element of the story had been changed? If the black Jake’s avatar had still fallen in love with the princess of the Na'vi and she with him, what spin would it have put on the story? Would we still be having this discussion?
Hollywood is white! White, white, white! And so is James Cameron, the director of Avatar. White people are going to make movies from their own perspectives. Part of the white experience is white liberal guilt and that is really okay, especially when you consider how much hatred and prejudice against non-whites is carried by many whites. It is the reaction of people of conscience to the hatred they see in their own people, and even in their own hearts. That raised consciousness makes them want to change things. I do not know if that was an element of James Cameron’s creation of this film but he does present a culture that honors its planet and lives in harmony with nature; the outsider comes to revere the natives' way of life. In a sense, his raised consciousness makes him an outsider in his own group. And being one of the invaders gives him inside knowledge that will help his new-found people defeat the invaders.
I like Avatar a lot. I think Cameron is a technological genius. I have no doubt that the technology Cameron pioneers in this film will change movie-making. The landscapes in the movie are amazing. He is a science fiction guy who has been imagining other cultures since he was a boy and who is white and comes from that perspective; the yearning for a more just society is a great part of the tradition of science fiction.
In short, people will not stop making films like this because there will always be members of the dominant culture who recoil from some of their culture’s treatment of minority cultures, and are trying to figure it out with the tools and the eyes they have.