Avatar's Issues With Race

(Unlike my prior review there’s a few more plot points discussed here, so if you want a completely pristine experience, come back after you’ve seen the film.)

Right. Enough spoiler space, thanks to an image from imdb.

A review of Avatar on io9 (has spoilers) is well worth the read, though I disagree slightly with its premise. It labels Avatar as a story of “white guilt”, nominally for the colonization of the Americas by Europeans.

First, I agree with the point that Avatar is clearly a story written by a white male. In fact, the most cringe-worthy aspect is the one skewered in the io9 review – that a white man has to become the most awesums of the tribe and then orchestrate their rescue from the humans.

On the face of things, this cringy bit is mitigated somewhat that Jake Sully has to be personally rescued by the Na’vi. Further, he doesn’t take charge in a coup – his actions that make him the awesums are used so that he’s able to regain entry to the People. After that, he defers repeatedly to the indigenous ruler, and at the end of the film it’s not clear at all that he would have any more (official) status than the other Na’vi.

It’s defendable as a morality tale pointed directly at the developed (and predominately white) world. Yes, Jake Sully is a character “accessible” to white people – because they (we) are largely the problem. Unlike the io9 reviewer, I don’t think this is an issue of white guilt over a centuries old wrong – I think it’s about today, and the continued wrongs that we do right now for our convenience and searching for an unobtainable luxury and ease of life.

But that’s not the only reason I’ll defend the point of view here.

It’s also a matter of story.

For whatever reason, our point of view character is Jake Sully. It is his story, just as District 9 was Wikus’ [sp] story. The theme – the central plot – of both stories is actually Man vs. Self. In each, the POV character is forced to come to terms with the hypocrisy and betrayal they have personally perpetrated – and then work (at great personal cost) to personally rectify. We can discuss how Wikus’ conversion is more pragmatic (and a bit more realistic) than Sully’s “going native”, but that’s a minor detail.

One of the bloggers quoted in the io9 review asked why it had to have a human POV character at all. Avatar could have been written without one, and been told entirely from the Na’vi’s point of view. While true, it would be a completely different story (see Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow for an example of how a POV shift between characters can completely alter a story). Imagine Lord of the Rings from the point of view of Gimli, or Legolas, and you get the concept.

I also don’t know if an initial story from the Na’vi point of view would have worked for one big reason – and it has nothing to do with “accessibility”.

As it is, the Na’vi’s culture is barely alien – a choice that I believe was made quite intentionally. Telling the story from Sully’s point of view actually helps keep Avatar from being a heavy-handed morality tale, and helps keep the Na’vi from being simply different-colored humans. While parts of the Na’vi are recognizable, seeing things from Sully’s POV primes us to see them as alien – and empathize with his later realization and conversion.

Ultimately, Avatar is recognizably a story by a white person – but a white person who is working to be an ally. It’s moral center is aimed at priviledged people, and our culture that exploits the developing countries for our own benefit.

Becoming an ally is a process. The wish fulfillment and emotional themes involved are a common ones among those of us who keep working to be allies – we are accused of being race traitors, we wish we could do more to help. We wish we could do more to actively right the wrongs being done now, let alone the ones perpetrated a generation or more ago.

Mr. Cameron thinks that this story will have an effect on the priviledged audiences that see it.

I hope he’s right.

As always, your comments are welcome.

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