Spoiler alert – if you are planning to see Avatar and don’t want to know stuff about the movie, stop reading here. I recommend seeing it on as little information as possible, and forming your own opinions. If you’re not concerned about sullying your first impressions, please read on.
I didn’t know much about Avatar before I saw it. I knew James Cameron had spent years innovating new technology and taking CGI to new heights of magnificence; one friend said “the effects were good, but I wish they’d gotten a real writer”; another friend said noncommittally, “Oh yeah, I liked it, it was cool.” My husband went to see it and said it was “AWESOME!!”, so I went to see it with him. (It’s much the funnest to see movies with fans.)
Since seeing this film, I have found out that there is a tempest of controversy howling through cyberspace, debating whether or not it is racist. I was made aware of this by a friend complaining about the movie on Facebook. Now I’ve read some articles and a lot of affiliated comments, and frankly, I’m unmoved by these arguments.
The main beef that people seem to have with Avatar is that it makes the same mistake as Hollywood’s Pocahontas or Dances With Wolves, where the white man comes in and he’s the one to save all the poor natives. These people say that the white man should not be the one saving a whole race of differently-coloured (in this case, blue) people – they should be saving themselves. Also, there’s the fact that the five main blue people were voiced by non-white actors.
I did not notice the white-saviour thing. I was too busy noticing the white-power-hungry-money-grubbing-maniacal-asshole thing (the antagonists). That, and the fact that the protagonist has his hide saved by a blue woman within his first twelve hours in her territory. In this film, the blue people are a barely-veiled representation of aboriginal tribes – sort of a blend of American and African, but with Smurfy colouring. They are clearly the cool ones in this film: graceful, athletic, beautiful, skilled hunters, intelligent, and with a deep understanding of their connection to the Earth. Furthermore, as one Facebook commenter pointed out, if they’d made the protagonist black, would people have taken it seriously? I think not – I think people would have found it contrived and complained about that.
Racism is tricky. As a white person, I am unqualified to talk about it, and have not earned an opinion. For the most part, I’m fine with that, knowing that I can never fully understand what it’s like for members of visible minorities. Still, we have it pretty good here in Canada. Better than in the U.S. or France or pretty much anywhere else… in Canada, or Ontario at least, a community that’s too “white” is considered kinda backwards and somehow lacking. As a teacher, I can attest that the curriculum is full of ways to bring all students’ cultures and backgrounds to the fore, to be learned about and appreciated. Isn’t that good? I’m not saying we should stop working to improve attitudes, but shouldn’t we also be glad at how far we have come?
Two incidents are coming to mind as I think about the reaction to this film.
1) When I was teaching high school, there were several occasions I can recall where certain non-white students, when I would discipline them for talking out or harassing each other or whatever (just as I disciplined the rest of them), would mutter that I was being racist. The most salient example was a Grade 9 student who was of Vietnamese descent. At his interim report, about a month into the semester, he had a 56% because he had not handed in one of the three assignments we’d had so far. I told the students, “If your mark is low, you need to hand in your assignments,” which was nice of me, since I could have just given them zeroes. He was a very smart boy who would have had an A if he had done this. Instead, he accused me of racism, became all bitter, was horrible to me for the rest of the semester, and barely passed the course. How self-defeating.
2) When I was in teachers’ college, I had a classmate who was a smart cookie, outrageously popular by adult standards, of East Indian descent, and drop-dead gorgeous. (Like, strangers on the street would practically propose to her on a regular basis.) We were discussing an article by feminist, anti-racist, Bengali-Canadian academic Himani Bannerji, in which she complained about people asking her questions about her background, because she took them to imply that she must not be simply Canadian. Because she is a visible minority, people presume to ask “what” she is. My classmate, the more she thought about it, became all incensed: “That’s true! People ask me all the time where I’m from, but I was born here! That is racist!”
I’m gonna go ahead and say it: I was annoyed by this. Let’s not look for reasons to get upset and take things personally, okay? I in no way want to minimize the suffering people go through for no reason other than colouring, but someone asking you about your background is not racist. When I ask someone about their background (and this includes white people, since so many immigrants and their families are white), it’s because I’m curious and I want to know more. I’d like to know what parts of your heritage you value, how your life is different from mine because of it, whether you have travelled to countries where you have roots.
In fact, when I’m discussing multiculturalism with people, I feel bland, since my roots are mostly in the U.S. (no offense to my American relatives! – you are wonderful people and I love you). Nobody thinks to ask what holidays I celebrate or what foods I eat. I think it would be cool to have ties to exotic places. That’s probably partly why I became fluent in two languages besides English – the desire to be cool. My best friend growing up (also ridiculously gorgeous, by the way) had a dad from Hong Kong and a mom from Switzerland; she knew words in other languages, and ate special Chinese cookies, and played Swiss card games, and brought back the most amazing chocolate when her family travelled. I can’t recall her ever talking about experiences of discrimination – and we told each other everything back then. She’s now a ball-busting urban planner in West Palm Beach.
Okay, time to get back to the point.
Let me tell you how I experienced Avatar.
First, I was impressed by the animation. It was beautiful. We watched it in 3D, and I found myself transported. I loved the creatures that were imagined for the film, the language that was created, the work that obviously went into seamlessly blending photography and CGI. As Sean pointed out, all those who thought it was nothin’ special have been spoiled by cool stuff, and only prove the effectiveness of Cameron’s work, since they don’t notice the years of effort that went into the creation. It’s like ballet: if you’re doing it right, it looks easy.
The main thing that caused me to be speechless at the end of the movie, though, was the message. As critics were quick to point out, the plot is utterly predictable, even banal, with no suspense whatsoever. I’ll agree, I knew where the story was going, it was not surprising; it’s one that’s been told countless times – but through real people. I highly doubt it feels trite to be the people whose lands and lives are destroyed.
I have had several conversations in recent months about What Is America? and Lost Continent by Ronald Wright – both my husband and my dad were reading one or both. These books discuss how white people came to areas like the Americas, and basically effed up every system the aboriginals had going. We’re not just talking about cutting down forests and swindling natives – we’re talking about unimaginable torture, deliberate spreading of lethal diseases, baby-killing, you name it. And this is to people who apparently showed remarkable hospitality at the outset, and whose simple but civilized (and when I say civilized, I mean organized, balanced, respectful) society was impressive to the invaders. But they desecrated them anyway.
I have a hunch that this guy has also been reading Ronald Wright:
With these ideas sizzling just under the surface as I watched Avatar, to say I was moved would be an understatement. Tears streamed down my face for a considerable section of the film – and I’m not a big crier at movies. I get choked up sometimes, but this was something else entirely.
The creators took me to a beautiful place that evoked (by design, no doubt) the most exquisite places I’ve been on this extraordinary, complex planet we inhabit… told a story that called to mind my experience of the powerful bonds of caring that can exist within a community of people – people who are just as extraordinary and complex as the rest of the Earth we sprang from… and then they ripped it apart before our eyes.
The pain I felt was pain I’ve felt many times before, since an early age, thinking about the horrible things we do to each other and to our home every day. It was real because the horror is real. It’s right now. We don’t learn; we’ve been doing it for millennia. We feel awful when hurricanes, wildfires, tsunamis, and earthquakes decimate whole cities and ecosystems; how much more appalling is it that humans do these same things on purpose? It’s the biggest tragedy I can think of.
Other criticisms of Avatar include: it’s unoriginal, it’s stupid, it’s a cliché, it’s boring. Boring? Come on, people.
The words of Louis CK come to mind: “Everything’s amazing, and nobody’s happy.” If you thought Avatar was boring, you need to stop watching movies. You’ve lost your sense of wonder, and you don’t deserve to look at art in motion. Get off the internet, and go grow some food, climb a tree, paint a picture, hike up a mountain, deliver a baby. Find something that moves you to tears, and do that.