Monday, December 28, 2009

Avatar: Racist or A Just Hollywood Story of Race?

This isn't a review! This is a response to those complaining James Cameron's new sci-fi film, "Avatar", is racist. I read the tweets, blogs, and commentors from whites and blacks and everything in between and finally decided to see it today. It was on my list to see anyway, but with all the hoopla I thought, "Why wait?"

And now that I've seen it, I DO NOT believe the film is racist as how we typically define it--"typically" meaning those in the minority are portrayed as inferior, ignorant, inept, and as minstrels while those in power, not always the majority, are the intellectuals, the inventors, the elite, the best. Those are blatant signs. Subtle racism is a little harder to define.

Yes, there are UNDENIABLE similarities between Africans, African-Americans, Native Americans, or tribal, aboriginal people in general and "Avatar's" humanoid Na'vi--a.k.a "native" people of Pandora. And yes, the actions of the pure humans, mostly white, mirror the European rape and colonialism of Africa, and the Native American "Trail of Tears." No coincidence there! This film is meant to open a "Pandora's Box" on issues of race and environmental abuse.

That said, "Avatar" is a super visual retelling of similar historical occurrences with a sci-fi twist and a general Hollywood approach, just like this summer's racially themed "District 9". It's them versus us, and "us" depends on which side of the bulldozer you're on. But one of "them" will either betray us or help us, or in this case, both for a greater cause.

And technically, I don't believe Cameron is trying to guilt white viewers into feeling or doing anything as some commenters have said. "Avatar" isn't a propagandist film it's a sci-fi movie. That's it! Trust black people or Native Americans, especially, are not going to think any worse of white people after seeing the film than they did before seeing it. Blue people on the other hand may be mad as hell!

So does "Avatar" really paint all whites in a bad light? No, but according to some white bloggers, yes! However, as with most Hollywood flicks with a "Tarzan" slant, the white guy seemingly saves the day and truly becomes "down with the people". Shouldn't that make white people feel better? No! Then welcome! For a mere three hours you felt a pinch of how people of color feel for a lifetime when we see ourselves portrayed stereotypically and incorrectly.

However, in "Avatar", in my opinion the REAL hero of the day is a blue woman, portrayed by black actress Zoe Saldana. That said, what irks me about "Avatar" and films like it is that Hollywood always finds a way to hide black actors behind mainstream characters. This is especially true in animated films such as "Lion King", "Madagascar", and even in "Transformers". Really, if the studio promoted the REAL faces and names of Zoe Saldana, Laz Alonzo, and C.C. Pounder as the leads on the "Avatar" poster how many whites would have rushed out to see this movie? And honestly, how many black people? Exactly!

And considering the money this film has already made, you think either of these black actors can now demand a few more millions, if that, per pic, or get a little on the back end? Truth is Sam Worthington (Jack Sully) may not get it either, but his chances are a lot greater. Consequently, will the black actors get the press coverage they deserve or will the cameras always turn to Worthington, the Justin Timberlake of this movie? Yeah, I went there! If the correlation fits, blog it!

Every press outlet knows what Worthington looks like. His natural face is on the posters, billboards, and what not! That's Zoe Saldana's "masked" face you see above in this post. And sadly, having done years of red carpet coverage and press junkets, most white photographers and reporters for Getty, Wire Image, E! and the like won't know who Saldana, Alonzo, or Pounder are unless you tell them. That doesn't make them racist, just too busy to give a damn. But, it's also a reflection of society at large. Truly, that's no diss to the actors, just a truism in the Hollywood. "We Wear The Mask", for real in this entertainment game.


Dana said...

WELL "SAID"!! I must admit, I did not get on the "Avatar" bandwagon until I started hearing all of the buzz about it. I had NO IDEA Zoe Saldana was the lead until I saw that she was #1 on IMDB (which NEVER really happens for black folks~we barely even make the top 25!!).
I have purchased my tickets for Thursday, so I'll get to see what all the hoopla is about!

Cheryl Lawson said...

Great Post, Sorry my tweet was so generic. So here's my comment.

To reduce this film to an argument of race, or who should be angrier white people or black people simply reduces the content of the film to it's lowest common denominator.

The element of greed, spirituality, universal truth, the value of all living things would probably be a better debate
to have if any; however, these debates are not as polarizing as race in America, so we avoid them.

While the story is not new, it was about a group of people who believe that the universe offers something more than
material wealth while a majority believe all things can be monetized and conquered.

Whether the blue people were white actors or black actors, the story could have taken place in Harlem, Africa, India, China, or any setting where the land of the less fortunate or indigenous has suddenly become an asset for the

Sure, I noticed all of the blue people seemed to be of African descent, and most of the military strong hold types were
Anglo, but that was a minute point of the story. I think that's why Cameron made the people BLUE, so once anyone became an AVATAR the only difference between you and the people were your intentions.

I enjoyed the story, I was taken in by the beauty of the landscape that Cameron created.
It was heartfelt, and heartbreaking at times, but the images on the screen took me to a place I'd never been..
and isn't that what movies are supposed to do?

Am I saddened that Denzel and Will seem to be the only Black actors who can save the universe?
Of course. I'd love to see more people of color in staring rolls. But that's another debate.

This movie will make you think, but let's hope it makes more people think beyond the simplicity of black and white.

Thanks for the post and opportunity to comment.

upfromsumdirt said...

"speeches only reaches those who already know about it" - andre benjamin.

that quote over-simplifies it, but it reflects a truth: people hear the threads of truth that hit closer to home for them.

anyone can find any societal issue in this film if they are looking for it and we all tend to look for the things that relate the most to our own individual ideas, stations in life, and opinions.

i look for 'racial issues' in a box of kleenex, so you KNOW i'm going to find it in 'avatar'. my native american friends say it relates the most to them; i've read where irish folks say it reflects their struggles against the english; etc.

and every side is 100% correct!

our goal, as an honest people, is to see everyone else's angle without dismissing them as crackpots rehashing old and/or distorted issues - the side-effects of progress dont trickle down to everyone at the same rate of speed and/or acceptance. some of us make due with less, others expect more; neither side is inherently wrong or automatically right.

but i do think if hollywood spends 150 million dollars on a highly hyped sci-fi flick with an all-black VISIBLE cast that it would be successful.

as with everything mainstream, "success" depends on the investment used to manufacture our expectations. i admit, white folks arent used to seeing blacks as the natural hero/savior (unless we're showing them how to use our magic to their advantage - green mile, bagger vance, ghost, etc) but most couldnt see a black man as president either... change happens; sometimes its natural, other times it has to be fabricated. said...

Dana! I just checked the IMDB Hollywood buzz for both Laz Alonso and C.C.H. Pounder, they're ratings on the site have not increased since "Avatar" came out which is really a shame. They deserve to get just as much pub as Zoe Saldana. And even sadder, Laz isn't even nominated for an NAACP Image Award AGAIN! said...

GREAT COMMENT Cheryl! AVATAR is definitely getting a dialogue going. But it didn't necessarily take me to a totally different place and I saw it in 3-D.

The similarities between the Navi and native people all over the world are so much the same it's hard to see FIRST the bigger universal story of "greed, spirituality, universal truth".

I agree with you about intentions too. Until the lead white character did his version of "Blue Like Me" aka "Black Like Me" his initial intentions would not have changed.

Sometimes experiencing things from a totally different perspective really opens up people up to seeing the error of their ways.

Raquel Montoya said...

You couldn't leave the theater after seeing Avatar without a slight feeling of unease - a subtle dig at the issues of race were there, but it was a stunning visual presentation nonetheless.