Avatar retreads tired racial stereotypes

Posted December 29, 2009 7:38 pm (about 3678 days ago)

As with most futures not envisioned by people of color, the human population will still be predominately White. Beyond a few tokens, the rest of us still show up as the “others.”

Yesterday I added to the coffers of James Cameron and company, whose latest intake continues to surpass the GNP of several small countries (already grossing more than $600 million world-wide). There are plenty of reviews out there of course, but I was so taken aback that I thought I’d throw in my two cents.

For those who know nothing about Avatar, it’s set about a century into the future and is about humans invading a planet for their natural resources. A Marine infiltrates the local populace through the use of an avatar, a representation of himself that looks similar to the locals, and ends up leading resistance against the humans, while falling in love in the process. The local population, know as Na’Vi are slender humanoids with blue skin and tower over the human beings. As such, they’re computer generated for the film and voiced by human actors.

Firstly, it’s a very pretty movie and I thought the CGI was well done. In that department, it certainly lived up to the hype. As others have said, you don’t go for the plot or dialogue, which were both fairly weak. However, what surprised me the most was how race played out. It definitely fits the “Dances With Wolves” mold, with a White man becoming enlightened by the noble “indigenous population.” While that alone was enough to induce some eye-rolling, the portrayal of the locals was a throwback to spaghetti westerns. Many of the local Na’Vi ride around on horse-like creatures whooping and hollering, even forming “war parties” at one point. Many have braids and dreads, with jewelry and body painting similar to various African cultures. The main human characters, excluding Michelle Rodriguez (playing her normal, type-A role) and one Indian doctor who didn’t really say anything, were all White, while all the main alien characters were voiced by African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans!  So, as with most futures not envisioned by people of color, the human population will still be predominately White. Beyond a few tokens, the rest of us still show up as the “others.”

Main Na’Vi characters

Neytiri- Zoë Saldaña (Dominican-American)
Mo'at (Neytiri’s mother)- C. C. H. Pounder (Guyanese)
Tsu'Tey (Neytiri’s betrothed)- Laz Alonso (Afro-Cuban)
Eytucan (Neytirir’s father)- Wes Studi (Cherokee)
Akwey (Na’Vi clan leader)- Peter Mensah (Ghanaian)

Seriously, you can’t make this stuff. I didn’t go into the movie looking for this, but it was painfully obvious.

There are other critiques I have about the film—the sappy, bleeding liberal slant, splashed with White guilt, and the cartoonish depiction of the military, portrayal of women (Sigourney Weaver’s 50-something year old doctor has an Avatar that looks like a 20-year old in a cutoff shirt?, to name a few—but I was truly surprised how blatantly obvious the Na’Vi were based on traditional tribal cultures, down to their facial features, which were based on the actual actors.

So what’s the big deal? Taken into an historical context, it’s another addition to the catalog of played out racial stereotypes that are so ingrained into some people that they simply don’t see how this is offensive or see these depictions as being an honor—the reverence the Na’Vi have for nature, etc—turning us into cartoon characters, and not complex human beings. Plus, Cameron is blatantly making social commentary so it's not "just a movie."

Because the Na’Vi are blue-skinned and taller than humans, it’s easy to brush off these racial concerns. However, issues related to race and ethnicity are much more complex than skin color and what we can see with our eyes. Dress, language, food, spirituality, and culture are just a few of the ways that we form our perceptions of "race."

As a sci-fi fan, I’m used to sorting through bad movies, which too often focus on technology, but are stuck in an out-dated social context or are more concerned with visuals than plots. Mind you, I don’t think that every movie has to have people of color in lead roles (I like the Terminator series) and I don’t like tokenism (which turned me off to Star Trek as a kid), but for a movie of this magnitude, is it too much to expect even a little more awareness?

"A" for entertainment value and visuals, but boo for clichéd portrayals of race.


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2. Kellee Star said at March 26, 2010 3:05 pm:

This is one of the best critiques I've heard in quite a while. You are a fantastic writer. Keep up the good work. You should consider sending this to some major publications.

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