Culture | The modern minstrel show

What Avatar shows us about our movies

L ess than a month after its release, Avatar is already the second highest grossing film of all time, having passed the $1.3-billion mark last weekend. The film’s undisputed global reign over box offices, however, has been met with criticism, as many have taken issue with the film’s perceived bigotry. Indeed, the sci-fi epic’s many unsubtle allegories to historical and contemporary conflicts have attracted scorn for being, well, unsubtly racist.

Spearheading these accusations, Annalee Newitz’s article on the sci-fi web site Io9, entitled “When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like Avatar?” has charged the film with being an expression of director James Cameron’s white guilt.

Crucially, Cameron portrays the main character, Jake Sully, as a messiah for the oppressed alien Na’vi – a plot point problematized by the character’s white heritage. Indeed, the white Sully accomplishes something that the Na’vi tribe has failed to do for generations, eventually displacing the previously selected tribesman as their leader. Essentially, the broader implication – common to these plot types – is that films like Avatar show white protagonists as leading their adopted cultures against oppressors (of which they were formerly a part).

It’s called the “white guilt fantasy” for a reason: some critics understand these films as an attempt to rectify past wrongs committed by white people, while at the same time lionizing the white protagonist as the savior of the native people. The native peoples – the Na’vi, in the case of Avatar – cannot successfully combat their enemies without the aid of a white person. This critique in particular is voiced on the blog Lawyers, Guns and Money, in a post entitled “Intentions be damned, Avatar is racist,” when the parallel is drawn to the notion of the ideal of the “black quarterback.” The blogger, “SEK,” argues that NFL general managers and scouts for years have been looking for a quarterback with a white player’s brain in a black player’s body, and sees Jake Sully’s Na’vi avatar in the film as an embodiment of that racist ideal. The claim requires little elaboration: Jake Sully is, after all, a white man mentally piloting a genetically engineered Na’vi body.

However, as critics argue against the racist undercurrents in Avatar, perhaps they too have fallen victim to their own critiques. In both of these Internet articles, user comments have often pointed at the hypocrisy involved in calling out Cameron’s film as being an expression of white guilt, when the critical viewpoint itself could be seen as guilty of a similar act. As one commenter called it, “‘white guilt oneupsmanship’ in academic criticism.” But as this particular stream of criticism has reached mainstream prominence and the attention of minority critics – having been featured in the New York Times earlier this week – the legitimacy of the critique has stood up to this ironic scrutiny.

Nevertheless, continuously charging Cameron with racism seems to miss a broader point about our culture and its movies. It seems unlikely that Cameron consciously intended to suggest that only a white man can save the Na’vi people from the clutches of a space-faring Earth (a thinly-disguised metaphor for capitalist America). Avatar is not the first film to portray a former oppressor as a dying culture’s last hope, nor does it mark the first time that criticism of that plot archetype has arisen, implying that the notion is embedded within our cultural subconscious. Memorably, on a Chappelle’s Show sketch called “Mooney at the Movies,” comedian Paul Mooney lambasted the similar white guilt-trip The Last Samurai as offensive, suggesting that Hollywood carry its prejudice to its logical end: “The Last Nigger on Earth…starring Tom Hanks.” If filmmakers are interested in exposing oppression, perhaps the first thing to go should be filmmakers’ own predilection for indulging their passive guilt through their art.