Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
If director James Cameron was looking to tell a story from the point of view of people of color, as he said he was, then he fell woefully short in “Avatar.” Whatever his intentions, the movie is actually a study of the white savior complex.
Here’s the setup: The bad guy is a mad preppy corporate exec who employs a small army of former marines for security and directs them to attack the indigenous Na’vi people because his company wants a mineral called unobtainium that’s underneath the soil in Pandora, where the Na’vi people live.
Enter Sigourney Weaver as Grace Augustine. She is the scientist who is wiring the humans’ brains into the bodies of Na’vi avatars to try to win the indigenous people’s trust. Her goal is to convince them to leave their ancestral lands where the life force of their mother Goddess and Tree of Souls (ancestors) lives and go elsewhere so the corporate exec can get the minerals.
If Augustine and her team don’t succeed with their brainwashing, then the corporate guy will just get his military forces to crush the Na’vis with tanks and bombs.
In defending the spiritual importance of that Na’vi tree, Augustine says at one point that this isn’t some pagan Vodun. She says the destruction of the tree will affect the biological connection to nature’s life force of all Na’vi organisms. This is the same scientist who, later on in the movie, would be rushed to the Tree of Souls for a chanting ritual of healing and invoking of sacred energies that pretty much looked like Vodun to me. (In Haiti, Vodun means lifting up “sacred energies.”)
Note how Cameron uses Augustine to belittle an actual indigenous Haitian cultural practice in order to elevate his fictional indigenous culture.
And note how Cameron elevates the fate of Augustine over that of the indigenous. In the middle of their grieving all that they have lost from the shock and awe attack upon their village, the Na’vi make her healing the priority. The whole village has just lost its beloved king and numerous people, yet the Na’vi sit in unison to chant for her well-being.
Jake Sully, played by Sam Worthington, is the white hero who enters the Na’vi’s land, learns, in three months, all their secrets, becomes a super-Na’vi and is able to return and save them from the attack of his crazy nation’s warmongers.
Jake is Cameron’s version of Tarzan, the white man who will save the “savages.”
Jake is the only one who can successfully pray to the Na’vi’s mother goddess (Eywa). She hears him, not her own people’s prayers and grief.
Jake mates with Neytiri, the most beautiful, most powerful warrior princess in the realm but he expects her intended, Tsu’Tey, the young warrior prince, the king-to-be, to meekly accept this fait accompli. Tsu’Tey is supposed to be subservient to Jake because Jake has succeeded in taming and riding the Toruk, an immensely powerful red flying beast that only five Na’vi have ever tamed in their history.
When Jake swoops down from above astride the red Toruk, he becomes not just a mythical hero, he becomes the white messiah, and now he wants Tsu’Tey, whose character is voiced by the black actor Laz Alonso, to submit to him as leader of the Na’vi and even to translate for him as he addresses the new king’s people and revs them up for war against the humans.
The emasculation of the black man here cannot be more obvious.
Comedian Richard Pryor once made the pointed comment to his black audience: “Do you have any dreams? They’ll want them, too.”
Cameron proves Pryor’s point in “Avatar.”
Ezili Danto is an award-winning playwright, performance poet and human rights attorney. She is the founder of the Haitian Lawyers Leadership Network. She can be reached at email@example.com.
This op-ed was adapted from a longer piece by Ezili Danto, which you can read by clicking here: http://open.salon.com