Avatar’s political shortcomings

January 20, 2010

Note: The following letter contains spoilers about the movie Avatar.

Avatar challenged U.S. imperialism in a way that no other blockbuster film has (at least one that I've seen)! It was more than a little ironic to watch National Guard advertisements before a film that ended with the audience cheering on a struggle of an indigenous people against U.S. Imperialism.

James Cameron could have made the invaders some generic country, but he chose to politicize it in a contemporary way, forcing us to think of current justifications for U.S. wars and occupations. So I certainly don't think we should dismiss Avatar as "so much unreconstructed Orientalism," in the words of Nagesh Rao ("Anti-imperialism in 3-D").

Nevertheless, we should not be uncritical of its political shortcomings--centrally, the "going native" tradition that Rao (and other reviewers) discuss. In Rao's words, "the fantasy of 'going native' often ends with the white man not only assimilating into the 'native' culture, but emerging as their leader in their quest for salvation or liberation from some oppressive force or circumstance."

Rao dismisses this contention because (among other things) Jake Sully is "quite literally embodied in the 'other.'" He has become one of the Na'vi and has made the choice to join the resistance, abandoning his country's colonial project.

I would have had no problem with Jake merely joining the resistance. But why did Cameron write the plot (in a "going native" tradition) so that Sully replaces the fallen chief to become the leader? The natives literally bow down before him. He becomes their spiritual leader while barely (and just recently) believing the religion himself.

He also becomes their political leader. He gives speeches (in English!) to the Na'vi, suggesting (what they apparently wouldn't have thought of otherwise) that they should go to other clans to ask for assistance, after he becomes the person to fly/conquer a larger-than-life bird that nobody else has.

This situation is analogous to the idea of an American GIs siding with the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War and joining the resistance. After a few months, NLF leader Ho Chi Minh dies, this soldier replaces Ho Chi Minh as the leader of the NLF, giving speeches in English to reunite and inspire an otherwise fractured and disoriented resistance.

While American soldiers certainly did openly identify with the Vietnamese resistance, the idea of one becoming the leader of this struggle (or any other liberation struggle around the world) is patently absurd. Cameron decided to write the film in a way so that this would happen, in an unfortunate tradition.

The film could just as easily been written so that Americans were participants in the struggle of the Na'vi, with critical insight into U.S. operations, without someone replacing the chief to become the new leader. Why did Cameron write the movie this way? It's a problem, and while the film is great politically on many, many levels, this central plot line falls within the tradition Rao identifies, albeit within the context of movie that is otherwise politically very good.

We should celebrate the film for its many positive traits--its identification with indigenous resistance and struggle, its condemnation of U.S. imperialism in a contemporary sense, its analogies with the destruction of the ecology in the name of profit and more.

However, we cannot deny this major problem with the film. And, frankly, we have to sympathize with people who have seen one too many "white savior" movies. Otherwise, we cede the ground to people like David Brooks, who has written a review about Avatar entitled "The Messiah Complex" to point out this flaw in an attempt to dismiss the movie and by association anti-imperialism in general.
Bill Linville, New York City

Further Reading

From the archives