Thursday, 21 January 2010

James Cameron's Avatar is a stylish film marred by its racist subtext

This brilliant, thoughtful and only slightly satirical journalist does hit the nail on the head, writing exactly what I thought when I watched the for some reason so highly praised 'Avatar':

Avatar was a spectacle, I’ll grant you that. The film’s 230-million-dollar budget guaranteed extravagant and often beautiful 3D special effects. But as I left the cinema last night, I couldn’t help questioning the weird mind behind it all. Was it James Cameron’s intention to be so nauseatingly patronising? And how could the famously Left-wing director have failed to pick up on his film’s racist subtext?

I won’t spoil the plot, but here’s the basic set-up: a group of mercenary humans have colonised a faraway planet, called Pandora, in order to extract an enormously valuable mineral found there. Pandora’s “natives” – a race of tall, blue-skinned aliens called the Na’vi – live on an area of land which is set to be mined. They won’t relocate, so the humans attack.

But the Na’vi aren’t your average extra-terrestrials. Blue skin aside, they’re essentially a childish pastiche of the “ethnic”, with recognisably human features. They wear Maasai-style necklaces and beaded jewellery which Cameron has borrowed from tribal East Africa. Their long, dark hair is dreadlocked. Their clothes are apparently Amerindian. They are armed with bows and poisoned arrows, and wear facepaint into battle. The main Na’vi characters are voiced by four black actors: Zoë Saldaña, C. C. H. Pounder, Laz Alonso and Peter Mensah; as well as one Cherokee, Wes Studi. The evil humans, needless to say, are white, male and middle-aged.

James Cameron has been very open about the politics behind Avatar. It’s about how “greed and imperialism tend to destroy the environment,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s a way of looking back on ourselves from this other world.”

If we look at his version of our planet, however, the view is overwhelmingly repellent. Pandora is to Cameron what Africa was to Joseph Conrad – it’s another, fictional ‘Heart of Darkness’, a place where a cruel imperial power subjects what is (perhaps unwittingly) depicted as a lesser race. Chinua Achebe, Conrad’s fiercest critic, wrote that “Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world,’ the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality.” Almost the exact same could be said of Avatar.

Take, for example, the relationship between the ethnic Na’vi and the animals which inhabit Pandora. Every interaction between them involves an act of quasi-consummation. The “natives” attach a spindly appendage to whatever raging animal they are trying to tame, resulting in a short struggle followed by an almost post-coital quiet. In another scene, one of the Na’vi is warned not to play with the same appendage or, he is told, “you’ll go blind.” The hint is heavy enough – it’s the same “triumphant bestiality” which Achebe criticised in Heart of Darkness.

By far the most contemptible theme in Avatar involves the hero, a young disabled American called Jake Sully, played by Sam Worthington. Before the humans declare war on the Na’vi, Sully is sent to them (in the form of a blue-skinned avatar) in a last ditch attempt to find a diplomatic solution. But, lo and behold, he becomes one of them – sympathising so much with their plight that he decides to lead them into battle against the humans.

As Left-wing conceits go, this one surely tops all the others: the ethnic Na’vi, the film suggests, need the white man to save them because, as a less developed race, they lack the intelligence and fortitude to overcome their adversaries by themselves. The poor helpless natives, in other words, must rely on the principled white man to lead them out of danger.

Yuck. And there I was, thinking this sort of patronising world-view was dying out. But plainly it lives on in Hollywood. Avatar is artistic evidence of the ugly mindset which underlies so much of Left-wing thinking today: the belief that only the superior Western liberal is fit to lead the world into a better future. Other than a whole lot of style, this is all Cameron’s film has to offer – so I make that 230 million dollars wasted.

Will Heaven
in The Telegraph

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