The Deep Racism of Avatar

This post was written by Jacob on January 16, 2010
Posted Under: Film,Racism/Fascism

It is rather a shock that they managed to spend $400m on a film without anyone in Hollywood saying, “erm, guys, I think this is a bit racist.” In fact so much of a shock that since the release of Avatar in late December, blogging and reviewing communities have time and time again criticised the film for racism. I shan’t go over the plot of the film here as there are excellent synopses elsewhere on the internet , but the main controversial point seems to be that the Na’vi, a fictional race of animistic savages, cast completely with black actors, require a white American to come save their society when the American army try to destroy it in search of a rare mineral called unobtanium (yep, you guessed it, the storyline is pretty puerile.)

What I want to address here is that actually the film is racist on a much deeper level than suggested in many of the reviews, and that exposing this racism is only really possible by looking at critiques of early anthropology and ethnography. The key split amongst the colonising force is between “scientists” who want to understand the Na’vi and the army or technocrats who want to physically dominate them in order to fulfil a required end. The separation of “science” and “technology” suggests that only technology can be instrumental in domination. That science (in this case a combination of botany, ecology, and anthropology) is value free, and thus has no effect on power structures. The problem is that this is simply not the case, and that science is forever pregnant with ideology and power differentials despite its claim to objectivity.

Reading this into the film is complicated by the conflation of mimetic and diegetic viewpoints of the scientists and the audience. In order that the film may become critical of the domination of technocracy and colonial thinking it allows the audience the same view of the Na’vi as that of the scientists in order that they become sympathetic with one side of the science/technology dichotomy. And this, of course, means that when the Na’vi are still presented as savages (noble or otherwise), as simple, or as naïve, the film demands that the audience collude with this.

And what is probably most interesting about the version of signification of savages that is used is that it revolves around anthropology that was being written about 100 years ago. Whilst the way the scientists act towards the Na’vi has heavy echoes of Malinowski  and the racism implied by his methods (in which savages simply do not fully comprehend the real bases for their structures) probably more interesting and relevant is folklorist James Frazer’s work in The Golden Bough. In this book he argues that human consciousness has gone through various stages from animism to religion to science. He looks back from his own world-view problematising the reality of these other forms of consciousness. Where this method is most present in Avatar is in its use of myth. The Na’vi are treated as some form of generic animistic/pagan society through the random borrowing and intermingling of known animistic/pagan traditions and signifiers ranging from ancient Greek dionysiac theatre to the World Ash tree of Norse mythology, to the use of traditional African jewellery. It is in this sense that they belong to no real tradition and are just a savage Other to Western enlightenment. There is no real interest in the quality of their society, they are simply portrayed by the scientists in the film and by the film itself as backward. How could any thought be more tied up with the colonial project?

What is worse than this is that the film portrays itself as left-wing, as anti-war, even as “on the side of the Na’vi” and environmentalist. It is not. At best the film says that the problems of technocracy can only be solved with a regression from capital, and a new fetishisation of the natural. The film is utterly incompatible with a demand for people’s control of resources. It views the problems of capitalism to be identical to the mode of production rather than the contradiction of the modes and relations of production. There is no thought that technology, forever stated as instrumental domination, could be transformed to serve the many rather than the few. Clearly James Cameron believes that the way forward is to tear down the factories, to tear down the cities, and give up on all mod cons. This is about as far from a left perspective one can have in environmental arguments.

So by all means go to see the film. It’s a bit long and a bit racist, but at least it will refresh your anger with Hollywood!

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Reader Comments

TomP

And here I thought it was just Dune/Dancing With Wolves/Pocahontas with the savages and civilised folk conveniently colour coded.
Would the above criticisms apply to these near-identical films?

#1 
Written By TomP on January 16th, 2010 @ 8:59 pm
Leonard

Conservatives think that Avatar is left-wing, anti-imperialist propaganda. Now you say that Avatar is racist and luddite.

This raises the question: who the hell likes this film? I mean, there must be a whole lot of people who enjoyed it somehow, cause it’s the 2nd highest grossed movie ever. Then again, #1 is Titanic, which was horrible.

#2 
Written By Leonard on January 16th, 2010 @ 9:10 pm
Richard B

Leonard – i think that just goes to show how we shouldn’t rely on a binary of politics. You can make what you think is an anti-imperialist film, and still be a racist imperialist. following the logic of ‘post-feminism’, perhaps we should call jacob’s critique ‘post-racism’. god i hate that shit.

good article jacob.

#3 
Written By Richard B on January 16th, 2010 @ 10:06 pm
asd

perhaps the reason that noone asked whether it was racist is probably because really, it isn’t, or at least, the racism is so subtle that accusing it of being racist would be presumptious.

you aggressively assert it and call it out as “deeply racist” and yet i find your examples are unconvincing, and overall your piece comes across as rather smug and opinionated. maybe you are racist, maybe we all are. i’m sure i could take whatever film you make one day and find some way to call it racist, sexist or whatever. at the end of the day, perhaps really you wish to prove to everyone how clever and less racist you are by pointing out to everyone the racism they have failed to appreciate in this film. but in the end i find it all hocus pocus… who cares if the main character is white? if i make a film depicting a positive white american male does that make me an american imperialist? and where are all the offended ‘tribesmen’ as you seem to have collectively generalised every so-called ‘primitive society’ from your anthropological studies..why are they not writing angry letters about the film?

finally, and sorry for giving you a hard time, what would you change to make this film less racist?
thank you

#4 
Written By asd on January 17th, 2010 @ 2:52 am

I like neither na’vi nor klingon as the future global language. Especially when you have to dress up for it :D

We also need a future international language. One which is easy to learn, as well !

And that’s not English! Esperanto? Let’s move forward :)

At least Bill Shatner speaks Esperanto. Please confirm at http://www.lernu.net

#5 
Written By Brian Barker on January 17th, 2010 @ 4:57 am
Ben

@Leonard: “who the hell likes this film?”

In the same way that one can suspend disbelief when watching implausible but well-made sci-fi, I think many of us can suspend offence and enjoy a film despite the fact that if presented formally with the implicit ideology we’d reject it. Just like I can enjoy a superhero film despite believing that in reality vigilantism is wrong.

With Avatar, it helped to watch it in 3D IMAX. I mean, wow.

#6 
Written By Ben on January 17th, 2010 @ 9:37 am
Sarah

Thanks, Jacob. Interesting post.

I haven’t yet seen Avatar, but a good friend of mine has. She, too, was upset about the generalised racism, but also had one very specific complaint: apparently, male members of the Na’vi get to “choose” their female companion through bodily capture, and then mark out said female as their possession via some form of physical subjugation, which forces them to obey. Any comments/thoughts on this? Another [not-so-] subtle mark of the Other-ish primitivsm of the Na’vi, methinks, to be contrasted with modern American gender “equality”…

#7 
Written By Sarah on January 17th, 2010 @ 2:07 pm
Reuben

Really fantastic article

#8 
Written By Reuben on January 17th, 2010 @ 4:50 pm
Alex

I disagree with this post. A long explanation of why I disagree follows.

You said:
‘There is no real interest in the quality of their society, they are simply portrayed by the scientists in the film and by the film itself as backward. How could any thought be more tied up with the colonial project?’

The film cannot be read as colonialist. It is anti-colonialist. The main character in Avatar is not depicted as the archetypal great white hope that you imply. His physical disability makes the character more complex, and the ideology of the film more interesting.

It is true that the main character plays a central role in leading the Navi to victory against the human colonialists. However, he himself is only able to find personal redemption by living as they do. The actions of his former life, as part of the human war machine, have left him crippled. The scene near the end, where his Navi girlfriend lifts him out of the thought transferal machine where he lies dying, underlines the overall message that the Navi have restored his life.

Earlier, when he addresses the new leader of the tribal society as ‘brother,’ asking for his help in defeating the human colonialist forces, this is not an empty phrase, but a statement of the truth of their mutual dependence.

Secondly, you said:

‘There is no thought that technology, forever stated as instrumental domination, could be transformed to serve the many rather than the few.’

I read the film’s primary ideological statement as being that technology should be made to serve human nature rather than supplanting it. That is, that tecnology has the capcity to enhance life and to alienate an individual from their own nature.

The single-minded pursuit of capital through technology is depicted as a something that divorces humanity from its own nature – witnessed in the inhumane slaughter of the Navi at their tree. One marine rejects this, refusing to take part in the slaughter. She uses her X-Wing or whatever it is to fight the other marines – adapting the same own technology to what she sees as a more humane cause.

Thought transfer technology enables the scientists / anthropologists to live alongside the Navi and the world of Pandora. The gas mask is used to save the main character’s life. Through these technologies, the main character is able to reconnect with his own nature.

This is not the same as a ‘fetishisation of the natural,’ to use your phrase, but a manifesto for the use of technology in support, or even in the pursuit of the natural, in the sense of human nature.

It is the use of technology for the pursuit of capital that is criticised -as ultimately self-alienating – not technology itself.

#9 
Written By Alex on January 19th, 2010 @ 10:33 am
Owain

You guys are thinking waaaaaayyy too hard about this.

#10 
Written By Owain on January 19th, 2010 @ 11:15 pm
Peter

I have just read the article and think you are thinking way too deeply. It is a fantasy sci fi movie made to entertain in order to make money, yes there is good v evil but not based around real races or colours unless blue v the rest is racist. Black actor may play the parts of the Navi but surely this was done to aid the special effects so that the navi had similar physical resemblances but they could have been all asian or chinese the colour is not the issue. I cannot imagine for one second any actor in the film truly bleives racism was implied and it was just an old fashioned make believe fantasy to be enjoyed by the young and old, the white, black, or even blue memebers of the human race

#11 
Written By Peter on January 21st, 2010 @ 12:40 pm
Greg S.

Actually, I thought the movie racist for a totally different reason than anyone has mentioned yet: all of the scientists, company officials, and ex-military mercenaries are White, with but a singular exception, and I’m not even sure about that one exception. When the villain runs outdoors to shoot at the helicopter with his carbine and, when it runs out of ammo, his pistol, I vaguely remember a Black security man running after him to hand him his breathing mask. If I am remembering this correctly, this was the only Black man in the entire firm. If I am remembering this incorrectly, then there were no Blacks at all. It is as though all of these self-righteous White Hollywood millionaires who have benefitted from both the just as well as the unjust parts of our economy so much more than 95% of the rest of the population are telling White America that corporate plunder, colonialism, and racial hatred are all our fault. In the recent past, this may even have been a fair alegorical critique of the way society works. But no more. I can guarantee that it isn’t the nasty White man who amputates the feet of the slaves who mine the blood diamonds that the Hollywood glitterati purchase by the kilo rather than the karat.

#12 
Written By Greg S. on January 22nd, 2010 @ 9:58 pm
Marko

Your contention that the film is racist because a white American comes to save their society is no more than a subjective opinion. It cannot serve as proof of racism.

#13 
Written By Marko on January 25th, 2010 @ 7:47 pm
Martinem

I don’t know Frazier or Malinowski very well, but isn’t it true that on the one hand the enlighted and therefore alienated colonialists partly have lost their sense of one-ness with nature, and on the other, that the animist savages uses less of their capability of reasoning, science and research, and perhaps don’t comprehend the full bases for their structures, at least not in the analyst/reductionist way. For me the film is about this conflict: The main character is a white male, which I readily identify with, who comes in through the back-door, without going through the academic alienating process, and gets a chance to reunite with nature. It’s beautifully described and I myself find myself longing to throw away all my knowledge and go out running in the forest to find my own Pocahontas who can teach me to live in coherence with nature and in the moment.

The question that arises in me is this: What would it cost me? If I were to jump between leaves or ride the dragons, would I have to give up reasoning? Would I have to give up planning for the future or remembering of the past? Would I have to give up thinking of myself as a free agent, forming my future and making moral decisions? Would I have to enter the world of the psychotic, believing that every seed is a spirit and every stone is watching me? Would I have to give up self-consciousness? How deep can I plunge into the animist world without losing myself? And is there a way back?

#14 
Written By Martinem on February 1st, 2010 @ 8:41 pm
lea

Funny, because I’m black and I didn’t think there was anything racists. The people are BLUE! I think some people are bored and have nothing better to do, if you’re looking for something negative you will find it! So what they didn’t have any black people, so what the white guy saves the BLUE people, if it’s racist because there were no black people is boyz in the hood racists because it has no white people? It was science fiction movie, I’m not a big fan of the movie but it was a pretty cool movie, some people just need a hobby!

#15 
Written By lea on May 17th, 2011 @ 10:09 am
jo

its not racist. it is unoriginal and the storyline seems to be plagiarised from some black history month movie. basically this movie is about white people going to africa and raping the land. but of course it is done so with a sy fi effect. are all movies that deal with white ppl raping africa racist?no.
no one can deny that the navi ppl seem to be distinctly african from their language tot heir spirituality.

#16 
Written By jo on July 25th, 2012 @ 3:11 am

Just take the ending of Avatar into consideration. Only the white man can beat the white man. Avatar is definitely more of FRAUD than any shill parrot has been trained to squawk about. However Avatar is an equal opportunity fraud, the movie of which simply would not exist if it were not for the efforts of the white author of Bishop’s Gait.

#17 
Written By Bishop's Gait on May 7th, 2013 @ 6:59 pm

I agree with those who wrote that it can be interpreted either way.
Having studied Westerns in History and Communications Studies I believe it was most like a counter-culture Western of the 1960s, such as Soldier Blue, Little Big Man or Hombre.
Those Westerns deeply criticized destructive and murderous white society in a similar way to Avatar does; and the white heroes also rejected it like in Avatar.
They were not racist for whites, they were deeply critical of white society; as Avatar is trying to be.
If a movie showed the opposite: a non-white fighting for white society and joining it because he thought it superior that would probably also be considered white racist!

#18 
Written By Marc Latham on September 19th, 2013 @ 3:33 pm
Patrick

People are so stupid every post I seen had something to do with western civilization or racist stuff and absolutely everyone missed the whole meaning really behind the movie. That just shows how many people are just sheep of the world. And US the are enlighten are a few far from none. See it would take someone with a totally different mind then the average human maybe a mind almost superior to most humans to write this movie let alone understand it lol don’t be so naive as a human race. That’s the problem these days is you let petty things such as racism block the true meaning of the movie lol that is absurdly funny. We are doomed for real because everyone has there head up there ass so far they have no clue about anything other then hate .sad and unfortunate but funny truth.let’s just kill everything and hate all

#19 
Written By Patrick on April 28th, 2014 @ 11:34 am

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