Political Physics: Is Avatar the 21st Century Re-embodiment of Birth of a Nation?


a blogumn by Monique King-Viehland


In the interest of full disclosure I should start by saying that I absolutely adored Avatar.  And when I say adored, I mean just that.  From the “loving couple,” to the beautiful cinematography, to the special effects and the story.  I love the movie.

So of course I did what most of us do nowadays, I professed my love on Facebook and then I did not think much of it.

Spoiler Alert for anyone who has not seen the movie:

A few days later I was checking my News Feed on Facebook and I came across this quote from a friend of mine, “[she] thinks Avatar is crap: white guy “goes Native” to destroy indigenous people; has change of heart about selling out natives; falls in love with tribal female leader and disrupts standing social order; becomes more native than the natives; saves the natives and earns the badge of a race traitor. It was a CGI Dances With Wolves …”

After reading her quote, I must admit that I felt like shit, but for all intents and purposes, her recap was absolutely spot on.

Since the film premiered, there has been a lot of debate, particularly in cyberspace, about whether or not Avatar is racist.  And James Cameron is being criticized for creating just another “white savior” movie.

In an article entitled, “Is Avatar Racist,” Jesse Washington of the Associated Press notes that “a small but vocal group of people who allege it contains racist themes — the white hero once again saving the primitive natives.  Since the film opened to widespread critical acclaim three weeks ago, hundreds of blog posts, newspaper articles, tweets and YouTube videos have said things such as the film is ‘a fantasy about race told from the point of view of white people’ and that it reinforces ‘the white Messiah fable.’”  Washington further states that “Adding to the racial dynamic is that the main Na’vi characters are played by actors of color, led by a Dominican, Zoe Saldana, as the princess [and] the film is an obvious metaphor for how European settlers in America wiped out the Indians.”

Moreover, on the io9 Blog, Annalee Newitz contends that the film is clearly racist as “it transposes the cultural politics of Westerns (in which the Native Americans are animists who belong to a more primitive race) onto an interplanetary conflict and then assuages the white guilt that accompanies acts of racial and cultural genocide by having a white man save the noble savages (who are also racists).”

And in a response to the question, is Avatar Racist? on Essense.Com, one person compared Avatar to Walt Disney’s Birth of a Nation, “I feel Avatar is the 21st century’s “Birth of a Nation” because it will shape, badly, our culture’s next 25 to 50 years’ attitudes toward not only American but also global people of color as “exotic” non-humans who whites really can’t relate to unless they desert their race and become something else.  Avatar is once again a demonstration that Hollywood just can’t depict non-whites as humans with the same dignity as whites.”

Wow, Birth of a Nation, really?

According to several polls, many moviegoers disagree.  BlackVoices.Com is conducting on ongoing poll on their website where they asked if Avatar was racist.  So far, 2,604 people have responded and of those, 1,575 respondents or 60% said no the movie was not racist, 543 respondents or 21% said yes and 486 respondents or 19% said they were not sure.  And Moviephone.Com also has an ongoing poll on their website.  To date, 43,261 have responded to the poll and of those, 18,681 respondents or 43.2% said the movie was not racist.  In fact, only 3,202 respondents or 7.4% believed that Avatar was indeed racist.  However, 9,599 respondents or 22.2% did say that the movie had “plenty of lazy stereotyping and patronizing attitudes, but [that it] stop[ped] short of malicious racism.”

I find myself in alignment with that 22.2%

Avatar is being praised as having revolutionized 3D cinematography.  According to MSNBC, the film “takes 3D cinematography to an unrivaled level, using a more nimble 3-D camera and it also raises the bar on ‘performance capture’ technology, which creates computerized images from real human action.”  Avatar is now the second highest grossing film in box office history with more than $550 million in receipts and overseas Avatar is number one, officially surpassing Titanic as the highest grossing film in overseas markets by pulling in $1.28 billion at the box office, $46 million more than Titanic.

You know what other film was also hailed as a technological marvel and was the highest grossing film the year it was released?  Birth of a Nation.

According to Wiki, “Birth of a Nation was the highest-grossing film of its day, and was noted for its innovative camera techniques and narrative achievements.”   The film “pioneered such camera techniques as deep focus, jump-cut, and facial close-up, which are now considered integral to the industry. It also contains many new cinematic innovations, special effects, and artistic techniques.”

At the time the film was released, it shattered both box office records but also provoked controversy for promoting white supremacy and portraying the KKK as heroes.

Now, I do not agree that Avatar is the 21st Century equivalent to Birth of a Nation.  However, shrouding racial subtext with cutting edge cinematography and high gross earning reports does not mean that the racial subtext does not exist.

Is Avatar racist?  I would argue no.  For me racist is a very active word.  I think Ronald Blak said it best on his blog, “People could say that the way Avatar handles race is a heavy-handed, unrealistic, incompetent, derivative, wish-fulfilling, colonialist guilt fantasy of The White Man’s Burden in 3D, and people are welcome to these opinions, but that doesn’t make it racist.”  I do not believe that whites are portrayed as superior to the Na’vi and I do not think the Na’vi are depicted as inferior.

Does Avatar have a racial subtext?  Yes.  But not all of the racial subtext is negative.  The interracial relationship between Neytiri and Jake was heartwarming for me (even though it did disrupt the standing social order).

Is the film a “white savior film” reminiscent of Dancing with Wolves?  Perhaps, although I find films like The Blind Side to be more annoying from that perspective than Avatar (rich white family saves poor little black kid…and yes I know it is based on a true story) and yet Sandra Bullock just won a Golden Globe for that performance.

But hey, that is me.  What do you think?  Is Avatar racist?  Is the film the equivalent of the 21st Century Birth of a Nation?  Let me know what you think in the comments.