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The Racial Politics of Avatar

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Avatar is so visually stunning it seems almost a shame to break it down and analyze the micro components. I saw it in 3-D, and a day later, I still recall the sensation of being surrounded by grasses and ferns in the jungle and ducking my head during battle. This isn't just a movie you'll want to see again -- Ebert wrote that "it is predestined to launch a cult" -- it is a movie you'll want to see again in the theatre. In between viewings, you might want to learn the Na'vi language. Seriously. If you're already fluent in Klingon, it'll probably come easy, and it might help you kameie (please pardon the conjugation; I'm still learning) the Na'vi in an entirely different way. On the other hand, don't let your mono-lingualism stop you. The action scenes speak to geeks and non-geeks alike, and though the Na'vi do speak in their own language, their dialogue is considerately subtitled for those of us who have yet to master it. Point being: this film has something for everyone.

All that said, Avatar is so heavily loaded with racial allegory that it's impossible, even for a casual viewer, to ignore its sociopolitical currents. On the surface, Avatar is an obvious, at times even heavy-handed, pro-environmental and anti-war missive. It's purpose (besides entertaining) is to hold a mirror up to humanity and show us the folly of our greed and disregard for human life, while at the same time showing us what our own planet could have been like if its indigenous peoples were allowed to retain their cultures rather than being overrun by European colonialization.

If this sounds a tad familiar, it should. Other films, most notably Dances With Wolves, had similar aims and the similarities are not lost on the critics, many of whom have compared the two films in ways that are not entirely favorable to either. More specifically to the context of racial politics, the buzz I heard about Avatar prior to seeing it was that it was a sci-fi version of Dances With Wolves: White men invade natives, one particular [and handsome] white man stays to learn the native ways, grows to like them, falls in love with beautiful native girl, and eventually winds up rescuing the tribe.

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You can read Avatar that way, and, for good reason, many critics have, but to simply dismiss this film as yet another "white savior" film is, I think, to miss some very important points about both Avatar and contemporary racial politics. Below are five observations I think most critics have missed.

1. Jake Sully serves a vital role.

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Some bloggers have asked why the Jake Sully character is even necessary:

By the end of the film you're left wondering why the film needed the Jake Sully character at all. The film could have done just as well by focusing on an actual Na'vi native who comes into contact with crazy humans who have no respect for the environment. I can just see the explanation: "Well, we need someone (an avatar) for the audience to connect with. A normal guy [read a white male] will work better than these tall blue people."

I actually agree that Jake's main function is to serve as the connection between the audience and the Na'vi culture, but unlike the blogger above, I don't dismiss that as yet another manifestation of white privilege. The avatar allows Jake to see, hear, and otherwise "sense" the Na'vi culture, and the audience needs the same conduit to the Na'vi. Jake is OUR avatar. He allows us (and by "us" I mean "humans") to experience what he experiences and, in that process, to appreciate the Na'vi the way he does.

Moreover, Jake offers moviegoers an opportunity for redemption. Just as Jake turns his back on corporate greed and exploitation, so can we all. Without Jake, all we have is the alien (or racial) Other. We might be able to enjoy THEIR triumph, but we (and I'm talking here about a multiracial "we") can't share it, not even vicariously. To the extent that this film might actually inspire personal growth and change and offer the possibility of redemption, Jake is necessary.

2. Jake is more than just a (white) outsider.

By far the most common critique of Avatar is that it patronizes the racial other. Will Heaven makes this point in his excellent review

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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.

I don't disagree with this analysis, but I also think it misses some important elements that at the very least make the relationship between Jake and the Na'vi more complex than described above and perhaps even give it some redeeming qualities: Jake may be human, but the avatar whose consciousness he inhabits is, according to the film, a "genetically engineered hybrid of human DNA mixed with DNA from the natives of Pandora...the Na'vi." On the surface, this linking of consciousness may seem like a form of conquest, or even collonialization - the scientists even refer to the process as "driving", but Jake describes it as a rebirth, and I think that's exactly what it is from his perspective. In his Avatar form, Jake IS Na'vi, not just culturally (though by the end of the film he is clearly that too) but biologically, at the DNA level. Thus, if we are to read the film as a racial metaphor (and I think we should), the protagonist is not so much White as Biracial.
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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a teaching associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity, Theories of Psychotherapy, and a graduate-level courses on restorative justice. An autobiographical essay of Mikhail's interests in race relations and basketball is available here.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been studying and working with conflict, particularly via Restorative Circles (a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and associates) and other restorative responses to conflict. Together with Elaine Shpungin, he now supports schools, organizations, and workplaces in developing restorative strategies for engaging conflict, building conflict facilitation skills and evaluating the (more...)

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