Avatar and Racism

Just got back from seeing Avatar. Great movie. It was a bit deliberate in the beginning as the director sought to have characters explain elements of the premise to the moviegoer, information that every character in the movie already knew and therefore didn’t need to hear again, but I guess the reasoning was that enough people would be too slow on the uptake – you know, with the general ignorance of colonialism and all – that it would be better just to clarify matters at the outset. Hand holding aside, it was a gorgeous and emotionally potent movie (I hope Roger Dean gets some credit for the visual elements he inspired).

One of the criticisms I am reading is that the movie is racist. The argument is that a great white warrior arriving to save the primitives from the colonizers, who happen to be his race of people, is a white supremacist trope. But this interpretation ignores one key fact: the main character becomes the “other” by transferring his consciousness into his avatar. And long before that he identifies with the other – and with nature. He is, as the antagonist puts it at the end, a race traitor. He rejects the colonizer identity and embraces the identity of the colonized. This is analogous to a white man rejecting his whiteness and identifying with oppressed peoples of color. This is ant-racist, not racist.

The whole point of the movie is that, when a man comes to know a people, lives with them, cries with them, bleeds with them, he no longer sees them as big blue monkeys but rather as living sentient moral beings like himself. He is able to judge right and wrong not from the colonizer’s point of view but from a universal point of view, wherein it is always wrong to destroy a people and plunder their resources and it is always right to side with the colonized against the colonizer. The corporation after the treasure of the indigenous beings is soulless. It only sees profit. And this is always the way of the colonizer. To find morality, one must stand against that, and in so doing, one becomes the other, since the other is the organic enemy of colonization and exploitation.

The movie is anti-racist, anti-colonialist, and anti-capitalist. If the message wasn’t clear enough in its premise, the dialogue certainly made it brutally obvious. By having the audience side with those whom the colonizers label “terrorists,” just as the transnational capitalist class operating through the United States and other western powers define those resisting occupation, the director is saying that it is okay for third worlders to go to war against the global corporation and its military. I am pleased this movie was made and that so many people are watching it. Let’s hope they get the point. 

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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