If you haven't seen Avatar, it's a half-a-billion-dollar adaptation of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, where Mr Meek gets to be Mr Hero, kill Baddies, and get Big Chief's ethnically-optimised uber-daughter into the sack. All in his sleep. Apart from being more visually stunning than anything you've ever seen, it's nothing new.
Except, many claim that it is racist. Well, nothing new there either. Critical Theory - indirectly or not - has trained a legion of critics to fervently dig for racism (sexism, homoophobia, etc.) in every film, book, and aspect of Western culture. In Avatar's case, what is more interesting is how the accusations have come from such opposing camps.
If just about every major ethnicity has found in it a deep affront to their race, all agree on the basic metaphor - that the humans in the film represent whites, and the blue aliens represent non-whites. Then, things diverge. The black gripe is that it's yet again a portrayal of them as credulous sensual primitives that are incapable of sorting themselves out without the help of whites or a "white messiah". The white gripe is that it portrays them as having to abandon their own race in order to become good, whereas blacks get to do so by celebrating their race and its ancestral religion. Then, there's the Jewish gripe, that the humans' are a stereotype of Jewish anti-spiritual materialist capitalism. Then the Native American gripe, that...
Ad infinitum. Now, I'm sure James Cameron has no more conscious a racial agenda when casting white leads, than Spike Lee does casting black ones. (OK, perhaps a bad example.) What fascinates more is the way that the Zeitgeist helps some script ideas through the thousand hoops to final commercial release - whereas others would die at the first pitch.
Because if it really is all "just entertainment", the colour of who wins shouldn't matter as long as there are the requisite explosions, romantic tension, and climactic vindication. But that is simply not the case. Imagine a hypothetical film, in which an evil African-looking tribe attempts to destroy a nice Western-looking tribe but is defeated by someone who defects by becoming entirely Western, and who finally sends them packing back to where they came from.
Gasp! That's... outrageous!!
And yet it's only a reversal of the words "Western" and "African" in the Avatar story. If something "fails" this reversibility test, ask at least if the reason is good enough. Is it only that we are in a system of thought determined by political - rather than reasonable - notions of correctness? One, say, in which being "not racist" isn't a case of being colour blind, but of following a strict script where "white racism" is an untouchable mantra of post-colonial guilt.
If not racist, Avatar is certainly "racial", simply because it makes strong and non-universal statements about races. It discriminates relentlessly, but always in the one-way fashion that's permitted - in fact encouraged - by prevailing ideology. If it had reversed its tribes, the film would never have got its half-a-billion dollars of finance, let alone a billion of our own at the box-office.
Of course, it's a cracking watch. But there's clearly also mileage in the feel-good self-flagellation of the West - which Cameron has monetised spectacularly.
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