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Avatar critics are missing the point

BY ZACH WAHLS - GUEST OPINION | JANUARY 26, 2010 7:30 AM

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As director James Cameron’s latest blockbuster takes the world by storm (more than $1 billion and counting), Avatar is not without its critics. And while most of the attacks being levied at Avatar are from the right (describing the movie as anti-American, anti-military, paganistic, etc.), there is also a fair amount coming from the left. This group — the lefties — attacks the movie, predominantly, for being racist.

The argument, if I understand it correctly, goes like this. Jake, who is a disabled, white, Marine veteran, gets inducted into a Na’vi clan. He then goes on to learn and master the Na’vi culture, is briefly exiled, but then returns as the people’s savior. Eventually, with him at the forefront, the Na’vi expunge the invading humans, all is good, and Jake becomes a Na’vi. Critics say this is yet another example of a white person becoming the most badass guy — and inevitable savior — of a non-white culture. (See: The Last Samurai, Dances With Wolves, etc.) In this context, however, it feels like “white” actually means “human.” More on that in a minute.

This argument falls apart on three levels. First, it doesn’t even hold up with the actual events of the movie. Second, any story without a fundamental change in the character is boring and probably not worth telling. Third, if you think the movie is supposed to be a critique of racism, you missed the movie’s biggest point.

Now, it’s important to note that Jake is selected by the Na’vi deity, Eywa, to enter the Omaticaya clan. Why? Not because he’s human, male or white, but because, in the words of Neytiri, he has “a good heart and no fear.” He’s a warrior. This is a man (but just as easily could have been Trudy, the kickass, Latina, female pilot who turns out to be the most radical member of the Avatar entourage) who has faced adversity and is set on overcoming it. It’s for these reasons — not any other part of his identity — that causes Eywa to essentially recruit him to lead the Na’vi. (Did you see any Na’vi trying to master Toruk? Nope.)

Second, this argument completely discards Neytiri. Who teaches Jake everything he needs to know? Who saves his ass when he’s about to die of Pandora’s air? Who actually kills the bad guy? The movie starts to actually get interesting when which character enters the picture? Neytiri, Neytiri, Neytiri, Neytiri. Oh, and who plays Neytiri? Zoë Saldaña, who is about as non-male/white as you can get.

On the second level, I don’t buy the argument that this film should be discarded simply because it’s about the oppressors, a point that I don’t deny. But here’s the thing: For a story to be worth listening to, the protagonist has to change. Stories without such transformations are, in all honesty, boring.

Finally, I think most critics must have missed the point. This film is a critique of white culture, which in this case is understood to be one that has no regard for the environment, the interconnectedness of life, and even each other. That message is made even more poignant when the person who changes and sees the error in his culture’s ways is a white person.

As Cameron said during his Best Film acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, “Avatar asks us to see that everything is connected, all human beings to each other, and us to the Earth. And, you know, if you have to go four and a half light-years … to appreciate this miracle of a world we have right here, well, you know what, that’s the magic of cinema.”

By the end of the movie, Jake Sully has had his insanity cured. He understands the degree to which all life is connected and how vitally important it is to live in an environmentally conscious way. I only hope that Avatar can start to do the same for the rest of us.

Zach Wahls is a UI freshman.


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