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Guest Blogger: Daniel Heath Justice on Avatar
January 20th, 2010 - Posted by Natasha Varner

Amidst all the hype and excitement surrounding James Cameron’s new film, Avatar, many have critiqued its use of Indigenous imagery and innuendo and have charged that it is a thinly veiled colonialist fantasy that perpetuates damaging stereotypes. We asked First Peoples advisory board member, Daniel Heath Justice, to weigh in with his own thoughts on the film and its allusions to indigeneity, colonialism, and other pertinent issues.

Justice is a Colorado-born Canadian citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He is associate professor of Aboriginal literatures and Aboriginal Studies at the University of Toronto, and has written extensively on Indigenous North American literary expression. He also teaches a regular course in fantasy and horror literature and is the author of The Way of Thorn and Thunder, an Indigenous fantasy trilogy.

James Cameron’s Avatar: Missed Opportunities
By Daniel Heath Justice

Apologies for spoilers!  And thanks to Kent Dunn, Jim Cox, and Kirby Brown for their comments on early drafts of this blog.

In the past few weeks, I’ve chatted with a number of friends, colleagues, and students about the phenomenon that is Avatar. Certainly this particular community tends to be quite conversant about prominent themes in the film, such as Indigenous sovereignty and spirituality, colonization and decolonization, other-than-human kinship, traditional ecological knowledge and environmental destruction, so although we’re a diverse group we do have some values that align pretty closely across our differences. And given the fact that the film has already met with some pretty blistering critique online and in print from both the right and the left for its handling of many of these themes, I’d initially thought that the underlying perspective emerging from these conversations would be sweeping dismissal, or at least substantial indignation.

That’s not how it turned out, not even for me. Our responses ranged from guarded optimism (given that a huge international audience is clearly so engaged with a film that confronts the horrors of colonialism and resource exploitation) to thoughtful frustration (it’s powerful in so many ways, but why do we need yet another story about Indigenous struggle told through a non-Native’s voice and perspective?), but no one dismissed it. On the whole, the overwhelming sense was, “Well, it’s flawed, but at least it’s getting people talking.” That there’s so much commentary in the blogosphere on the film’s underlying current of “white guilt” indicates to me that something is happening with audiences and critics; it’s probably too early to tell yet what that is, but there’s probably a good opportunity here to engage an audience on Indigenous issues that might not otherwise have been interested or receptive.

To be honest, I went in expecting to hate the film. I’d already heard that it was pretty much Dances with Wolves in outer space, and the heavy-handed parallels to Pocahontas and Last of the Mohicans were readily apparent even in the first half-hour. The minute I saw Michelle Rodriguez as the tough-talking pilot Trudy Chacon, I knew that her character was going to die, die heroically but die nonetheless–this is the almost inevitable fate of most Latinas in science fiction films. For all the amazing 3D effects, the characters were simplistic caricatures, much of the dialogue was leaden and cliché, and the storyline was surprisingly predictable for a $300 million epic. To my surprise, there was enough in terms of world-building and interest around the Indigenous Na’vi to keep my attention; indeed, I would have liked to have seen much more of the Na’vi and their world and much less of the generally obnoxious and self-absorbed human invaders.

The film didn’t annoy me so much as make me sad, largely because it promised to be much more substantial than it actually was. That Cameron chose the least interesting and most consistently obtuse figure in the film (Jake Sully, a paraplegic ex-Marine, performed by Sam Worthington) to be the point-of-view character is, I think, symptomatic of the most significant failures of Avatar, namely, that for all its visual sophistication, the story suffers from low narrative expectations, and it regretfully fulfils them. Complexity and ambiguity are surrendered for expedient moralizing; the possibility of richly realized and multidimensional characters is tossed out in favor of stock heroes and villains. Cameron drives home the relevant political concerns with the subtlety of a sledgehammer; the good guys are very good, the bad guys are very, very bad, and there is little overlap between the categories. The Na’vi are exotic and intriguing, but their narrative function is to serve as the redemptive influence on a disillusioned white guy; they’re more interesting than the humans, but ultimately only to show what qualities the good humans will attain. It’s all part of the “white guy goes Native” Western film formula–the only real difference is that these whooping, warlike natives have blue skin and ride oddly limbed alien horses or fly giant bat-beasts.

This is, I think, where my primary disappointment lies: because the characters and their motivations are so clumsily handled, because the story is so formulaic, because the imaginary setting is so unimaginatively derivative of this world, the potential for actual critical commentary is diminished, and the audience is left with a self-congratulatory feeling of having grappled with major issues without having actually dealt with any of the real complexities of colonialism, militarism, reverence for the living world, or environmental destruction.  (Nor does it deal much with dis/ability, in spite of Jake’s injuries and their effects on his sense of self–that he ends up not only ambulatory but immensely powerful in his Na’vi body at the end is another narrative cheat. Is it so hard to imagine in a science fiction film that a paraplegic can be an adventurous hero in his own ways and with his own body and do so in a way that doesn’t ultimately require him to be something other than he is?) The film is a journey into a not-so-strange world that neither disorients nor dislocates viewer expectations; indeed, it asks very little of its audience aside from a willingness to be enraptured by its own spectacle. That’s good for entertainment, but that’s not asking for much these days.

For example, if Cameron had still decided for whatever reason that the viewpoint character couldn’t be one of the Indigenous Na’vi, Sigourney Weaver’s character, the scientist/teacher Dr. Grace Augustine, would have been an immeasurably more interesting (and inherently more complicated) choice than Jake, the pouting and resentful soldier/jock.  (That Weaver’s fine performance is both multilayered and compelling in spite of the weak script demonstrates once again that she’s an extraordinary but sadly underappreciated talent.)  While the film offers some muted critique of academic colonialism, the decidedly mixed blessings of Grace’s work as a teacher of human ways to the Na’vi are almost entirely obscured by the fact that she’s not a murderous military thug like Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Because she’s not a sneering, cardboard villain, and because in spite of her bristly personality she obviously has good intentions, the dangerous legacies of her interference in the world of the Na’vi are ultimately erased, and she remains a hero. Yet many of the devastations visited upon Indigenous cultures have come from well-meaning teachers, preachers, and scholars, many of whom have believed that their actions are for the good of the peoples whose cultures they’re working to undermine.

And such shallow attention to motivation doesn’t begin or end with Dr. Augustine. Colonel Quaritch is despicable, vindictive, and brutal almost entirely for the sake of efficient brutality. There’s nothing sophisticated about his evil, nor is there anything about him that would elicit audience empathy–he’s meant to be entirely a murderer, an ecosystem killer, and an all around monster. Yet how much more complicated a story might this have been had he been a good man of personal integrity who proudly did his duty in spite of the horror he felt at decimating a people and their world?  How much of the evil in our contemporary world is created by people whose sole purpose is destruction and devastation?  Not as much as is done by those who believe that what they’re doing is a good thing, or who know it’s wrong but feel that a higher duty compels them to act against their own moral qualms.  Much more could have been done with this, and with the fact that, although Quaritch and his other fighters now work for a private corporation, their self-concept is still very much within the military honor code of fighting on behalf of God and country.  Therein lies the makings of true tragedy.

Following that line, what if, instead of the hackneyed convention of a cruel white man assaulting Indigenous peoples on another world, he was instead a world-weary Native warrior grappling between empathy for the Na’vi and fulfilling his (or her) duties as a soldier? Having numerous family members (both Native and non-Native) who’ve served in the armed forces, and knowing something of their complicated relationships to service, I’m a little less willing than Cameron to simply dismiss them as brutes and bigots; given that American Indians have the highest rate of military service of any demographic in the U.S., and having seen the U.S. flag carried proudly by Native veterans at many powwows and community gatherings, I think it’s fair to say that all kinds of people join the military for all kinds of complex, sometimes problematic reasons, mostly because of a mixture of love for their people, nation, and country, the search for adventure in another land, and a hunger for opportunities that are otherwise limited or denied. None of these are neutral, and none are without their dangers or moral complications, but none are categorically evil, either–people can be sensitized to the beauty and humanity of other cultures through military service, just as they can be turned into xenophobic killers.  This is the horror, and the tragedy, of war–and this is a much more poignant but ultimately less comfortable perspective, one that finds many degrees of good and harm in an entire range of characters, one that indicts the viewer as much as the character.

There are some impressive moments of depth and narrative brilliance in the film, as when Zoe Saldana’s warrior-woman Neytiri saves a stupidly unprepared Jake from being killed by feral hyena-panther creatures, then chastises him for his casual response to the destruction of life his rescue required; the soul-crushing horror of Hometree’s destruction and the survivors’ disorientation and exile; and the adoption ceremony that remakes Jake into a full Na’vi, with both the rights and responsibilities that such a ceremony necessitates, and his subsequent betrayal of the Na’vi and Neytiri’s anguished response. Yet for all its good intentions, for all its visual spectacle and effecting sentiment (yes, I got teary-eyed a couple of times), it’s still ultimately a story about “those bad guys who aren’t us.” Sadly, as we know from example after example in the past, distant and immediate, the bad guys, all too often, are us. It’s a comforting lie to believe that only those big bad guys with the superweapons or the white hoods and burning crosses are the only ones who do nasty racist things, but it’s a lie nonetheless.

In distancing the audience from any complicity with these evils on our world, the film actually fails to take seriously what would really be required of the audience to effect real and lasting change. The genocide perpetrated against the Na’vi is undeniably evil and despicable, yet genocide isn’t enacted only by wicked, bloodthirsty soldiers–mundane, ordinary people participate in all kinds of atrocities at home and abroad, knowingly and unknowingly, every day. Indeed, as Hannah Arendt might remind us, it’s usually the ordinary people whose actions are most responsible for such horrors, made all the worse because of their seeming banality.

Yet because no audience member is expected to take the side of Colonel Quaritch or of Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), the insipid and cowardly corporate sycophant, audiences can only claim the righteousness of the Na’vi for themselves. In so doing, they — or rather more often, we –are exempted from the hard work that actually accompanies the struggles for decolonization, social and environmental justice, and peace.  There’s no real sense that good intentions can actually be far more destructive to a people (and have much more lasting impacts) than shooting napalm into the Hometree; there’s no acknowledgment that people can do terrible things out of a sense of misplaced obligation rather than simply because they’re sociopaths.

Ultimately, Cameron’s beautiful, evocative, and deeply flawed epic falls prey to the surprisingly limited ambitions of its characters: by exchanging complexity and narrative nuance for heavy-handed, simplistic political evangelism, Cameron misses the opportunity to make a real statement about injustice and more thoughtful relationships with one another and the natural world.  He had the opportunity to be as profound in substance as in spectacle, to ask difficult and unsettling questions of his audience that might not have been as popular or lucrative but would have been more meaningful.  Instead, he settled on feel-good, self-congratulatory pop progressivism, and wasted, or at least diminished, the chance to make a difference.

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8 Responses to “Guest Blogger: Daniel Heath Justice on Avatar”

  1. Wendall Nadjiwon Says:

    I agree with the writer as I have experienced similar things within my own life, such as the time I was trying to get a friend to realize as they we going into the ministry that they were doing the same thing by going to other countries and trying to replace those peoples religion with the United church’s. We took a long time to be able to talk again and I will never be able to forget what they have done. So the writers comments were right on the money and I agree whole heartedly.

  2. UNC Press Blog » Avatar, Southern Gateways, & Disney Princesses: Around the Internet Says:

    […] up, head over to the UNC Press Blog’s friend, First Peoples: New Directions in Indigenous Studies, for a thorough critique of Avatar, James Cameron’s high-grossing film, by Aboriginal Studies […]

  3. SF Said Says:

    A brilliant blog, really getting to the heart of the questions. Thank you!

  4. Cari Carpenter Says:

    This is a fantastic analysis–the best I’ve seen on the film. I’ve passed it around to everyone I know (including someone in Hungary, who is going to share it with her department). Kudos!

  5. Rolland Nadjiwon Says:

    Daniel Heath sure has a lot to say but does not yet seem to realize Hollywood is for entertainment of the masses…truth, if there is any, lies elsewhere. J.R.R. Tolkien in his essay, ‘Fantasy’ in ‘Fantasists on Fantasy.’ Eds. J. Boyer and K. Zahorski. Avon Books: New York. 1984. p. 85 says:

    ‘If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frogs and kings would not have arisen. . . . Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their author’s own evil. . . .we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.’

    We can only fabricate from our imaginations only those things that are familiar to our imaginations and, thus, our fabrications can only be a reflection of our own paradigms. Western literature is formulaic.

  6. Allison Davis Says:

    A brilliant blog. I just caution those of us in higher education to remember this – sometimes even what we clearly see as a “hit you on the head” moralistic message is still lost on the general public – most people in the US did not leave the theaters talking about power dynamics and right and wrong, no matter how obvious the message was meant to be by putting full technology to its service. On the other hand, millions of people worldwide are fundamentally moved by this films incredibly overt dance with the subject of power. So on balance, despite whatever we say about it, it actually might have been a good moment in storytelling for the masses. That might mean that the critics need to go back and re-examine how nuanced a critique they need to make. Why not talk about the very large archetypal issues of power that came up. Why not? That’s what people in Peru and Brazil are talking about. In this way, the person I would have wanted to hear speak most about this movie is Joseph Campbell, not a sci fi expert, a movie critic, or even an academic anthropologist. I want a mythologist, who would look at this myth in terms of global popular discourse and where we are at in our collective story telling. Fatalism, climate change, globalization would all come into his analysis. This has less to do with Pocahontas or Dances with Wolves or other historical fictions: we are at a different point in time in our ethcial stories, and Avatar fits more with Wall-E, Matrix and The Day the Earth Stood Still type of narrative going on globally.

  7. Cowboys and Indians in Space? Assessing Avatar Says:

    […] where some see deftness, others see daftness. Daniel Heath Justice also seems to see the promise of Avatar, acknowledging its “impressive moments of depth and […]

  8. Avatar’s global affects | immanence Says:

    […] . . .” Aboriginal studies professor (of Cherokee ancestry) Daniel Heath Justice provides a nuanced analysis of the film that takes these many things into account. In China, meanwhile, as the film has broken box office […]

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