Critical Essays: Film

I've written two critical essays on film.  One is listed below, the other is forthcoming.

Fantasies of the Master Race Goes to Pandora 

If you wish to read copious praise for Avatar's special effects and political good intentions, kindly look everywhere else on the net. It's time we so-called radicals start talking about the failure of Avatar's good intentions and James Cameron's eyes-wide-open walk into racist storytelling.

I'm not going to restate the plot of Avatar here. If you're one of the five people on the planet who hasn't seen it yet, it's basically Dances with Last Samurai In Space.

Instead, I need to go straight to the question that has plagued me since seeing this film. Why is it cinema's indigenous peoples, no matter how wise, spiritually enlightened and physically fit they are, can somehow never figure out how to defeat whitey without whitey? And not just whitey as an advisor, a double-agent, who maybe can shed a little useful intel on the enemy, but as their leader?

Three months into his relationship with the indigenous Na'vi, Jake Sully, a grunt by his own admission, appoints himself general of the entire Na'vi resistance against their human invaders. Apparently, humans are so incredibly smart, so much more politically and militarily brilliant than their Na'vi brothers, that even a foot-soldier, a Marine corporal, can out-strategize the most experienced Na'vi warrior, a man chosen by his people to lead his people. Said warrior just steps right out of the way when Jake Sully steps up to speak because, after all, Jake Sully is...nobody in particular, not to mention the guy whose treachery just resulted in the complete destruction of the people's home!

Apparently there isn't a single Na'vi, male or female, who, having lived on Pandora an entire life, knowing its landscape and peoples intimately, raised as hunters and warriors in daily communication with Na'vi ancestors, spirits and non-humanoid animals, could lead the people better than this guy. Apparently native peoples simply can't figure out for themselves that they all need to work together to get rid of the genocidal imperialist bastards.

Apparently Tecumseh never made it to Pandora. Or any of James Cameron's classrooms.

Also, apparently, whitey need only exploit indigenous history (anthropogists call it "myth" if they're feeling charitable and "superstition" if they're not) to persuade a people still reeling from the trauma of brutal ethnic cleansing that despite his responsibility for said ethnic cleansing, he's really an okay guy and someone to be trusted with their very survival. Sweet they are, these Na'vi. Sweet, noble, and maybe just a tad naive?

Was I the only one who cringed deep into my seat when Jake Sully attempted to repair his relationship with his adopted tribe by "bonding" with the largest bird on the planet so he can convince the people he's really special and someone to be admired. This is the same guy who, upon "bonding" with his first, smaller bird-steed said, "you're mine now," showing that despite Na'vi princess Neytiri's patient tutelage, he still hadn't a clue about indigenous peoples' relationships to the natural world. Now, I can't claim to be a "Na'vi expert" (despite the fact that I'm white, and therefore an expert on all things indigenous) but it would seem to me the whole concept of "owning" an animal to whom you have made a lifetime commitment would be considered anthema to a people with a worldview like the Na'vi.

Apparently, the indigenous people of Pandora are so physically and spiritually inept compared to Jake Sully that while only 5 of their people in the entire history of their world have ever bonded with this creature, Jake Sully manages it so easily Cameron can't even be bothered to show us the struggle on film.

Narratively, in such a white liberal wet dream, it goes without saying that the gorgeous and brave Na'vi princess Neytiri, superior to Jake Sully in every way that Cameron explores, would, for no apparent reason, fall in love and mate for life with the man ninety days after she had first called him a child in his understanding of her world. The only criticism most folks seem willing to offer of this nonsense is that it's cliched. It's not just cliched; it's racist, not to mention ridiculous.

I'm guessing Cameron thought he could get away with this--if he thought about it all--because he put the white human in a blue Na'vi's body. In the 20th century they called this type of acting "putting on black face." Apparently in the 21st century we've evolved to "putting on blue face (and body)." Now there's a cinematic achievement.

Don't get me wrong. I love a good race traitor movie as much as the next person. And I really do appreciate some of Avatar's attempts to bring eco-consciousness and an anti-invasion sentiment to the youth of this country. Trudy, the Marine who turns against her own, is a fine heroine, and Neytiri definitely channels the more bad-ass side of Pocahontas. There are few things that make me happier than seeing imperialists successfully repelled, particularly the white, corporate, English-speaking variety.

But if you want to see a good film about a race traitor, the movie to see is District 9, not Avatar. With Avatar, James Cameron had the opportunity to create his magnum opus, a masterpiece of cinematic storytelling in which his technological achievements were matched by a truly eye-opening story. He not only failed, he reinforces with Avatar some of the most destructive racist myths written by white liberals.

Enjoy the 3-D, but don't the nifty glasses keep you from seeing it for what it is.

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