This quarter, I'm taking a Feminist Studies class-- Feminism in/of the Global South, to be exact. I'm enjoying this class a lot because it deals not just with issues of gender, but also racism, colonialism, and the subtle and not-so-subtle ways these things affect and are affected by government society, and culture worldwide. The day of the first class, my professor asked who had seen the movie Avatar. About half the students raised their hands, and I wasn't one of them. Although I had heard that the visuals were spectacular, especially if seen in 3D, I had no desire to sit through a three-hour action movie. No offense to people who like them, but they just don't interest me.
I didn't understand at that point why my professor would spend class time chatting about Avatar, but now I think I do. I ended up seeing it yesterday, because a few friends told me they enjoyed it and were seeing it again, and I figured that I may as well. The visual effects really were as great as the hype surrounding them, and I know they would have been even better if the theater had been showing the film in 3D. But beyond that, I found it to be simply an OK movie. It certainly wasn't horrible, particularly when compared to a lot of other immensely popular movies. The plot, though predictable, had some suspense, and the characters were somewhat relative, despite definitely being one-dimensional. And writer/director James Cameron found a creative way to symbolize peoples' connection to the earth and the importance of environmentalism.
The idea in the movie that bothered me was that it seemed the Navi (aka the "Blue people") were powerless against the Americans, who wanted a precious metal cleverly called "Unobtainium". Powerless, that is, until white male former Marine Jake Sully came to their side, inspired them to fight, and then led the way, seeming to know more about how to fight on the planet of Pandora than the very people who had been living there for generations. What's more, before Sully helped the Navi, he had been the one to betray them and help plot against them, and still the native people welcomed him back, as if they knew they were powerless and ignorant without him. The "colored" people (blue may as well be brown in this movie) couldn't possibly save themselves; they needed saving.
Another flaw in the portrayal of the Navi was that everything they did seemed to be one cliche on top of another. They hunted with bow and arrows, had no formal schools, and had pre-arranged marriages. Not all of these stereotypes are necessarily negative, but they certainly are stereotypes of how Americans and Europeans see "primitive native people". By putting people in a box like that, it makes it much harder for them to grow or exceed expectations. I wouldn't want American to be viewed only as a technological society, because I believe it has more than that to offer. In the same vein, native cultures should not be seen only through the lens of nature. I don't think that James Cameron intentionally made a movie with racist undertones; his work is simply a reflection of the views of modern culture.
I know that intelligent and reasonable people will disagree with how I saw Avatar. One could argue that because Jake Sully chose to turn into a Navi, then the Navi actually did save themselves. But I think that going into every movie with a critical eye for these kinds of things can make for a more self-aware society and hopefully more progressive films.