The limits of ‘progressive’ movies

A couple months ago director James Cameron came out with this movie called Avatar. You may have heard of it. On the surface, its success story is your standard tabloid fare — a Hollywood studio took a risk by making a two and a half hour 3-D epic, which then went on to become the top-grossing film of all time. Just last week it was nominated for a handful of Oscars, including best picture and best director. It’s questionable how newsworthy this nomination should be except that — wait for it — this movie trying to make a statement about the serious topics of environmentalism and colonialism. A statement delivered with a subtlety that makes “don’t drink and drive” commercials look nuanced.

Get it? Avatar’s blue-skinned Na’vi represent Earth’s colonial heritage of displacing indigenous people from their lands. The references to controversial real-world issues are what make Avatar problematic; instead of remaining firmly within the realm of wish fulfillment, movies like Avatar are presented to the audience as legitimate educational sources on important issues. In this way, movies that claim to have a progressive message are dangerous because they are taken seriously, thereby re-enforcing the story’s non-progressive messages and inherent biases by allowing them to go unquestioned.

It could be tempting to see land-rights issues portrayed in a major blockbuster picture as a social step forward . . . until you remember where the message is coming from. Hollywood makes movies to make money. Sure, Cameron and the rest of his studio buddies probably liked making an environmental statement and getting kudos from Bolivian president Evo Morales. Backers wouldn’t sink $200-500 million dollars into a film unlikely to be lucrative. If we’re so eager to hear stories about the adverse effects colonization has had on indigenous peoples then why do we wait for Hollywood to tell them?

For all its expensive cutting-edge animation, Avatar’s premise relies on dividing the world’s cultures into ‘us’ (the West) and ethnic others — an idea rooted in racism — and setting the story in outer space so they aren’t accountable for inaccuracy. The only thing that makes this story any different is that Avatar’s bad guys are humans. It’s still a war movie that calls us to cheer at slaughter in battle. If most of us today understand that there’s something wrong with watching hordes of people get slaughtered on-screen in battle, why is it suddenly OK when the carnage is human instead of non-Westerners?

Avatar demonstrates why it’s time to stop representing people who are culturally distinctive from the West as belonging to a different species. There is no real thing as “race.” All human beings belong to one species. The Na’vi are ten foot tall creatures with tentacles embedded in their braids which literally allow them to plug into other plants and animals, while human cultural variation exists because people have developed different ways of dealing with the same basic needs. By giving the Na’vi’s connection to the environment a biological explanation and an over-the-top physical representation, Avatar omits the agency in human beings past mistreatment of the environment. Cameron’s treatment of environmental mismanagement is reminiscent of original sin. Poor Westerners — sorry, humans — can’t help messing up the environment, they just don’t have magic tentacles.

It’s easy to criticize Avatar for its treatment of cultural difference, but it’s only fair to point out that Cameron is playing with fairly widespread misunderstandings about culture. Here, the transition to becoming part of another culture is presented as a kind of high-tech dress up game. All it takes for Jake Sully to become part of the Na’vi is a test tube body and a couple of language lessons and other primitive survival strategies which take him three months to learn (even though it would have taken the Na’vi a lifetime). As someone who has travelled a bit, I can’t help but resent movie characters who learn a new language and set of cultural norms without accidentally calling someone’s mother a fish or otherwise deeply offending them.

Dressing up the same old racism in a blue CGI catsuit isn’t tolerance. Avatar trivializes culture down to a different set of accessories which people can pick up or put down at will. Break that whole “Na’vi equals all indigenous peoples” metaphor down further and it gets even scarier. Out here in the non-Hollywood world, “culture” is more than what you eat, wear or speak — it’s also how you understand the world. The primitive Na’vi culture comes off as something Cameron came up with drunk while reading a series of Victorian travelogues about “exotic peoples of the world.” In lumping an entire planet into the “other” category Cameron thinks he’s delivering a positive message about how people need to understand difference. It’s one thing to talk about trying to appreciate different worldviews. But that involves listening to people speak on their own terms, not just watching another colonialist fantasy where people get to switch sides when they realize they’re wrong.

It’s easy to be cynical about how much Avatar can contribute to debates about environmental preservation or how present the colonialist mentality is today; I say we ask James Cameron and company to put their money where their movie is. After all, few people would argue that we need new stories that explore new relationships with the environment or speak from different cultural voices. So why don’t they designate, say, 5-20 per cent of the film’s massive profits to create a Pandora’s Box Fund? It could provide money for land claim cases as well as develop projects to promote cross-cultural communication and ecological activism. Then Cameron could take the rest of the money and create an annual grant for the filmmaker who creates the best counter-colonial narrative movie. That would be cinematic progress I could get behind.