While it’s been a running joke that “Avatar” has left little to no cultural impact since its record-breaking box office run, “Avatar: The Way of Water” becoming the sixth highest-grossing film of all time this past week asserts that there is no denying the place of “Avatar” in the zeitgeist, and as such, it becomes imperative to discuss the glaring cultural blind spots of both films.
As far back as its release in December of 2009, “Avatar” was criticized for being a “white savior” narrative.
The “white savior” is a trope often seen throughout the history of cinema, wherein a white protagonist rescues non-white characters from various conflicts, such as would-be invaders, or becomes a prominent figure in civil rights movements and various aspects of race relations.
Typically, the “white savior” of the story is a man, but there are notable exceptions such as Sandra Bullock in “The Blind Side,” who won an Academy Award for playing an exaggeratedly heroic version of Michael Oher’s adopted mother.
“Avatar” ticks every box of the “white savior”—the embarrassingly Australian Sam Worthington plays disabled former US Marine Jake Sully who inhabits the body of a Na’vi, an alien race whose home world is being colonized by humans seeking resources for their dying world.
The main Na’vi clan in the first film, the Omatikaya, is obviously an alien culture, but they are heavily inspired by many real-world cultures. Their blue skin and slender, muscular bodies are meant to resemble Hindu gods, and their beloved Hallelujah Mountains are inspired by the Chinese Huangshan mountains, but their culture and plight are primarily based on the European colonization of the Americas.
James Cameron, the aging auteur behind the franchise, has made no secret of this inspiration, and frankly, if you don’t notice it, then you’re not paying attention. While making an anti-colonialist, anti-industrialist blockbuster is a very noble goal, the role of Jake Sully throughout the film somewhat sullies the film’s message.
You see, Jake doesn’t just aid the Omatikaya in their fight, Jake becomes the legendary hero of prophecy that leads the entire species to victory. The saviorhood of it all becomes even more apparent when you notice that all of the indigenous Na’vi are played by Black or Native American actors, further cementing their place as people of color, other than the obvious “blue.”
So if all of these were readily apparent in 2009, how different are things in 2022, in a world that has taken some deeply harrowing looks at the role of race, through the lens of both systemic oppression and representation in popular culture?
Well, in the film, we are introduced to the Metkayina clan, the water Na’vi, which are heavily inspired by real-life Polynesian, Maori and Oceanic cultures worldwide. From the woven tapestries that create their homes to the tribal tattoos that adorn their faces and bodies. The chief of the Metkayina, Tonowari, is played by Cliff Curtis, who himself is Polynesian, but Tonowari’s wife, Ronal, is played by Kate Winslet, a white woman, digitally dolled up in tribal tattoos and speaking an odd blend of her natural English accent and a Polynesian accent.
All of this is not to mention that eight years after “Avatar” first hit theaters, Jordan Peele’s masterpiece “Get Out” was released and became a cultural phenomenon for how it discussed the commodification of Black people, their culture and their bodies. So at what point do you sit back and think, “Hey, isn’t the concept of avatars a little weird now?”
All of this is not to say that Cameron is some vicious, bigoted racist.
His intentions are still undeniably noble. But his handling of race in the “Avatar” films is almost entirely thoughtless. The points being raised here are likely ones that never crossed his mind, but that’s the whole point. The first two “Avatar” films cost a combined $697 million, have grossed a combined $4.8 billion and took a collective 28 years to reach theaters.
Cameron has had more than enough time, money and opportunity to take a step back from his creation and take a look at its implications. Is that too much to ask from the biggest films in the history of the medium?