“What You Hear, Kemo Sabe?”: Does Avatar Merely Revive Old Movie Stereotypes of the “White Savior”?

avatarx-topper-medium

James Cameron’s Avatar has been hailed for its medium-busting visual effects and astounding commercial success. Since its release on December 18th it has repeatedly topped the box-office in multiple countries, and is now the highest-grossing film in history, having taken in nearly $1.9 billion worldwide.

But, underneath the breathtaking graphics and lifelike performance capture, does the story of Neytiri and Jakesully, above, just retell the story of a white person finding himself by “going native”? Is it merely a fable about Europeans who would take over non-white people, save for the leadership of a Caucasian guy who leaves his reprehensible, bloodthirsty tribe, in order to cast his fate with the natives?

Avatar has famously been compared to Kevin Costner’s Oscar-winning, 1990 work, Dances With Wolves, which also raised similar charges regarding the consistency of the “white savior” myth. Disney’s Pocahontas has also been i.d.-d as Avatar‘s spiritual predecessor, though, perhaps no more pointedly than in these two YouTube clips, the first of which remixes video from Avatar to audio from Pocahontas‘s trailer, and the latter which does the reverse.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

Today, this afternoon, Friday, April 25, at 2 pm ET, on my WBAI-NY / 99.5 FM radio show, NONFICTION, my guests are:

Rebecca Keegan, author of The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron;

Dr. Mikhail Lyubansky, a professor in the psychology department of Psychology at the University of Illinois: Urbana-Champaign. He authored “The Racial Politics of Avatar: Part 1″ and “The Racial Politics of Avatar: Part 2″ for Psychology Today‘s web site;

Dr. Raymond A. Winbush, author of three books on race issues, and director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University. His post, “Avatar, Africans and Racism: Some Brief Reflections on James Cameron’s Tale about White Supremacy,” appears on his blog, Reparations for Enslavement and the Blackside of Things.

They’ll talk about Avatar, race, and these issues, with the goal of giving listeners some clarity on them.

chrismatthewsBut first: After the President’s state-of-the-union address this past Wednesday, Chris Matthews, right, of MSNBC’s Hardball fame, opined that Obama “is post-racial, by all appearances. I forgot he was black tonight for an hour.”

I’ll talk with Jesse Washington, race and ethnicity editor for The Associated Press, and author of the essay, “Do Blacks Truly Want to Transcend Race?” about what Matthews meant, and what it means for Obama and our national understanding of the subject.

You can hear these thoughtful individuals’ ideas by tuning in at 2 pm. If you’re outside of the New York tri-state, check out our live stream on the web. If you miss the live show, dig into our archives for up to 90 days after broadcast.

Trackback
Permalink

1 comment so far ↓

#1 Matrix on 01.29.10 at 4:27 pm

Regarding these words from Dr. Lyubansky’s essay:

“The avatar allows Jake to see, hear, and otherwise “sense” the Na’vi culture, and the audience needs the same conduit to the Na’vi. Jake is OUR avatar. He allows us (and by “us” I mean “humans”) to experience what he experiences and, in that process, to appreciate the Na’vi the way he does.”

I think that line of thought only applies to a certain audience (primarily of mainstream white Americans) who are so disconnected from all that the Na’Vi symbolize, that these audience members (and the Hollywood marketing machine) believe they NEED a status quo filter (i.e. a white male) to identify with, and see the Other through. As soon as I saw the Na’Vi, I immediately identified with them. I saw myself in them. I didn’t need Jakesully as my proxy, but I understand why he serves that role for the majority of Avatar’s audience.

Leave a Comment