Friday, December 10, 2010

About Avatar

Hi Meltingpot Readers,

So, I finally watched Avatar the other night. Yes, I got a copy from the library, so, no I didn't pay for it. For some reason, I'm proud of not being part of the hype. That being said, because I had very low expectations for the movie (I mean no 3-D glasses and watching on my non HDTV. ), I was pleasantly surprised. I didn't love the film, but I was thoroughly entertained throughout the entire 180-minute spectacle. First, I can pretty much watch Sigourney Weaver read a grocery list and be enthralled, and the inner-geek in me loved the other worldliness of the planet Pandora and the faux science behind becoming one with one's avatar. That was pretty cool.

But what I enjoyed even more was trying to figure out why everyone kept saying the Na'vi people were obviously stand-ins for Native Americans, when all I saw were Africans painted blue? From the braided hairstyles (with beads no less) to the Masaai like costumes worn by many of the higher ranking Na'vi (see photo above), not to mention the long limbs and facial features of some of the actors, I kept getting a very East African vibe from the Na'vi. Many critics and commentators suggested that the Na'vi's connection to the earth is very Native American, but it's also very African. Isn't it? Many, if not most African cultures have deep spiritual connections to nature and the earth. Maybe it's because the Na'vi shot arrows and that's why people assumed they must be Native Americans? Do I have to point out that many Africans do too?

Of course it doesn't matter who the Na'vi were really patterned after. I have read that director James Cameron just wanted them to look "ethnic." And I guess if you're a White male, anybody with color is ethnic. The point wasn't to make the Na'vi one specific culture, it was to create a noble savage that we could all cheer for. And I'm glad the White guy decided to cross over permanently and live with the natives, but I wonder, if he hadn't been a paraplegic as a human, would he have embraced the Na'vi lifestyle and chosen to stay? That's the question I'm asking. Meaning, was being blue and able to walk better than being White and confined to a wheelchair? I'm just saying.

Here's a clever critique of the whole film.

I'm curious what you all thought of Avatar? Sorry this is so late, maybe you don't remember. But if you do, tell me your thoughts.



AnaCeleste said...
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AnaCeleste said...

saw Avatar in February and I thought it was entertaining and showed in a clear way the subjugation and takeover of people of color by whites throughout history. To me, there was nothing new about the story; in many ways, it's the history of how this country was founded: takeover of land even if it means bloodshed, exploitation of resources, lack of care and respect for the ways of the people being colonized and pushed out of their own land.
Another angle of the story that didn't annoy me at first, but when I thought about it more, I became annoyed. The way that Jake, the white male protagonist, was used to infiltrate the Na'vi and learn their ways and in the process, feeling himself "become one" with them and their customs; in other words, the need for the white character to "go ethnic" to relate to the experience of the other group. I read in a book about race in American cinema that the same was done with Kevin Costner's character in "Dances with Wolves." I know that Neytiri was another main character, but lately I've noticed how some Hollywood movies, when attempting to show the lifestyles/experiences of various ethnic groups, often tell the story through the perspective of the white character, such as Jake who became a Na'vi and relayed what was happening during his time with the tribe. Even though the Na'vi are ficticious, I feel they could easily be substituted for Native Americans or Africans. I feel the movie could really spark a good discussion on race. On a similar note, I read how when "Amistad" came out, it didn't do as well as Spielberg's other films on historic tragedies (i.e. Schindler's List) perhaps because it addressed America's role in the African slave trade. I wonder if Hollywood feels it is safer to make up ficticious characters like the Na'vi as substitutes, rather than actual people, for fear that it would be too much or would air our dirty laundry.

Overall, I feel the movie was entertaining and that the computer graphics and special affects were great, but the underlying story was nothing new.

Tere Kirkland said...

I saw Avatar in 3d in the theater and was pretty happy with the movie-going experience.

But honestly, the first thing I thought was that it was Fergully, the Last Rainforest (a movie I liked as a kid) redone with blue aliens. I thought the noble savage theme was taken to extremes, particularly when the Na'vi take an interest in Jake because he was a warrior (read: Marine), not a scientist like the others. (From a story-telling perspective, this plot point felt a little too convenient, and predictable.)

American audiences expect a noble savage to populate this untouched world, and have preconceived notions—based on movies like Dances With Wolves, as AnaCeleste brought up—about the lives, traditions, and mythologies of these people.

The Na'vi had to be different from our own society, but not so different that we can't sympathize with them. Hence, the easy solution is to combine cultures that audiences can recognize, even if they don't fully understand them.

As you can probably tell, I've spent a lot of time thinking about this! ;)

LiRon said...

I also just got around to seeing Avatar -- the hype was just too much at the time the movie was released, and the discussions about parallels with American/European exploitation of brown people (blue people?) made me not want to bother.

Anyway, I did see it, it was quite vivid, and certainly filled with action. What astonished me, however, was the (I thought) obvious physical resemblance to Africans exhibited by the Na'vi. I did not know until reading today's posts here on My American Meltingpot that there had been comparisons to Native Americans. I can see that, but as pointed out, the similarity to ethnic groups such as the Masai and other tribal Africans are beyond obvious -- down to the earlobe adornments and locs.

I think the filmmakers borrowed from a number of cultures to create an ethnic/tribal hodgepodge. Mehh. Not sure whether that's good or bad.

The hair really stood out as a nod to, or co-opting of, Afro-Caribbean culture. The most accessible reference for me is that the Na'vi plugged their locs into elements of nature...trees, communicate with the spirits. This brings to mind the relationship that followers of the Rastafari ideology have with God, through their dredlocs. They consider them antennas to the higher power, their means of staying connected, physically, to God. The Afro-Caribbean reference is that Rastas are followers of Ras Tafari, later crowned Emperor of Ethiopia as Haile Selassie I. Rastas reference Africa as the origin of life.

LT said...


Thanks for your comments. Good points all.

Waiting for Zufan! said...

Wow. That side-by-side you have is really striking.

LT said...


I know right? Many people have commented on the obvious rip off of the Masaai people.

Itsbugart said...

IMHO Avatar would have been a MUCH more interesting film if the main character had been a WoC who gradually made more and more of a connection between the colonising of Pandorra and historical imperialism. In that case the journey from apolitical to politicized would have been a lot more meaningful as she came to the conclusion: "I'm not going to sit and watch with the same things that were done to my people also are done to the Na'vi!"

LT said...

What a great idea! That would have been a great movie!