The XX Factor

Race and “Avatar”

What does  Avatar have to say about race? That’s what the blogosphere is asking this week.

Annalee Newitz got things going this weekend with  an essay on , Gawker’s sci-fi blog, about how the film is essentially “a fantasy about race told from the point of view of white people.” (Read responses  here here here , and  here .)

The racial themes in  Avatar are pretty hard to ignore. We’ve really got it all here: colonialism, passing, “going native,” (literal!) jungle fever. And director James Cameron isn’t exactly subtle about linking the alien Na’vi with minorities here at home. It’s no accident that all the Earthlings are played by white actors (except for Dileep Rao and Michelle Rodriguez, both of whose characters are, naturally, on the good side) while all the Na’vi, under their CGI suits , are played by actors of color. The Na’vi facial features were inspired by “really beautiful ethnic women,”  according to one of the creature designers , and Cameron  admitted to MTV that they’re blue, in part, because of the cultural importance of skin color in our world.

If the racial subtext offended me, it wasn’t because the film is racist-I don’t think it really is-but because that subtext was so dumb. Flat-footed. Cheap. I just felt icky and bored after all that chanting and all those feathered headdresses and the head-clubbing way you’re forced to understand that these oppressed primitives are  soo pure and  soo beautiful. Look at how elegantly they crouch! Just in case you don’t get what we’re dealing with here, we’re going to have the bad white guy say “savages” about a hundred thousand times.

More than anything, I’m disappointed as a sci-fi fan. Stories about outer-space aliens are often about the ways we relate to the “aliens” in our Earthly midst. (See  the apartheid-themed District 9 , for example.) But Cameron, with his much-ballyhooed technological innovations, had the chance to make viewers understand what it would be like-what it would  feel like-to encounter an actual, honest-to-Eywa alien. And he doesn’t exploit it.

We do get a brief glimpse. In my opinion, the best ten seconds in the whole film come somewhere in hour three. (Mild spoilers ahead.) During the climactic battle scene, one of the Na’vi jumps on a human airship and begins hurling his enemies over the edge. It’s one of the few times you actually see a Na’vi next to a human, and it’s jolting.  Holy crap, you think.  Those aliens are HUGE! Next to those tiny humans, the Na’vi looks like some kind of rampaging deity-reminding me, at least, of another big blue avatar . The brief scene near the end where Neytiri, the Na’vi female, cradles a badly wounded Jake, in his human form, is equally uncanny.

Those few moments felt so fresh and strange to me, they got me thinking: If and when we do meet aliens, it’s pretty silly to imagine we’ll see them as just another race of human(oid)s. They’re going to be totally crazy! They’re going to blow our minds! Why bother making a flat, stale retread of Earthly stereotypes when you could have explored what that encounter would be like?

Planning on seeing Avatar this holiday weekend? Seen it already? Share your thoughts below.

Still from Avatar. © 2009 Fox and its related entities. All rights reserved.