Avatar:a Reflection of Human Nature
When Will Homo Sapiens Stop Making Movies Like Avatar

03 Jan 2010
January 3, 2010

Glenn Beck as our species savior?

Annalee Newitz recently posed this question: “When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like ‘Avatar’?” And she followed it up with some interesting ideas on race and film making in America. While I would agree that Avatar and District 9 are Hollywood’s metaphors for racial relations, by limiting her piece to just race she missed a larger issue: the broad scope and brutal reality of human nature reflected in these films.

Avatar is James Cameron’s epic about the Na’vi of the moon Pandora. Humans are so interested in obtaining the element Unobtainium (talk about transparent Hollywood story development) they are willing to destroy the Na’vi’s habitat in order to do so. In District 9, the more straightforward racial metaphor of the two, non-humans have been strategically and brutality segregated from the population of Johannesburg. In both cases, as Newitz points out, white males are the saviors of these aliens. And I do agree with her to a point.

But I would go farther by saying that greed and fear, both prime motivators here, are human traits that go beyond America’s racial history. Earth has a long and sad history of intra-racial and sectarian genocide. The wars between Rwanda’s Tutsis and Hutu, the Sunni and Sh’ia, the Catholics and Protestants of Northern Ireland, and between Serbs, Bosnians, Croats, Albanians, and the Romani, are just a few recent tragic examples. In addition, as we’ve seen in the last year, the quest for riches right here on Wall Street have destroyed millions. This is not just a racial issue but a human malady.

Sadly, there are those, like Glenn Beck, who make it their business and their livelihood to foment these differences. According to a recent Gallup poll Americans admire Beck more than they admire the Pope, Billy Graham, Bill Gates, and Presidents Bill Clinton and George H. Bush. Hollywood isn’t the only industry willing to oversimplify our human condition for big bucks.

In another recent film, Up in the Air, George Clooney’s character is a good example of the disconnect we often feel for one another. In his case, compassion would have destroyed his life and robbed him of his precious frequent flyer miles. The redeeming part of this film is that it doesn’t convey a simplistic character development (like other Hollywood fare and Beck himself) but let’s us complete the picture of a human forced to reconsider and redefine his being. Things are not black and white here nor in the world, but filled with shades of gray.

“The Other” is a human construct. If it’s not race it’s something else. All of these are important parts of the discussion. And should we ever come in contact with real sentient non-humans we will feel the same fear, difference, and loathing we do now for those humans we see as different. And “speciest” will be able to sit comfortably next to “racist” in our human lexicon.

A Related Conversation: at David Weinberger’s JOHO the Blog.

6 replies
  1. Nina says:

    Haven’t seen any of the movies you mentioned yet, but your points are right on the mark, IMHO.

  2. George Peters says:

    Yes, the fear of the “other” is deeply set into our ancestral survival kit. It makes us distrust anyone not like us or beyond our black and white territorial boundaries. So easy to light the media match creating even more enemies to make war with. And equally, to point out this human trait in films might just make us pause momentarily before acting on that trigger switch.

  3. Ralph Bunker says:

    I really enjoyed Avatar but the link you gave dampened my enthusiasm a bit. The question I have is not whether the movie could have worked without the avatars. I really liked seeing Jake learn a new way of looking at the world. Surely that is okay. But what would have happened if a Na’vi had been the leader of the defense instead of Jake, and Jake had played the smaller role of being a spy for the Na’vi? I think that would have left most of the message of the movie intact and would satisfy the racism objection raised at the link you posted.

  4. Ivan Pope says:

    I would suggest that these conflicts, and almost all so called ‘racial’ or ‘sectarian’ conflicts, are actually class conflicts or struggles to gain or retain economic power and well-being. This is fairly clear in Northern Ireland, also in Rwanda, and I believe generally between Sunni and Shiite.
    Racial struggle in the US has generally been rooted in class struggle, i.e. the whites have the economic power and fear losing it to the “other.” Of course, these struggles very often collapse into racial and sectarian struggles but that is because these become powerful tools in the hands of those who wish to stir up trouble. You often find that the “leaders” in these struggles make alliances over the heads of their race or religion, i.e. they can see the economic or power based reasons for struggle above the so called “real” reasons.
    I take the view that racism (also sexism, etc) are only possible from those who have power to those who are powerless. That is, generally blacks in the west cannot be racist, which would be a sort of parody of racism.
    I haven’t seen either of these films but I believe Avatar is precisely about a struggle for control over resources: in Marxist terms a class struggle. If the “aliens” in Avatar were fully integrated into the “white” society which invades them, or certainly if they were in power, then there could be no racist element as they would control their own resources.
    (I’ll stop digging now.)

  5. Noah Wolfe says:

    I think Newitz’s thesis that these films are about white guilt/fantasy is generally correct. But I doubt Hollywood will stop making Caucasian centric stories until it stops being a lucrative market. Whatever the case Cameron’s Avatar seems to connect with the minds people who go to the movies… that or folks love 3D. ;)

  6. Jeff says:

    Ivan, I agree that racism is rooted in class and economic struggles. But it’s simplistic to say that Blacks in the west can’t be racists. To be honest, one could say we are all racists. We live in a deep racist society, not just in the west but all over the world. How can we not be racist when racism and class are so prominent and persuasive in our daily lives?
    Avatar is also about human greed. The latest and most interesting example of this occurred during the recent climate talks in Copenhagen, made clear when the prime minister of the “have-not” Pacific island nation of Tuvalu pleaded with the “haves” and the developing “haves” to take critical action in order not destroy (virtually eliminate) his country. Avatar was as much about that as white guilt.

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