January 3, 2010

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

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.

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