Avatar and Condescension

I really liked this insight over at The American Scene:

That the distinct virtues that he imparts to the N’avi really are both distinct and virtuous. They are not ours. They are theirs. Sitting in the audience, we’re not secretly thinking, Goddamn primitives. Good thing Jake Sully’s around to help them overcome their lack of technology. We’re thinking, They don’t even need cars. This whole theme reminds me of Jonah Goldberg’s sound criticism of the tendency to find racism in movie portraits like that of the Orcs in Lord of the Rings, which is basically, wait, who’s looking at the Orcs and seeing black people? In this case, if when you see blue aliens on screen you think “black people” or “Native Americans,” why is that James Cameron’s fault? Why is your itch to protect people of color from condescension via a movie portrait of aliens from an alien planet (that people of color are digging in movie theaters worldwide) not itself condescending?

I saw Avatar and loved it, even as I anticipated every single complaint I heard from conservatives, progressives, and the movie critics. And it’s far from being a perfect movie, or even a great movie, but it was a heck of a good time and doesn’t deserve half of the mud that’s been flung at it.


  1. I think a lot of critical response within the industry from critics may simply be because Cameron so desperately wants to believe his own hype they feel obliged to burst his bubble. The reason I saw Native American cliches in the film is because, well, my dad’s American Indian and I grew up seeing cliche depictions of Indians and spiritual people in touch with nature. Avatar is hardly the worst offender in this genre and if anything it’s better about it by making the alien race literally alien. It’s not like Dances with Wolves where the lionized tribe spent years trying to massacre the tribe a friend of my brother’s is descended from. Yes, the trope is a trope but Cameron had the good sense to anchor his slight plot and characterization in a fantasy world where he can do what he’s really good at, making things look really, really cool. And a mecha with a giant knife is a cute visual conceit. It’s obvious but the mecha vs avatar illustrates that both white boys are using amped up extensions of themselves to get what they want. It may be poetry of a “lower” order but it still rhymes, eh? 🙂

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