One from the vaults: the concisest thoughts I can muster on Avatar.
Two summers from now, Avatar II: The Resmurfening is scheduled to hit theaters like the Dutch East India Company crashing through a Lisa Frank poster, and just in case the Extreme Terribleness™ of every other blockbuster since, from Twilight: Breaking Wind Part 2 to Harry Potter and the Dearthy Shallows Part 9 to Transformers: Barrage of Exhaustion, has made you forget how bad Avatar was, I’m here to remind you in the hopes you won’t get distracted by its shininess and immolate your brain with the sequel(s).
Avatar’s set on a distant moon or something called Pandora, explicitly identified as a place with absolutely no shared history with earth until the military-industrial capitalists show up to rob these peaceful people, the Na’vi, of their Unobtainium (which is just a stupid name anyway, since Cameron ham-fistedly stole it from TVTropes or worse).
And what are the physical characteristics of the Na’vi? They have non-white skin, “ethnic” hair with beads, flattened noses, assorted animal features, lots of piercings, feather and bone body decorations, tattoos, they wear loincloths, have a chief, and worship a great spirit.
Sound familiar? Yes, these are the exact characteristics which racist white colonizers and missionaries ascribed en masse to all the “savages” living in “darkest Africa” and the Americas for centuries, without bothering to note their basic humanity or the vast differences and cultural specifities from people group to people group. In Avatar, the Na’vi look exactly like a false identity assigned to a plethora of heterogeneous groups of people in order to purposely and viciously misunderstand and oppress them. Oh, and the Na’vi’s language is also subtitled in Papyrus, perhaps the most Orientalist typeface available.
Let me say all that another way. When James Cameron wanted to create the look of indigenous people on Pandora, which shares no cultural history with earth, he went DIRECTLY to the white colonialist racist imagination of the 19th century and before. This from a film hailed for its creativity. James Cameron put more thought into making the plants look unique and different from those on earth than he put into the Na’vi. Now this means one of two things: either James Cameron and his co-creators are unrepentant racist idiots, or they’re just so fundamentally uncreative that they didn’t even realize how stupidly problematic they were making the Na’vi look and act. I’ll grant them the latter, but that hardly bodes well for the film.
The story of Avatar plays to absurdly racist tropes, too. It’s the tale of a white guy who puts on blueface, easily assimilates with the Na’vi (look, white people can own anybody’s culture!) and falls in love with an exoticized/eroticized babe (because what’s a blockbuster without a little patriarchal heteronormative fantasy, right?). After the white invaders cruelly knock down the Na’vi’s Hometree (which Cameron had the gall to shoot in such a way that the Na’vi reaction shots looked like New Yorkers’ stunned faces as the towers fell on 9/11), half the audience gets to feel fashionably upset about how bad white people are. Then, a moment later, that white guy in blueface leads the charge to defend the Na’vi from the white invaders - because the Na’vi clearly can’t do it without his help - and the other half of the audience gets to breathe easy because white people are still the bestest.
So not only does Avatar internalize the ideology that a story about non-white people isn’t interesting enough to tell without a white person playing the lead, it also simultaneously plays to neoliberal white guilt and neoconservative white victimhood and supremacy.
And that’s the story of the #1 box office winner of all time. Unless you adjust for inflation, in which case it’s Gone with the Wind.
(Oh for god’s sake, really? Just when I was about to say that “they sure don’t make ‘em like they used to,” that look-how-nice-slavery-was-for-everybody-in-the-antebellum-South drivel had to remind me how much worse a film can really be…)