After 13 years, the sequel to Avatar (2009) has finally arrived. The original science fiction epic, written and directed by James Cameron, broke multiple box office records in its theatrical run and became the highest-grossing film of all time for a decade. Many will remember accompanying their families to sold-out theatres mere days before Christmas for a film that employed the use of groundbreaking technology which would change the art of filmmaking forever. However, Avatar (and its sequel Avatar: The Way Of The Water), is in fact a problematic analogy of indigenous oppression.
To recap, Avatar follows disabled ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) as he learns the ways of the Omaticaya clan of the Na’vi people in an avatar body that looks and functions just like theirs. Along with their culture, he falls in love with one of the Na’vi, a fierce warrior named Neytiri (From Scratch’s Zoe Saldana), and switches sides against the humans, subsequently leading the Omaticaya people in their war against Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and the Resources Development Association (RDA).
Many will remember the blue alien species facing adversity, but not many will remember (or have even noticed) that the central conflict in Avatar is an allegory for colonialism. An ignorant, aggressive, money-hungry corporation supported by military enforcement wishes to destroy the sacred homeland of indigenous communities in order to obtain valuable resources — sounds a little familiar to me. In fact, James Cameron has admitted that Avatar is based on the colonisation of Native Americans. In court documents from a 2015 plagiarism case where visual effects artist Gerald Morawski claims Cameron stole the idea from him, Cameron produced a sworn declaration detailing how he came up with the idea for the film. “Avatar is a science fiction retelling of the history of North and South America in the early colonial period,” read the statement. “Avatar very pointedly made reference to the colonial period in the Americas, with all its conflict and bloodshed between the military aggressors from Europe and the indigenous peoples. Europe equals Earth. The native Americans are the Na’vi. It’s not meant to be subtle.”
Indeed, Quaritch and the RDA are very obvious symbols of colonial whiteness; they even use a slew of derogatory, colonial verbiage, referring to the Na’vi as “savages” on multiple occasions. Sadly, this focal conflict follows into the sequel, with previously deceased Colonel Quaritch returning as the story’s villain via an avatar body that had all his memories stored in the event of his death. This time, he has one mission: getting revenge on Jake Sully. Colonel Quaritch is now even more bloodthirsty and dangerous, eager to destroy Jake and his new family, and he is willing to go as far as becoming the very beings he hates the most in order to exact vengeance. With the RDA and their weapons backing him, Quaritch lays waste to several Na’vi communities, burning down their homes and killing them in cold blood.
The truth is, reimagining colonial violence and the suffering of indigenous people through the eyes of an alien species isn’t the epic story Cameron thinks it is.
Indigenous people have taken issue with the themes in Avatar for years, but it’s only now with the increasing visibility of social media that there is a wider platform for them to share their opinions and continue a discourse about the problematic nature of this story. Now that indigenous people are being heard, some are calling for a boycott of the film’s highly anticipated sequel.
Much of the recent criticisms got louder following the resurfacing of a 2010 article by the Guardian that details the involvement of Cameron and Avatar’s Sigourney Weaver and Joel Moore in the Brazilian Xingu peoples’ campaign against the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam project. Acknowledging that the Avatar had created “a bit of a spotlight on [them] right now to raise awareness in certain key areas”, Cameron expressed his desire to make a 3D “experiential” documentary on the Xingu’s battle. After watching indigenous ceremonies and meetings Cameron made extremely disparaging comments about the Lakota. “I felt like I was 130 years back in time watching what the Lakota Sioux might have been saying at a point when they were being pushed and they were being killed and they were being asked to displace and they were being given some form of compensation,” said Cameron. “This was a driving force for me in the writing of Avatar – I couldn't help but think that if [the Lakota Sioux] had had a time-window and they could see the future… and they could see their kids committing suicide at the highest suicide rates in the nation… because they were hopeless and they were a dead-end society – which is what is happening now – they would have fought a lot harder.”
Cameron has since addressed the subsequent accusations of racism in a UNILAD article, noting that he wanted to “listen and to be sensitive to issues that people have.” However, Cameron has not apologised directly to the Lakota people for his degrading comments.
Simply acknowledging people's feelings as “valid” is not enough. The truth is, reimagining colonial violence and the suffering of indigenous people through the eyes of an alien species isn’t the epic story Cameron thinks it is. It’s an appropriative and tasteless virtue-signalling of a traumatic issue that still affects millions of native people today.
Despite Cameron claiming that he wishes to move away from the white saviour trope, the backstory of Avatar’s central white character says otherwise. By positioning Jake as the Na’vi’s saviour, the film’s “fuck white people” metanarrative conveniently disavows whiteness as inherently bad. Even in Avatar: The Way of Water, despite bringing even more death and destruction to the beautiful land of the indigenous Metkayina tribe who provide a safe haven for his family, Jake pretty much remains the hero of the story.
This representation of Jake as one of the “good” whites implores people to view whiteness as an institution and a system, rather than individuals who can be complicit in a system of violence and oppression. In doing this, Cameron suggests that sometimes, whiteness can save us. It feels like some weird colonial wet dream that appoints certain well-meaning white people as the saviours of native people in the perpetual struggle against other white people. Both Avatar films’ metanarratives are framed as counter-hegemonic, but they ultimately end up reproducing hegemony by positioning white people as heroes — thus supporting and legitimising white supremacy.
The franchise props up whiteness as something special and unique that enrichens and sets you apart from everyone else. In Avatar: The Way of Water, Jake and Neytiri’s kids are seen as outcasts, similar to Jake, because they were born with five fingers like humans instead of four like other indigenous Na’vi. Because of this, they are teased by other Na’vi. However, throughout the course of the film, the Sully kids are revealed to have special abilities; Kiri (Weaver) the daughter of the late Grace Augustine’s (also Weaver) avatar body, has a particularly special connection with Ewya, the Na’vi’s omniscient deity. It’s interesting that in both films, the characters that are connected to whiteness (apart from the RDA) are treated as different and special among the indigenous communities they make a home in.
Ultimately, colonialism is a real-life monster that has and continues to affect indigenous people globally for generations. Though the story of Avatar is fictional; its themes aren’t, and it’s imperative that we think critically about the on-screen representation of certain issues and groups because the media largely informs our understanding of the subjects depicted. It also informs our application of these issues — from individual to collective praxis. It’s even more important when you consider the global visibility of this film.
James Cameron most likely thought that this film would implore pro-colonialists and Western imperials to think about their empire’s history differently. But if he really wanted to fight for the rights of indigenous people, he could have directly provided aid, reparations, or any kind of tangible support to these communities instead of producing a multi-billion dollar franchise that emblematizes their trauma. His net worth is literally $700 million. But do the people whose struggle inspired filmmakers like Cameron and line his millionaire pockets see even a cent of those profits? No. Of course not.
It’s true: Western colonialism begets a debt that cannot ever be repaid. But white Westerners, at the very least, can make a start — and putting a spin on indigenous trauma for profit isn’t it.