Via Yglesias and Spencer, io9 makes the race-based case against the movie: When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like “Avatar”? It’s a good piece, and worth reading.
It’s a lousy headline, though. First, the answer is obvious. Second, while I think this is a valid reading of Avatar and movies like it, I think it makes some unfortunate implications about the motivations of the people making these films. The self-congratulatory white guilt narrative discussed emerges from narrative necessity as least as much as it arises from an incoherent, subconscious and pervasive sense of racial culpability. Put another way: it’s not just liberal guilt! It’s professional laziness, too!
Consider an alternate explanation for the movie’s setup. We’re writing a script! We’ve gotten an impressive rendering farm online and built these neat cameras and the crew jackets are all printed up, but there are still a few nagging details to work out before we start rolling. For instance, we need a protagonist around which the action will revolve. He or she needs to have an arc. And the opposing sides of the central conflict need to be drawn in stark Manichaean terms — the innocents need to seem super-innocent — because we’re not trying to make That Kind of Movie. When things blow up at the end, we want to audience to be happy!
All of this can lead us directly to a colonial narrative, and it can do so without anyone trying to atone for white privilege at all. It also explains Romeo Must Die perfectly well, for example. And The Transporter. And Total Recall (though admittedly that movie added some pleasantly confusing recursion). And The Professional. And really just about every other action movie, where a protagonist recognizes his complicity in an evil enterprise and then assumes an unrealistically prominent (and violent!) role in resolving the central injustice.
When you draw boundaries between factions along planetary lines, it makes sense to insert race as a dimension in your story. And once that happens, I agree that an insulting and naive sort of primitivism is sure to follow — something that Reihan gets at here (though there’s a hell of a lot of projection going on in that piece — the movie says nothing about half the claims that Reihan makes about the Na’vi).
But I think that the strictures of dumb action movies are what really determines the shape of Avatar. Sure, Cameron’s only too happy to toss in some junk about Iraq, and the environment, and race. Again, the white guilt narrative isn’t an incorrect reading. But I think it is a mistake to assign it outsize importance — if you do so you wind up in weird places, like the blog post quoted by that io9 piece that essentially complains about Cameron not casting an ethnic Na’vi actor for his lead role. I mean, you do realize you were wearing 3D glasses, right?