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Racism in Avatar? My Reponse to io9.

When you read a headline like “When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like ‘Avatar’?”, you know there’s going to be a definite bent to the story and a lot of opinion. Race is always touchy, no matter what you say, and opinions are something I generally give a lot of leeway too because people are entitled to them (IMHO.)

But this one stuck with me and, much as I wanted to just let it go, I can’t.

I preface this by saying this is entirely my opinion. I respect Annalee Newlitz over at io9. I think she’s a pretty sharp lady and a damn good writer.

Still, I have to say, on this one — I have to heartily disagree. She’s tagged the article as a #rant, but then uses the word “debate”. If you read through it, she’s not pondering IF Avatar is racist or not weighing both sides against the middle. She’s got her opinion and she’s giving evidence for it.

A white male made Avatar and you think that means something about race. If Spike Lee had made Avatar, there’s would be an entirely different set of theories about the racist nature of the movie.

Race is a tricky thing to talk about. Period. And when you come out and state that a movie like Avatar is some sort of “white guilt” thing, you’re going to get reactions. A headline like that is going to cause a reader to jump to the link — and, maybe that was intended.

Now, do I think racism occurs? Hell yes. Daily. Do I think it’s fair? No. If I had my way, people wouldn’t be judged by race, skin color, gender, sexual preference, weight, religious views and so many of the other things we find to dislike and separate ourselves from others for.

But do I think James Cameron made a racist movie?


James Cameron is a moviemaker who gives strong roles to women and hires multiple ethnicities. Look at his past. Look at the Terminator franchise. Look at Aliens. Look at The Abyss. Then look at Avatar. There’s a common thread. Technology vs. humanity. The Company vs. the little guy. Immersion into the alien life? Finding love along the way? All Cameron movie common themes.

If you’re going to call James Cameron a racist for Avatar, then are you going to to call him a racist against Jews for picking a white guy like Arnold Schwarzenegger with a heavy Austrian accent to be the downfall of the human race? Do we push the envelope and say Cameron thinks “aliens” are out to get us? That they want to “integrate” into our lives and destroy us from within?

Okay, okay, so I’m being deliberately hyperbolic to prove a point.

Let’s back up just a bit and look at this.

In the case of Avatar, he’s made a movie about corporations not caring about indigenous peoples, about someone being a leader and really cool effects.

Like he has numerous times before.

Annalee, with all due respect — you ask a question like “When will white people stop making movies like ‘Avatar’?” and I respond “When will people stop looking for a controversy in everything?”

Because there’s enough real racism and division in the world. And enough hyperbole already without adding more.


  1. Anonymous Anonymous

    I havent watched Avatar, and reading about how its got a simplistic story thats been done numerous times in past, I’m not convinced I should.

    Geek, it would have been better if you tackled the subtext and implications of ‘race’ in this movie, rather than merely pointing out that Cameron didnt set out to make a ‘racist’ movie by referring to his past movies.

    Its blatantly obvious that NO blockbuster movie is overtly racist these days. But there’s much more to the discussion, and perhaps you’re just not perceiving it, which I think is what shegulu is getting at, albiet in a frustrated way.

  2. Anonymous Anonymous

    Can’t figure out what is racist about this movie other than the fact that, as usual, the main human characters are all white … Michelle Rodriguez has a small part, but there could have been other people of color as main human characters to balance the ‘race issue’ … what continues to strike me is the way that producers and directors continue to make projects with few or no people of color and they it never occurs to them that the main characters are all white … that’s the part that seems racist to me … we don’t live in that world any more

  3. @shegelu and others…

    What I said was, in this case, I didn’t think James Cameron made a racist movie. I never denied that racism exists, or that it’s very real and insidious.

    However, in this case and with this movie, I don’t see it. Or, more specifically, I don’t think there was a deliberate attempt to do it by the filmmaker — and there’s been talk of that.

    If this is about the fact that racism is pervasive in our culture and that Cameron was influenced in his choices of character and theme because of them, that’s another story and very possible and a different debate entirely.

    My comment was a direct response to the concept that James Cameron did this intentionally and — in that way — I disagree. Because there’s not a theme in this movie he hasn’t used before and I don’t recall the “racist” comments to movies like Aliens or Terminator.

    Additionally, you could seriously compare Avatar to Ferngully. Sam = Zach. The white guy being put into the fae world and seeing the destruction and looking to stop it from within.

    Believe me when I tell you, I’m touchy about race issues. As a Jew, I’ve been on my own personal side of the issue and I’ve always looked to be sensitive to others as well as call it out when I see it.

    I just don’t in this case.

  4. Yeah yeah yeah, geek girl diva, you have simply restated the “it’s just a movie” argument that people use to defend any type of cultural product, from games to music to movies.

    Not very illuminating contribution to the debate.

  5. Anonymous Anonymous

    “When will people start looking for controversy in everything”, you ask. I’d say that will happen when people realize the subtlety of racial discrimination in every single physical and non physical layer of society. Race pervades everything, want it or not. We have to live with it, but that does not mean ignoring it when there’s is a step back. No one called Cameron a racist – it’s clear that he is not one. Yet, he clearly produced a racist movie. Sorry to disagree with you on this one. Sadly, it seems like a lot of white people are coming out saying that the movie is not racist. It figures.

  6. Anonymous Anonymous

    above coment so true,so many movies show the protagonists as being caucasian,highly brave,greatly desired by women of all races,with this ability of always getting the woman he wants.White privilege seems to limit the capacity of scrutinizing such images and the affect they may have on a Black,Asian,Oriental or “Native Indian” conscience…when i spoke to a friend about the true meaning of the film King Kong,it was only then he understood it was about the Atlantic Slave Trade,and the exploitation and humiliation of those carried to the Americas from Africa…Avatar has many racist undertones,which will just offend my senses

  7. Anonymous Anonymous

    Whether you would like to believe it or not, whether you want to view it as a ‘class’ thing and not a ‘race’ thing, there are undertones of white superhero day-saving in this movie that even a blind man could see. Definitely speaks to the colonial guilt and man’s burden, even when its himself. Evidenced by the fact there is a complete lack of main characters of any other ethnicity (black, Asian, non-blue aboriginal) and an idealized close-to-white hispanic doesnt count, lest we forget the colonial genocide committed by the Conquistadors. Now I’m not surprised to see white people that are IGNORANT to historical fact, like buddy up above me in the comments who feels, and i quote “Why do I get the feeling….I must atone for something I had nothing to do with, that I don’t propagate and was not raised to be. Yea, so, I’m a white man. I wasn’t raised to be anything other than myself”…I can see where this sentiment comes from and maybe its the same place Mr. Cameron’s comes from, but it completely ignores what ‘white privilege’ is in America, including the privilge to say “I don’t see race” or “race isn’t important to me”….to compare the racial undertones in this movie to Spike Lee’s work is irresponsible considering Lee deals with race outright and is unapologetic, and for the main reason that prior to him and directors like him Blacks were often misportrayed or not portrayed at all as protagonists, whereas movies like Avatar use subtlety to address issues of social justice with often questionable intentions….so what is my point? Enjoy the movie if you want, its just entertainment…but don’t discount the feelings of many people of color and Caucasians alike who have seen the subtext of this movie differently than you have….or your White privilege allows you to.

  8. Anonymous Anonymous

    Jenna, the hype buildup for the “ground breaking” film has nothing to do with the script but all to do with the technology used to create the movie. I was fortunate enough to attend a discussion with Jon Landau about the technology used and its very, very ground breaking. So much that directors and producers are lining up to license the technology (including Lucas, Spielberg, etc).

    The way movies are made is going to change, but the scripts will probably still be just the same until someone does some ground breaking in that area.

  9. I totally get what you and Annalee are saying. I get both sides. Here are my two cents. I think this was a noble savage movie. I don’t know if it’s white guilt. I don’t think it’s intentionally racist. Or racist at all. But I feel like the writing was…it was an attempt at a simple story. But sometimes when writers try to be simple, they fall back on things that have been done a thousand times. And this time it was the traditional “native people must be deeply connected to nature and very wise…but not smart enough to know how to defend themselves. They need an outsider to come in and use their religious symbols to show them the way.” My review is here:

    Feel free to hate me. Everyone else already does. ;)

  10. Race IS tricky. I thought it interesting that she made such a big deal about the comparisons to Dances With Wolves, but nothing about the comparisons to Ferngully, which I’ve actually heard a lot more!

    I haven’t seen Avatar yet, so I can’t speak to that movie specifically. But I can speak to the films she compares it to, and in both those cases, it’s more about GOVERNMENT infringing on indigenous people. Have most of the heads of those governments been white? Sure, but not exclusively. Right now, as well as historically, there are wars and rebellions going on that have nothing to do with white people at all. Of course, we don’t HEAR about those, do we? Also, America as villain is made up of more than just white people. We have a national identity that is, in part, a bully. Has nothing to do with race. It is human nature for power to seek out more power at the expense of those who are weaker. Sci-fi speaks out against that in so many great ways, and makes it about all of us.

    What bothers me is that she makes it a point to say that she’s a white writer so that she can make a big production out of calling “her people” out for the racism in their movies. Then she proceeds to talk about how unnecessary White Guilt is. Really? Ya THINK?! :) Seems to me I hear mostly about white guilt from white people who want to wear their guilt like a badge of honor. Guilt is the most self-serving thing there is. It doesn’t help the victims any, and it only makes the problem about the one “suffering” the guilt. So why write film criticism from that place if the point of your critique is to highlight the problems of those victims? Like Hamlet says:

    “‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother
    Nor customary suits of solemn black,
    nor windy suspiration of forc’d breath.
    No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
    nor the dejected havior of the visage,
    together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
    that can denote me truly. These indeed seem,
    for they are actions that a man might play;
    but I have that within which passeth show –
    these but the trappings and suits of woe.”

  11. Lets say we take out the race card from all movies…. how much is left to write movies about? Romance, Money, Kid Comedies, pot / dumb comedy and remakes of movies that don’t have anything to do with race…Pretty fing boring! Then again…even the above subjects have done movies around race. SO…we can all watch stale Prozack kind of movies where everyone gets along and sings Kom ba ya or we can sit back and watch an entertaining movie with kickass graphics. BTW – the movie has a cast full of color – blue, black, white, brown and yellow…what racism?

  12. Why do I get the feeling when I read articles like what Annalee wrote, I must atone for something I had nothing to do with, that I don’t propagate and was not raised to be. Yea, so, I’m a white man. I wasn’t raised to be anything other than myself and to give/show respect to others with decency. Label jars, not people!

    I read reviews like that and it occurs to me articles like her’s perpetuate racism, give it a reason to continue on, and don’t really solve anything.

    I could be wrong and will freely admit that. GeekGirlDiva – You are right on!

  13. I read that post and it did kind of annoy me. I think Annalee’s point was wrong, but not far-fetched.

    In point of fact, if you listen to some of Cameron’s comments about the film, it isn’t about white guilt, it’s about anti-american sentiment. This decade has been filled with Hollywood’s over-arching desire to prove that America is an evil imperialist nation, and this is just another piece of propaganda to that end. It’s not always about race, but sometimes it is about prejudice.

  14. I went back to the source, read and commented there before returning to comment here.

    I’ve not seen the film yet and, not being a slave to the cinema, will probably wait until the film comes out on DVD (or a few months/years later) before viewing it.

    Based on the film’s summary though, it seems less like a racist film and more like one that’s been done time and again. There are a plethora of stories about one particular people seen through the eyes of another. From John Howard Griffin’s classic “Black Like Me” to (of all things), the animated film “Ferngully”, writers and film makers have been telling this story. It’s a story meant to educate the audience rather than to assuage white guilt (for the most part).

    If some folks don’t like it, I suppose they can boycott the film. There are several films and books I’ve avoided on principle over the years.

  15. Thank you. This is exactly how I feel and I wanted to write something up about it but couldn’t find the words. You captured it!!!

  16. Without commenting on either the movie or i09’s article, I think there’s a misconception going on that criticizing certain themes in a movie is the same as saying that no one should enjoy it, and that people who enjoy it are wrong. I don’t think that’s the case. As Pavlina said, it’s possible to do both.

  17. Geo Geo

    I agree with everything you have said, Diva. I think to honestly say that Avatar has subtexts of rascism is an incredibly bold thing to say.

    As I read her post, I began to wonder if the actual story was just written for sensationalism.

    I cannot fathom why a director would spend millions of dollars on a movie just to spark things like this. It’s one of those situations where people are just looking into something way too far. You begin to think like that, and anything could be found to be “rascist”.

  18. i call avatar pocahontas in space. i loved the movie and i think it’s great but my response was why do white men think they own every damn thing? seriously? it pisses me off and movies like this just make me more angry that the history of white men is destroying cultures and raping the land of all its resources. don’t think the movie is white guilt though. many people of all races have come to realize that corporation (which are ran by white men) are inherrently evil. haha.

  19. I *DO NOT* READ i09. The way they often tear down things is offensive to me. They encourage their readers to be mean and cruel against things they do not understand and wish to have made fun of.

    Hour 42 has publicly stated that we do not and will not use i09 as a source and I do not visit their site at all.

  20. Amen. Her views are simply a result of infusing the film with her own existing bias. People see what they want to see, even when it’s not there. Nice post, GGD.

  21. I think the continual denial that race affects almost every facet of our society is the issue. Of course the movie is racist, we still ahve sexist movies out there! Wake up and smell the poo. It’s there. We can stand around and harp about it or we can just shrug, accept reality, and enjoy the movie. Personaly, I am going to enjoy the movie whils acknowledging the racist undertones. Let’s face it, they are in everything else.

    Don’t even get me stated on Spike Lee….

  22. *applause* Thank you for not reading more into the movie than is there. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve read several “Avatar = The Devil” articles, which…honestly confuse me.

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