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Avatar’s undertones go back a long way

I’m glad that the 3D blockbuster Avatar is being taken to task over its’ rehashed storyline about a white hero rescuing an ethnic community.

By Lester Holloway

The website Screen Crave reports: “There are some obvious racial undertones in the film, and you can’t ignore them no matter how pretty you paint the picture.”

The same site quotes Annalee Newitz, editor-in-chief of the sci-fi Web site io9.com as saying: “Main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color … (then) go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed,” she wrote. When will whites stop making these movies and start thinking about race in a new way?”

Parallels with other sci-fi film District 9 have also been made. Having seen both films, I tend to agree. But it’s not a recent phenomenon – concept of the white hero goes back a long way.

These films take their cue from the likes of the much-lauded Mississippi Burning, which cares about the horror of Deep South racism, but can only tell the story by revolving around a lawyer, played by Willem Dafoe.

Amistad was not about enslaved Africans freeing themselves, but the good deeds of characters played by Matthew McConaughey and Stellan Skarsgard, fighting the system on their behalf.

Both Amistad and Mississippi Burning are themselves descendents of 1960s and 70s films depicting scenes such as white explorers before impressing the natives by proving better at their own cultural dancing that the warriors that have captured them.

There are remarkable similarities between the two recent flicks. In District 9, a white policeman sent to move aliens from their home inadvertently turns into alien and realises error of his ways by seeking to protect other aliens by helping them escape.

Whereas in Avatar, a white soldier sent to move giant blue natives from their home by going undercover living in their body realises error of his ways by seeking to protect them from attack.

Both movies are underpinned by well-meaning morals, and a sympathy with the underdog. But they are both undermined by the reliance on the white man as the pivotal agent needed to help aliens / natives in the face of imperial force.

What we observe, looking at this slice of celluloid history, is an unbroken chain of narrative that says ‘the white man is able to help because he is both good of heart and is equipped with superior skills.’

While the storylines themselves have improved through the decades, these basic underlining assumptions have not. So even while District 9, set in South Africa, speaks against the oppression and inhumanity of apartheid rule; and Avatar borrows from the plight of Native Americans, we must not let the right-on overtones blind us to more worrying undertones.

That is why I, for one, cannot wait for Danny Glover to finish his biopic of Haitian rebel leader Toussaint L’Ouverture. One of the greatest ever stories, L’Ouverture’s fight for self-determination involved no white emancipators or rescuers, but was a battle by the enslaved to win freedom by themselves, on their own terms.

His victory inspired enslaved Africans across the Caribbean – including the Maroons in Jamaica – and those in America, to rebel against their oppressors. Hollywood wouldn’t fund the project despite Glover signing up a glittering cast, presumably because it didn’t have any white heroes. But, thanks to a cash injection from Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, it might just make it onto the silver screen.

After the Avatar’s of this world, what a breath of fresh air L’Ouverture promises to be.


2 Responses

  1. I’m so glad I came across this article. At least I wasn’t the only one who noticed the “Africanisation” of the “aliens” and the parallels with District 9.

    On the flipside, Avatar’s overarching narrative was clearly anti-America and thus was implicitly supportive of said “aliens” the world over, whomever they happen to be.

  2. I am a English pastor but the church I am part of is one of the Redeeemed Christian Church of God in London (a pan African/Nigerian denomination). I am also studying a degree in film, radio and tv. I would agree that the article is very accurate in it’s portrayal. Hollywood is run by white people. Though it was essentially started by european immigrants. Holllywood has also come along way since that rather horrendous film Birth of a Nation. Hollywood has always been better at sanatizing stories than being an agent for change. But what Lester appears to be advocating here is for some kind of black ‘Moses’. In that case it’s a different kind of story that needs to come about in addition to Avatar and District 9 (which many Nigerians were uneasy about). ‘He who plays the piper calls the tune’. My own dream is to see the realisation of a film on the life of John Newton (the ex-slave trader and writer of Amazing Grace), but it appears by doing so I too will inevitably suffer the wrath of Lester. The way that this was got round in the early film era was for black film companies to be set up. But you don’t seem to have much of that any more now – except possibly Nollywood. On the brighter side, many young people in my church are taking courses and degree programmes in film and media, so there is plenty of room for hope for the future.

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