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Movie Musings on Avatar & Non-Racist Films - Synchronicity swirls and other foolishness

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December 18th, 2009


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01:44 pm - Movie Musings on Avatar & Non-Racist Films
I’ve been hearing a great deal about James Cameron’s new film Avatar, it looks visually stunning, but I’m going to wait to see it in a second run theater, because it’s also clearly very disappointing. I looked up various spoilers (the Wikipedia entry on it is full of them) and it is sadly exactly like I expected – The heroic young white guy saves the day, gives rousing speeches to organize & motivate the noble savages, and leads them to victory. In short, yet another Mighty Whitey. Young white man sees massive injustice and oppression, understands the plight of the oppressed and decides to "take-a-stand" was a fine plot for the mid 1970s. Dennis O'Neil did an excellent job with this in his early 1970 Green Lantern/Green Arrow team-up comics. You could even make a case for such a plot being important in the mid 1980s. However, it’s now almost 2010, and that trope is getting pretty darn tired and offensive. The locals can not only not save themselves without help, but the mighty white guy ends up as their leader, because he’s simply better at it then their own people.

So, does this mean that if you’ve making racially sensitive films you can’t have cool action films with wonderful special effects? Not just no, but hell no! Here are two ideas that came swiftly to mind as to how you could make Avatar both a better film and one that avoided this same tired & offensive cliché.

The first idea is to take inspiration from King Mongkut, of Thailand, the Zulu leader, Shaka, Japanese Admiral Heihachiro Togo, and other third world leaders who were victorious over westerners in diplomacy or war. So, you have our white hero going out in his cool new vat-grown body to see the locals, and he encounters a brilliant native leader who either already realizes that the humans are a threat, or talks to our hero and understands what’s at stake. This leader then recruits the protagonist, learns a great deal about the weaknesses of the human’s technology, and is a heroic general who defeats the humans, with invaluable help from our hero. You could even make this leader the alien romantic lead, who first gets close to the protagonist in order to get information from him, and then falls in love with him. Sappy, silly, rocking cool, and most definitely not mighty whitey.

Alternately, you could keep the focus on the protagonist. Make the protagonist a person of color and make it clear that there’s still racial discrimination in the future. So, the protagonist is recruited to run an avatar body, but he’s also discriminated against, and when he meets the aliens, he sees the threat to them and understands how his own oppression and the threat to the Pandorans has a common source – the oppressive and racist military industrial complex. This is inherently a more complex film than either the actual movie or my first suggestion and recalls Malcolm X and various other people of color who became radicalized. This would be a touchy film in the current political climate, since an obvious analog would be first world Muslims who become radicalized because of their experiences with personal oppression and their observations of wars against Muslim nations, which might make this film impossible to get made in Hollywood, but would be awesome if it was.

However, while the “Malcolm X” option would be touchy, the “Shaka” option would not, and I’d love to see films like either of those, instead of what was actually made.
Current Mood: busybusy

(23 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:heron61
Date:December 18th, 2009 10:21 pm (UTC)
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Ah, you are indeed correct. Thanks.
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From:silverback2001
Date:December 18th, 2009 10:07 pm (UTC)
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I understand that you aren't happy with the movie plot, but could you please put spoilers behind a cut for those of us who had been trying to avoid finding out what the movie is actually about before we go see it? When you hyperlink "mighty whitey" and things like that, the color of the text makes it jump out, so my eyes were drawn to that area and I was basically unable to avoid it.
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From:heron61
Date:December 18th, 2009 10:20 pm (UTC)
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I'm sorry but also a bit confused. I didn't put anything in my comments that isn't quite clear from the trailers.
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From:teaotter
Date:December 18th, 2009 10:41 pm (UTC)
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Some people don't watch the trailers/commercials, and some people watch the trailers but don't want to be certain about their interpretation of the trailers. You basically say that you've checked the spoilers and your interpretation of the trailers is the correct one.

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From:krinndnz
Date:December 18th, 2009 11:18 pm (UTC)
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I am totally with you on this. There was also a decent Io9 article about this angle - it pointed out that Hollywood isn't particularly innovative as such, it just tends to reflect the prevailing preoccupations of the culture that produces it. White culture. Which is slowly growing up.
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From:sara_super_id
Date:December 19th, 2009 01:29 am (UTC)
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My very least favorite genre is this: White guy teaches poor dumb black children X (x=anything, but most especially sports) followed closely by White Woman teaches poor dumb black children X.

I agree with you that it was common in the 70's, but it was huge in the 90's too.

One movie I like that tipped this on its head and was really awesome was sister act 2 where awesome black woman comes and teaches rebellious black children to sing where tight ass white women had failed previously. Too bad it is a sequel, because those get less love, but seriously, it is a life saver for those of us still reeling from the mighty whitey excesses of hollywood. (Sister Act 1 is even better because black woman and white women help each other out equally and save the day together in a very cool and endearing way)
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From:rhiannasilel
Date:December 19th, 2009 04:12 am (UTC)
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I haven't read enough about the movie or seen enough of the spoilers to make a definitive judgment but I believe that the whole race thing is a distraction from the real problem which is class. Poor is poor is poor and when we fall for the hype that a poor white man is somehow better off than a poor black man who is better off than a poor latino, etc., etc., then we miss the bigger picture which is that we're all pretty much being screwed by the upper class elite and we'd all be better off teaming up together against them rather than fighting for scraps on the bottom.

Lenin, Malcolm X, and Castro all realized this and I think they were all equally great leaders in their own right. Imagine how much greater they could have been if they had all worked together. I do realize that was an impossibility for Lenin given how much older he was than the other two, but imagine if they could have teamed up? I think we'd have a very different world.

I guess my real point is that race is a tool for distraction and as long as we allow it to be it will continue to have such an ugly effect on our society and continue to oppress minorities and divide the lower classes when we should be standing together the most.
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From:teaotter
Date:December 19th, 2009 04:36 am (UTC)
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I disagree with you almost entirely on the question of race -- but I agree that the US needs to stop treating its poor like garbage.
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From:drainboy
Date:December 19th, 2009 10:56 am (UTC)
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Are you saying that poor white people are better off than poor non-white people in America? Sorry to press you on an issue you obviously chose not to expound on in your reply, but I'm wondering why this is? Is it because poor white kids do better in school (the opposite of the UK so it seem: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2009/nov/19/sats-white-boys-test-results) or poor white kids are discriminated against less and are thus more upwardly mobile (which may or may not be true over here, I can't google anything useful) or something else entirely?
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From:teaotter
Date:December 19th, 2009 07:47 pm (UTC)
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Mostly, I disagree with this statement: the whole race thing is a distraction from the real problem which is class.

I believe that racism is a real and important problem in its own right, and that subsuming it into the issues of class ignores the experience of systemic oppression that people of color in the US experience on a daily basis.

(And yes, I'm only talking about the US. My knowledge of racial issues in other countries is spotty at best.)
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From:drainboy
Date:December 21st, 2009 10:05 am (UTC)
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Thanks for the explanation. I do find myself continually surprised by the level to which racism still exists in the US. Not that it's completely disappeared here by any stretch of the imagination, but I can't imagine there being anywhere near as much fuss if we had a non-white head of state (I hope/imagine the fact we haven't is more down to our demographics than anything else)
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From:heron61
Date:December 19th, 2009 09:46 pm (UTC)
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In the US at least, non-white people face systematic discrimination that poor white people don't. They are more likely to be arrested, less likely to be hired (there was even a recent study where job applications from people with "black-sounding" names were more likely to be rejected, even if the potential employer had no idea about the person's actual race.

Also, there's a good bit of evidence that the stress of enduring racism in the US is responsible for the disproportionate number of black people in the US who suffer various health problems.

Yes, poverty and oppression of the poor is a very serious problem. However, the situation is worse if you're non-white, and especially if you're black, and even middle class non-white people experience problems that white people don't (an obvious example being what happened with Dr. Henry Gates and the police over the summer).
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From:rhiannasilel
Date:December 19th, 2009 05:41 pm (UTC)
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I'm thinking more on a global level as opposed to a national level. Consider the treatment of the Scots and the Irish by the English, for example. To this day, they are very much an oppressed minority and all of them are ethnically "white". Scotland has oil yet their oil proceeds go to carry and support a good portion of the United Kingdom. If that money were to stay in Scotland it would make them a very rich country, indeed.

Even here in the US it wasn't that long ago that the Irish were treated as second class citizens and it was more likely for an African American to get a job than an Irishman fresh off the boat from Ireland. This divide was exploited by the rich to keep both the Irish and the African Americans under control. If you set them to fight against one another they wouldn't pay attention to the poor living conditions and treatment that both were receiving.

They've continued this tradition in exploiting a division between Latin Americans, African Americans and Caucasians. The result is the same -- violence, racism, and lack of understanding between all of the races.
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From:rjgrady
Date:February 8th, 2010 05:54 pm (UTC)
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Irish didn't really become "white" until after WWI, and Italians and Jews until after WWII.
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From:kitten_goddess
Date:December 19th, 2009 12:52 pm (UTC)
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Some poor latinos may not speak English as s first language, so these people would be worse off than poor native-born white or black Americans, whose first language is English.

I agree with you, but am just pointing out a difficulty that some people face while others do not.
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From:rhiannasilel
Date:December 19th, 2009 05:45 pm (UTC)
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I don't believe that the Latinos should have to speak English. English was forced upon the Irish, Scots, and Welsh in much the same way that many Americans are trying to force English on the Latinos.

In any case, many of the Latino churches and community centers also offer ESOL courses for free so they do have opportunities to learn English should they choose to. In my own community, I also see a lot of the old tradition where the children learn English and teach the language to their parents. This has been going on since immigrants first came to the US and seems to be a continuing tradition now.
From:5eh
Date:December 19th, 2009 05:01 am (UTC)
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I didn't think about it much. I just saw one trailer and was like, "Uh, no. Every cliche/stereotype in the book in a two minute reel = bad."

James Cameron is not a god/god. James Cameron likes to thumb his nose at his audience. James Cameron is an asshole who gets paid A Lot of Money. If James Cameron feels so terrible about injustice in the world, James Cameron can use his millions of dollars to help people out, not spoon feed us generic pap and proclaim his own brilliance.

I'm not bitter, much. (Forced to watch Titanic *shudder*)
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From:kitten_goddess
Date:December 19th, 2009 12:54 pm (UTC)
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@5eh:

I once dated a guy who was really into Titanic. My favorite part of the movie: The moment where Leonardo Di Caprio's character drowned, so I had to suffer less bad acting from then on.
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From:merovingian
Date:December 31st, 2009 01:38 am (UTC)
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Just saw it last night. The movie was visually stunning, but, yes, a Mighty Whitey movie with some tiresome race cliches.

One thing though:

Make the protagonist a person of color and make it clear that there’s still racial discrimination in the future. So, the protagonist is recruited to run an avatar body, but he’s also discriminated against, and when he meets the aliens, he sees the threat to them and understands how his own oppression and the threat to the Pandorans has a common source – the oppressive and racist military industrial complex.

Avatar almost kinda does this. The lead character is disabled and does suffer very visible discrimination for it. (This happens in the first 2 minutes, so I don't think it's too much of a spoiler.)

Not the same, but similar.
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From:rjgrady
Date:February 8th, 2010 05:52 pm (UTC)
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Wounded war vets are not disabled minorities, they are heroes. He suffered about the same level of discrimnation you would face if he had red hair and someone called him Red.
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From:merovingian
Date:February 9th, 2010 01:50 am (UTC)
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>Wounded war vets are not disabled minorities...

I'm sure you don't mean that how that sounded.

But I do take your point.
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From:tlttlotd
Date:February 15th, 2010 06:16 am (UTC)
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Wounded war vets are not disabled minorities, they are heroes.

Then let's see them treated that way.

Go to Whitman-Walker and talk to a few of the vets who have to get treatment there.

Go to Walter Reed, where there is black mold growing in the walls and another four years to go on the six year remediation timetable.

Or leaking sewer lines running over top of surgical theatres. Or the ants, earwigs, and roaches breeding like mad in the walls of the wards. Or physicians who were more worried about their wireless net.access than their patients. Or the contractors who don't give two shits about anything but their 401k's.

Or the enlisted servicemen and servicewomen with head and spinal injuries who still have to show up for sick roll and inspection when they can barely stand.

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