Dances With Aliens: James Cameron’s Avatar Movie and White “Saviors” (Updated)

In our book Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003) we discussed two types of white hero that often appear in American movies: the white messiah and the racial masquerader. The narcissistic fantasy of the a white hero who leads people of another color in a struggle of liberation presents whites a pleasing images of themselves as saviors rather than oppressors. The racial masquerade is another fantasy solution to white guilt in which the white hero crosses over and pretends to be black or native American.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: gwai

James Cameron’s “Avatar” combines these two archetypes in a movie that might be called Dances With Aliens. What is new in the movie is the eye-popping visual effects technology, with its detailed, stunning creation of an alien planet, complete with exotic flora, fauna, and indigenous population with its own language. But the plot is a pastiche, recycled junk from a dozen movies about the adventures of a mythic white hero in a distant land or on a distant planet, including “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Star Wars,” “Star Gate,” “Dune,” “Pocahontas,” “The Matrix,” “The Last Samurai,” and “Dances With Wolves.” The story is predictable: the coming of the messiah is foretold, he shows tremendous ability and charisma, quickly learns the indigenous ways, marries the beautiful native princess, is inducted into the tribe, and ends by uniting with and leading them in a struggle for survival and freedom against evil outsiders. The white American racial imagination seems to require such stories.

On the one hand,Avatar” sends numerous positive messages to an American and a global audience: it is pro-environment, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and pro-gender equality. It also mercilessly mocks the rhetoric of the George W. Bush administration about “pre-emptive strikes” and “shock and awe” and the use of mercenary armies such as Black water. On the other hand, these messages provide cover for a regressive myth about a white messiah and the noble savages—a white messiah who is reborn as the noblest savage of them all, as in The Last Samurai, Dances With Wolves, and the other movies mentioned above.

In Avatar,” we have the paradox of the most expensive movie ever made, American corporations investing $230 million plus another $150 million on promotion to disseminate an apparently anti-corporate and anti-white American message. Why? Well, first of all, the formula still works: this visually astonishing action-adventure fantasy will be enormously profitable globally through cinema, video game, and numerous ancillary products. Second, it assuages the guilt of a white American audience about what we continue to do to racial and ethnic minorities here and abroad. And third, it reassures the global audience about the morality of white America, which can criticize and confront its own evils, at least in the movies.

Finally, Avatar” is a racial fantasy for the Age of Obama. Like Obama, the protagonist Jake is racially mixed: although he starts out as white guy, he ends up inhabiting the body of an aboriginal on an alien planet. And like Obama, Jake is accused of being anti-capitalist and anti-white. Yet the movie is a supremely capitalist product which resolves white guilt. It does so by dividing whites into two sides: the maniacal white mercenaries who destroy the environment and kill the native population on behalf of the greedy corporations; and the noble white messiah who goes native and leads the tribes in a successful battle to preserve their land and their way of life against the evil whites. This movie is supposedly set on the distant planet Pandora, but it really takes place close to home, for it opens up the Pandora’s box of the American racial unconscious.

Updated by admin 01/11/2010: Looks like David Brooks, NY Times columnist, has been reading here and drawing heavily on the same ideas.  Would be nice to get a link back from the NY Times, eh Mr. Brooks?