Addressing Na’vi, Avatar and Racism: White Savior in Blueface

Both my husband and I left the press screening for “Avatar: The Way of Water” feeling we had seen another White savior film and that was before the call for a boycott was made. I chose to address issues of sexism in my original review, but let’s look at what’s happening in terms of racism.

The accusations seem to be focused on two articles about James Cameron:

“I felt like I was 130 years back in time watching what the Lakota Sioux might have been saying at a point when they were being pushed and they were being killed and they were being asked to displace and they were being given some form of compensation,” he said. “This was a driving force for me in the writing of Avatar – I couldn’t help but think that if they [the Lakota Sioux] had had a time-window and they could see the future… and they could see their kids committing suicide at the highest suicide rates in the nation… because they were hopeless and they were a dead-end society – which is what is happening now – they would have fought a lot harder.”

“Avatar is a science fiction retelling of the history of North and South America in the early colonial period,” director James Cameron stated in his legal declaration after he faced lawsuits alleging he stole the idea for “Avatar” from existing films and TV shows.

“Avatar very pointedly made reference to the colonial period in the Americas, with all its conflict and bloodshed between the military aggressors from Europe and the indigenous peoples. Europe equals Earth. The native Americans are the Na’vi. It’s not meant to be subtle,” Cameron said.

The first film, “Avatar,” is about a paraplegic White former US Marine (Semper Fi), who is able to take over a hybrid Na’vi-human, an avatar, made from identical DNA (from his recently deceased identical twin brother). Finding himself on the wrong side of this ecological war where a scarce mineral (unobtanium) is brutally mined without any ecological impact studies.

White Savior 

In M.W. Hughey’s “The White Savior Film: Content, Critics, and Consumption,” the White savior is defined as “messianic characters in unfamiliar or hostile settings discovering something about themselves and their culture in the process of saving members of other races from terrible fates.” Hughey includes “The Blind Side, “Dances with Wolves” and “The Last Samurai” in this genre as well as the 2009 “Avatar.” He does not mention Tarzan or Allan Quatermain.

Jason Hellerman (5 March 2019) wrote in his essay, “How to Avoid the ‘White Savior Trope’ in your Writing”:

A ‘White Savior’ movie is a movie where the story is about a white character stepping in to help a person or people of color from their struggles. While a lot of these stories are period pieces used to talk about racism, some of them are contemporary stories meant to be about deeper understanding, but actually, enforce whiteness as a sort of “Messiah” to a class considered to be an “Other.” Often, these saviors lead people of color against white antagonists, proving that they never could achieve their goals without a white person’s help.

James Cameron has said that he was inspired by H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Was ERB’s Tarzan and John Carter based on racism? That’s still open to debate.

Looking at the name of the websites, you know this is written by a ERB fan. But in 2016, Rebecca Keegan for the LA Times asked: “Can you make a non-racist Tarzan movie?

Tarzan can be seen as superior both due to class (as a product of the British aristocracy) and race. Rider Haggard developed the Lost World genre, but these were great civilizations created by White or a light-skinned race.

An enthusiastic review of the 1887 “Allan Quatermain” admits:

Incredibly racist, unbearably sexist, politically incorrect and as historically inaccurate as it is possible to be. This is one of the best Victorian novels that you could ever want to read. Why? Because it is fun! Of course, the racism and sexism can grate against the modern ear, but this was what Victorians were like. We may not approve, but we can’t change it. It’s an essential aspect of the Victorian character. If you can accept these flaws for what they are then you can enjoy an immensly exciting and well crafted story.

Is Jake Sully a White Savior?

As portrayed by Sam Worthington, Jake Sully is White. Jake Sully’s brother had an interest in science and mathematics, but that would not necessarily translate into being socially adept or being amazingly skilled at learning new languages. Language learning is a particular skill. Because of his brother Tom’s untimely death, Jake takes his place because he is a DNA match to the hybrid avatar.

Yet, there is no sign from Jake’s past that suggests he would have such linguistic skills or special skills with animals.  These are not set up in the first film. Riding an animal is not a natural skill encoded in the DNA of the noble savage. Neither is speaking a specific language.  Language is an important sign of superiority, something that was characterized in Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim.” Kipling also wrote “The White Man’s Burden.” That poem was specifically to encourage the US to takeover and guide the Filipinos as an act of imperialism known as Manifest Destiny.

Jake does come into a new Na’vi culture and he does something exceptional:  He becomes the sixth Toruk Makto although none of the current clan members have achieved that. According to the Avatar wiki, Jake is one of six over thousands of years of history. Thus he proves he is superior to all the clan members. This is despite having so little experience with even the Ikran.

Supposedly a Na’vi  bonds with one Ikran for life and yet we don’t really see any personality differentiation of the Ikran. We don’t really see any individualization except amongst the Na’vi and the humans. So the actual bond between the Na’vi and the Ikran or the Toruk isn’t really important to the story. They are just cool rides.

Jake Sully does lead the Na’vi into battle and, inexplicably, the Pandora animals come to their aid so the Na’vi are able to drive the Resources Development Administration out of Pandora.

In “Avatar: The Way of Water,” Jake is now the leader of his clan. As a former human, he also has a special relationship with the humans who were allowed to stay. As a target of the Recon Na’vi created with the memories of his nemesis (Quaritch) from the last film, Jake and his family leave their clan and ask for hospitality from a reef Na’vi clan. Yet he also quickly masters the ways of the reef people as do his children (e.g. learning to ride the Ilu and the Tsurak). Anyone who has ridden a horse will have so many questions about this and anyone who works with animals as a team will, too. This is where the world-building of Pandora really fails. Even in Westerns, certain heroes had horses that we knew: Roy Rogers’ Trigger, the Lone Ranger’s Silver and Toto’s Scout.  Or maybe I’ve been watching too much “How to Train Your Dragon.”

Among the reef Na’vi, Jake’s second son, the one who has definitive physical attributes that marks him as part human who is able to make contact with the whale-like creatures (Tulkun)  like the reef Na’vi. These animals are given special attributes unlike the Ikran and the Toruk or the newly introduced Ilu and Tsurak. Further Jake Sully’s adoptive daughter, Kiri (biological daughter of Grace Augustine’s avatar body), who is thus also part human, has the ability to communicate with the sea animals in a way the reef people do not.

Jake and his family battle the humans led by the bad Recom Na’vi and the reef Na’vi are not an important part of the final battle.  So, let’s be clear: Jake Sully, Grace Augustine and Quaritch are played by White people and thus their DNA is that of White people. These are White people augmented by blue humanoid DNA.

The reef Na’vi (and their Tulkun) also have tattoos that visually remind one of the Māori and other Pacific Islander cultures. So we’ve gone from Native Americans to Pacific Islanders. When the reef Na’vi are threatened by the humans and their Recon Na’vi, Jake and his family save them. And that’s because the focus is on Jake as the leader of strikes against the invading humans and this narrative hasn’t allowed a Na’vi to rise and be a leader like Sitting Bull (Hunkpapa Lakota), Crazy Horse (Oglala) or Geronimo (Apache).



The tweets of @asdza_tlehonaei are now protected and “Only approved followers can see @asdza_tlehonaei’s Tweets.” That’s unfortunate. 29 December 2022.



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