Have you seen Avatar 3D? It’s definitely kinda awesome — incredible technical breakthroughs, good acting, interesting and moving story. It’s like a great amusement park ride or seeing Cirque du Soleil for the first time — especially the first hour or so.

Yet, when I walked away from the dazzling special effects, I had some serious problems with the latter-day & dated hippie politics James Cameron portrays. Avatar has been described as Dances with Aliens, Pocahontas in Space, etc.

I’d go further than that. Cameron’s message is naive at best, racially divisive and dead-wrong on how we should approach environmental protection going forward at worst. I’m about to get down into it, y’all, but for those of you who haven’t see Avatar yet, there are some spoilers ahead. This is written for those who have seen the movie. So if you don’t want to talk about messed-up white boomer guilt and how it influences Avatar and now global culture unhelpfully (at least until after you’ve seen the movie), then DON’T follow me after the jump! I’m about to give the “King of the World” a pipin’ hot piece of my mind.

Ok, so there’s a lot going on in Avatar, no? America outsourced war to Blackwater & Halliburton in Iraq & Afghanistan with mostly disastrous results. In Avatar, we’ve done the same thing only with space exploration and intergalactic strip mining. Fun!

Avatar plays with the ghosts of our most recent & unsuccessful military adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan & Vietnam effectively, I think. It’s tough to see Americans ultimately as the bad guys, a current theme in movies right now. The world’s policeman, a global good cop? That doesn’t fly too far anymore it seems.

Where Avatar really goes off the reservation (ahem, so to speak) begins with the racial politics and ends with Cameron’s notion of environmental justice. So the movie basically sets up a race of 12 foot blue people with yellow eyes who appear to be played primarily by scantily-clad black people imitating aspects of Native American culture, including Zoe Saldana (Uhuru from the new Star Trek movie), CCH Pounder and Laz Alonso. (Ok, of course there’s a token Indian in the cast: Wes Studi of Dances with Wolves). There aren’t any leading black characters on the other side of course. Because that’s mostly a bunch of misguided and/or evil white people obsessed with their techie toys and their greed for “unobtanium” (dude, Cameron – could you be more obvious?) which stands in for our contemporary desperation for Oil. The Halliburton guys call the Pandoran natives “blue monkeys” which is, I suppose, a foil for “sand niggers”.

In contrast, the black/Indian people have a mystical and even physical connection to their planet Pandora, which includes having some kind of braid sex with the plants and animals there. They are low tech, preferring a live-off-the-land warrior ethos over a lifestyle powered by science & technology. The movie has a back-to-Eden feel where the main character is seduced by the alternative relationship he experiences living in community and in nature. Like most Native American nations, the Pandorans call themselves in their language simply “The People”.

This is a movie, though. A blockbuster, even. So at some point there’s gotta be some conflict, some shooting, some shock and awe because that’s the only way to hold our tiny attention spans, right?

Blue people get hurt and so do a lot of trees.

What happens is that the people of color like Michelle Rodriguez defect to the side of not killing the blue people and so do just a few of the the more enlightened white geeks living in blue bodies. The movie sets up a contest between science and white people’s ways vs. nature and the ways of indigenous people. The choices put to the audience are — root for people who live the way we do, high tech machine might & industrial progress. Or champion the simple life of the people of (blue) color and the planet of Pandora. Only one side can win. And Cameron eventually makes it really obvious which side he’d prefer that you be on.

However, I ain’t buying what Cameron is selling. Sure, I’m against the pattern of modern history wherein indigenous cultures here in America and in other nations like Brazil are pushed aside violently and natural wonders destroyed all for short term profits. It’s awful to see government turn the other way or actively participate in profit-driven genocide and nature rape. If you really want a lesson in how bad it’s been here, I suggest you read up on the Trail of Tears which was the removal of the Cherokee from their lands by the U.S. government and the genocidal maniac on our $20 bills, Andrew Jackson.

Look, my grandmother was half-Cherokee and I’ve got a couple of other Indian ancestors as well. That’s not uncommon among African-Americans actually. But James Cameron, let me be clear. I do NOT want to move back to the woods. I like the internet. I love my new Kindle. What I want is for my Kindle & my computer to not be filled with toxic materials that will poison the earth once they’re in a landfill.

Cameron sets up a false dichotomy. It is unrealistic to believe that we can heal, restore and protect the planet at this juncture without the very best science guiding us. We must move away as a world from the premise that progress and a better standard of living comes at the cost of the health & beauty of our planet. If we can re-infuse our human instinct for discovery & creation with a love and respect for our environment and all the people who live on this planet, even those that look different from us — this is the answer.

There are other “senior” moments in the film — like why doesn’t Jake Sully have a GPS grain embedded under his Avatar’s skin? He should be pretty easy to find in the dark. And why with all this technology do the Avatars not have cell phones they can use in the jungle? Does Cameron just not actually understand how modern technology works??? I think so. That’s another post though.

The bottom line: Cameron’s perspective is outdated. Totally unhelpful and out of step with modernity. His racial politics are tired. Why are there no black scientists among the Earth team? Hasn’t Cameron heard that the head of NASA, Charles Bolden, is a brother AND a former astronaut? Native Americans, blue or otherwise, or even Asian Americans are mighty hard to find in Avatar. White People vs. People of Color = boring. The original Star Trek was more cutting-edge, forward-looking and international in scope = like 40 years ago now. The Matrix was much more interesting in its racial politics as was the original Star Wars trilogy.

The director is tone-deaf religiously speaking — the concept of an avatar is based in the Hindu religion and was borrowed as a techie term. Shame on Cameron for just skipping past the larger meaning of that word entirely – which was a choice given all the other heavy metaphor and symbolism in the film. Unless he was trying to go there with the blueness of the people. Awkward!

Finally, Cameron’s ecojustice politics are also just — late. Lose the white guilt, boomers. Yes, what happened was bad. Some white people have done some bad, bad things back in the day. Let’s look forward to how we can work together on real solutions.

I recommend checking out 2 other movies for a more mature, sophisticated and interesting perspective. One is Princess Mononoke, a film from which Avatar bites — a lot. It’s an anime film that came out a few years ago that remains one of the most popular films ever in Japan. I challenge you to walk away from that movie unmoved and unchanged. And thinking differently about our future as a planet.

The other is Invictus which talks about the violence and bloodshed of the past while showing the way in which we can bridge fear & suspicion to reach greater heights together. South Africa’s peaceful transformation is incredibly inspiring. Clint Eastwood does a really good job of showing how that happened not only on a national scale but how important the individual, human level was. While Nelson Mandela was a big part of that national transformation, the change in the hearts and minds of whites there was amazing to watch. It took a rainbow of people in South Africa agreeing to try to live together as one nation — black, white, Asian and more — to make it work without violence.

We can do this globally but it starts with each person deciding to see things — and do things differently. I’d like to see Cameron take his considerable talents and focus less on the past. The future will be designed by us, you and me. Let’s make it a bright one and use all the tools at our disposal. Cuz it’s gonna take more than a bunch of bows & arrows to make things right.

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