Avatar: The White Savior
Updated: Dec 16, 2022
Spoilers below, if you haven’t seen the film, this might save you some time.
In the early 2000s, there was confusion between the Avatars. And the Duggans were no exception.
On a day spent with family friends, the two kids of the other family asked, “have you ever seen Avatar?” My sister and I yelled with glee, “ well, duh, we love it.” The four of us ran to the living room, asking our four parents if we could watch Avatar.
They said no.
In our kid realm, there was only one Avatar, and he was the last Avatar (Avatar: The Last Airbender 2005-2008). The adults knew solely of the other Avatar...with the white savior complex. (How the two sets of parents didn’t realize that their children had already seen the show is beyond me. And the only reason they found out is that they were in the room with the tv.)
Today, we won’t be talking about the progressive life lesson that The Last Airbender teaches kids, but the three-time Oscar-winning, six-time nominated—including best picture—Avatar (2009).
The general plot is that (mostly) white Americans have gone to another moon, Pandora, to steal the moon’s valuable metal, unobtanium. In addition to a capitalistic and military mission, there is a scientific quest. Where scientists are learning about the moon, ecosphere, and the culture of the lifeforms that inhabit the region.
But, the only way to explore the new world is through soulless replicas of these lifeforms. These imitations are biologically designed for a specific scientist by incorporating the alien chemical structure with human DNA; these are the avatars. Unfortunately, the film greatly mirrors the actions, beliefs, and colloquialisms of colonial America, re-engaging centuries-old racism.
Firstly, hidden under the thinly veiled metaphor of aliens, the lifeform of Pandora, The Na’vi, is an exaggerated example between white people and people of color, specifically Black and Native Americans. In the film, many of the white military divisions use derogatory language towards the Na’vi people, such as blues, savages, and hostiles.
US history is full of examples of where US colonizers referred to Native Americans as “uncivilized” and “savages”. Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), a powerful suit on Pandora, refers to the Na’vi as “blue savages,” “blue monkeys,” and “fly-bitten savages that live in a tree.” These derogatory terms can be compared to white people calling Black people savages or the usage of the N-word. These actions draw a clear parallel to US history, where colonizers refused to see the importance of other cultures, especially to those of the original inhabitants, and actively decimated those cultures.
When Parker mocks that the Na’vi live in a tree, he belittles the historical aspects of the Omaticaya Clan (the focal tribe of the Na’vi in the film), as they have lived in the specific Hometree for 10,000 years. Reality had a similar path as up “until 1935, the traditional (non-Christian) religions of the American [Natives] were banned outright…and [Native] people practicing their religious beliefs could be fined and sent to prison.” This is just one of the undoubtedly countless instances in US history where white people spiritually hindered Native Americans.
In addition, the concept of avatars is a technologically savvy version of blackface. White scientists insert their consciousness into a replica of another lifeform and pretend to live similarly to the Na’vi, but when their avatar falls asleep, they wake up as the privileged oppressors they truly are. Blackface is 200 years old, and the “costume” people put on cites a harmful and derogatory history, and avatars are at the start of such a concept on Pandora.
Ultimately, in the storytelling/entertainment world, there is a saying, “don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story,” in turn, Avatar capitalizes on the gruesome historical truth of the US and dramatizes it by producing a racist film under the cover of CGI and science fiction.
In addition to the racism within the film, white saviorism traits are deeply ingrained within the actions and concepts of the film. White savior tropes in film derive from
“the White Savior Industrial Complex….[it] is much more [than] doing good work [and] ‘making a difference.’ There is the principle of ‘First do no harm.’ There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.”
The Na’vi community is no exception to this rule. While the human protagonist, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), eventually wants to help the Na’vi and do good work, he breaks the first principle of “first do no harm” and never consults or speaks to the leaders of the Omaticaya Clan about the human’s plans. He acts as a double agent by aiding the Americans while it suits him, but never truly supporting the Na’vi and revealing the unobtanium under their Hometree, leading the humans to attack.
Jake’s faux allyship with the Na’vi assists in the downfall of the Hometree and the Omaticaya Clan. While Jake helps the Na’vi in their semi-victorious win, it doesn’t negate the fact that he collaborated with the people responsible for the declaration of war and the death of countless native lifeforms on Pandora (animals and the Na’vi).
The film also supports white savior tropes through the narrative lens, as it was produced from a white human perspective. If the Na’vi were the protagonists or narrators, the film would allow for critical commentary on race relations. A white narrator is a trope amongst white savior films, shown in The Help (2011), Green Book (2018), and my personal favorite, The Blind Side (2009).
However, after the main white savior (aka Jake) begins to earn the trust of the Omaticaya Clan, he molds the situation to his advantage, taking the information he learns as an avatar to the military. This continual betrayal throughout the film allows for a military strike against the Na’vi people, and in return, Jake is promised a life-changing surgery to repair his spine allowing him to human form to walk again––spoiler alert: this procedure does not happen.
Despite white savior tropes and the integration of colonialistic racism, why are there four more Avatar films coming out over a decade after the first? And if reboots weren’t so lucrative, Avatar wouldn’t have these sequels in the works.
In order for them to last in this woke society we live in, the new films can no longer exhibit colonialistic racism that we do not see or experience today, as racism has evolved. Incorporating such action globally reenters ideas, terminology, and behavior in society when people look, act, and think differently from the white norm.
The films must uproot these large concepts and themes, and if you are a powerful figure in the creation of the new Avatar films, I have some ideas. Hint: start with the title (Avatar → the Na’vi).
In order to be more inclusive, I will begin to include the sources used at the bottom for easy screenreader usage.
Sources in order of usage: