In James Cameron's Avatar, a white human is turned into a blue Na'vi, the inhabitants of a far-off moon. He eventually turns against the human invaders, becoming the leader of the Na'vi in their fight to preserve their way of life. Some people are pissed off because the human is Sam Worthington, and not someone like Will Smith.
Personally, I'd never call Avatar racist. Its narrative structure is conventional and its characters are a mix of archetypes and stereotypes – as to be expected in a superproduction that needs to reach the widest possible audience – but having a white guy lead a group of “people of color” doesn't necessarily make a movie or a filmmaker “racist.” What takes place in Avatar is a common dramatic device that has been in use since the first narrative movies were being cranked out: Oppressor switches sides to help the Oppressed, especially if among them is a good-looking female.
The problem is that, apart from Smith and Denzel Washington, you don't see many “people of color” as leaders in Hollywood movies. Especially as leaders of white people. Generally, it's the other way around, whether it's in Pocahontas or Lawrence of Arabia. And that's why Avatar has been attacked in some quarters for its “racist” depiction of a race/culture war.
“It's really upsetting in many ways,” actress Robinne Lee (of Jamaican-Chinese ancestry) told The Associated Press. “It would be nice if we could save ourselves.”
Avatar, adds black author and film professor Donald Bogle (who has refrained from labeling the fantasy adventure/sci-fier “racist”), “is a film with still a certain kind of distortion. It's a movie that hasn't yet freed itself of old Hollywood traditions, old formulas.”
That's absolutely true. But why then stop at ethnic issues? Why not call Avatar sexist? How many women are leaders of men in movies? Almost invariably, guys are the ones saving women right and left. (They're also the ones who often end up very dead at the end, so women can go on living free.) Also, how many gays or lesbians are up there on screen leading heterosexuals? For that matter, how many avowed Muslims or Buddhists have you seen in movies helping Euro-Christians to fulfill their destinies?
In an e-mail to The Associated Press, James Cameron stated that Avatar “asks us to open our eyes and truly see others, respecting them even though they are different, in the hope that we may find a way to prevent conflict and live more harmoniously on this world. I hardly think that is a racist message.”
And in all fairness, I believe that if Will Smith (who fought to save the world in I Am Legend) had been available for Sam Worthington's salary, James Cameron would have used him to guarantee solid box office returns for the expensive sci-fi epic.
So, would Avatar have been a better movie had its hero been played by, say, a Tamil actor, or had it featured a Muslim Indonesian lesbian heroine?
Photos: Mark Fellman (top); WETA (bottom) / 20th Century Fox
Right-wingers criticize it for its anti-militaristic and anti-imperialism stance. The politically correct accuse it of being racist. Anti-smokers cry foul because of a chain-smoking character. And now comes the Vatican media accusing it of promoting paganism and nature worship. Really, you can't please everyone, but this?
In addition to referring to Avatar as “bland” and “sappy,” L'Osservatore Romano complained in its review that James Cameron's sci-fier “gets bogged down by a spiritualism linked to the worship of nature,” while Vatican Radio pointed out that the film “cleverly winks at all those pseudo-doctrines that turn ecology into the religion of the millennium,” adding that “nature is no longer a creation to defend, but a divinity to worship.”
Pope Benedict XVI, who just yesterday called gay marriage an attack on “creation and the natural order” (Portugal has become the latest country to approve the legalization of gay marriages; a gay couple got married in Argentina last week), has already proclaimed against the dangers of turning nature into a “new divinity.” The pope also denounced the “supposedly egalitarian vision” that human beings and other living creatures should be placed on the same plane of existence, adding that such a worldview would “open the way to a new pantheism tinged with neo-paganism, which would see the source of man's salvation in nature alone, understood in purely naturalistic terms.”
Last year, the Vatican lambasted Angels & Demons and a couple of years earlier it lashed out against The Da Vinci Code. Both films were based on Dan Brown's novels; both were directed by Ron Howard and starred Tom Hanks; and both went on to become worldwide blockbusters.
Avatar opens Friday in Italy. Expect huge grosses.
Quotes: Associated Press
Chinese government officials have denied reports that the State is in any way responsible for pulling Avatar out of hundreds of theaters showing the 2D version of James Cameron's sci-fi epic starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, and Sigourney Weaver. A deputy director of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television has asserted that the film was being dropped by the exhibitors themselves because their theaters were mostly empty. Giving at least some credence to the official's remarks, Clifford Coonan reports in the Irish Times that lines could be seen outside the Shenzhen theater showing Avatar in 3D, but not at the 2D screenings.
Avatar has earned approximately $75 million in its first two weeks in China, becoming that country's biggest box office hit to date. (I'm not sure whether or not that translates as the largest number of tickets sold ever.) On Friday, Jan. 22, it'll be replaced by a state-sponsored biopic of Confucius, directed by Hu Mei and starring Chow Yun-fat.
Numerous reports (including one on this site, see below) stated that concerned members of the Chinese government had imposed a partial ban on Avatar for fear that it might cause social unrest. Since Cameron's film deals with people being forced out of their territory, millions of Chinese could relate to the Na'vi's plight, as ruthless developers, abetted by corrupt government officials, have the nasty habit of grabbing other people's lands.
Some reports also claimed that China had only a few 3D movie houses, which would make it “safe” for Avatar to be screened at those. Coonan counters that argument by stating that out of China's 4,700 screens, about 800 of those are 3D. And it's at these that nearly two-thirds of the film's box office has been generated.
Financial reasons unrelated to Avatar's 2D performance may have been a consideration as well. Coonan adds in his piece that China often “will clear the screens of foreign fare in the run-up to holidays … to boost local movies.” The Chinese New Year takes place next month.
Now, it's unclear whether that truly applies in the case of Avatar, which was supposed to run until late Feb. After all, it's hardly as if the Chinese New Year will be creeping in unannounced. Unless the Confucius biopic became available sooner than expected, there would have been no reason for Chinese officials to book Avatar well into February.
Photo: Avatar (Mark Fellman / 20th Century Fox)
Sam Worthington, Laz Alonso in Avatar (WETA / 20th Century Fox)
Government paranoia strikes again. The latest such instance, according to reports, comes from China.
James Cameron's Avatar has been a worldwide blockbuster. It's now the #3 movie at the North American box office (not accounting for inflation or 3D/IMAX surcharges) and #2 worldwide (not accounting for higher ticket prices and so on). The film was apparently doing quite well in China since its opening on Jan. 4; so well, in fact, that it became that country's biggest box office hit ever. Not surprisingly, some Chinese censor has decided that the science-fiction adventure tale set on a far off moon could become a threat to 21st-century China's stability.
According to a The Guardian article, Avatar 2D screenings will cease on Jan. 23 – instead of Feb. 28, as initially scheduled. Since China doesn't have many 3D/IMAX screens, the film will be allowed to continue playing only in that format.
Replacing the Golden Globe winner will be a biopic on the life of Confucius, directed by Hu Mei and starring Chow Yun-fat. The reason for the withdrawal remains murky, though rumors have it that the censors believe that the plight of the Na'vi is too close for comfort to what's going on with all those Chinese being evicted from their homes thanks to greedy property developers. Certainly not helping matters is that Avatar's $73.2 million gross has made it – and other major Hollywood productions – a “threat” to homemade movies.
Avatar has been met with controversy elsewhere as well. The film has been condemned as anti-American and anti-military by right-wingers; as racist by those who complain that Sam Worthington is white, not black (or perhaps some other nonwhite ethnicity); and as paganistic, nature-worshipping propaganda by the Vatican media.
Some have also complained that the film is overrated, tedious, and superficial. The Chinese government clearly disagrees. And now Avatar fans will be complaining that China has robbed their film of the chance to become the biggest worldwide blockbuster ever. Unless, of course, China or no China, Avatar ends up beating the Titanic record anyhow.
As a matter of fact, Vatican or no Vatican, Avatar had a $14.5 million debut in Italy, supposedly a record for that country.