After introducing audiences to the exo-moon of Pandora and its blue inhabitants in the 2009 blockbuster Avatar, James Cameron is back with Avatar: The Way of Water—and some wish the director and his lanky Na’vi had never returned.
Despite a robust $434.5 million global debut, the release has been mired in copious backlash, with a wave of indigenous voices calling for a boycott due to what they claim is cultural appropriation, the embodiment of the white savior complex, and offensive statements made by Cameron in a 2010 interview with The Guardian.
“Join Natives and other Indigenous groups around the world in boycotting this horrible and racist film. Our cultures were appropriated in a harmful manner to satisfy some (white flag emoji) man’s savior complex”, tweeted Yuè Begay, a Navajo artist and co-chair of Indigenous Pride L.A.
Begay highlights Cameron’s choice to favor non-indigenous actors to play the Na’vi people, Cameron’s alien race, which his critics say he appropriated from various Native cultures and histories. This phenomenon in which creators indiscriminately blend together many non-white cultures, cast white actors to voice them, and use fiction as a vehicle to excuse and validate their world-building has, thanks to Avatar, been termed “blue-face.”
“It is a combination of Redface, Blackface, Yellowface, and other racist tools creators use to justify not centering or validating the experiences, voices, faces, and bodies of Black, Indigenous, and other marginalized People of Color.”, Begay continues in a now-viral infographic with more than 47,000 likes.
The original film traces the Na’vi of Pandora as they fight off colonizers from Earth who attempt to infiltrate their world and pilfer its resources—specifically, the element “unobtainium,” in Cameron’s trademark meat-mallet subtlety. The 2022 sequel follows the same tribe as they migrate to a new land near the ocean, still facing the same issues from earthly invaders.
Freelance film critic Kathia Woods tweeted, “at some point we gotta talk about the cultural appropriation of Avatar and white actors are cosplaying as POC. It’s just a mess and so not necessary & no amount of visual effects/CGI is gonna erase that. Bad lace fronts/dry synthetic braids. Jesus fix it.”
Since her statement, the internet has mercilessly mocked Woods for her accusations. Many claim it as an example of “wokeness” gone too far. “Only nine-foot-tall blue aliens can play nine-foot-tall blue aliens in movies, apparently!” joked radio host Dan O’Donnell. Other users are tweeting support, expressing similar sentiments about the appropriation of computer-generated fantasy characters.
Only nine-foot tall blue aliens can play nine-foot tall blue aliens in movies, apparently. https://t.co/Fxf8J2u5Lm
— Dan O'Donnell (@DanODonnellShow) December 19, 2022
The film features a predominantly white cast, with actors Zoe Saldana and Cliff Curtis as notable exceptions. For a movie centered around references to various traumatic indigenous histories, many feel that the omission of Native voices in the writing, production, and overall creation of the film cannot be overlooked.
The boycott campaign was further fueled by a the resurfacing of an interview Cameron gave the The Guardian in 2010, in which he stated that the Lakota Sioux tribe, the inspiration for the Na’vi people, would have “fought a lot harder” if they were able to see the future.
“I felt like I was 130 years back in time watching what the Lakota Sioux might have been saying at a point where 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”, Cameron said.
“This was a driving force for me in the writing of Avatar – I couldn’t help but think that if they 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.”
As Cameron’s remarks have recirculated online, Native American Twitter users and their allies have expressed their disdain for the franchise, calling for a boycott and a shift of focus to indigenous-made content and activist efforts.
Responding to the director’s decade-old remarks, Dr. Johanna Brewer, a professor at Smith College, tweeted, “James Cameron apparently made Avatar to inspire all my dead ancestors to “fight harder”. Eff right off with that savior complex, bud. And everyone, please go watch a real native movie instead of that badly appropriated blue trash.”
In an open letter to Cameron, Yuè Begay wrote, “We are the experts in portraying our hurt, suffering, and more importantly, our resilience. White people being aliens based on actual Indigenous people. That’s colonialism…Stop trying to lead. You are NOT our leader. You are an outsider. A guest to our lands and culture. Act like it.”
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