i couldn’t not see avatar. i read reviews, spoilers, heard first hand accounts. i’ve lately been reading up on the singularity, i’ve always been a science fiction lover, i’ve literally drawn other worldly humanoid figures since i could put pen to paper, the technology was groundbreaking, AND it was in 3D, AND it was a story of ecological or environmental justice?

(from here out this is a journey of spoilers. go see it, and then read this, if you like surprises.)

overall it was stunning, enthralling, a journey in and through a magical world, a success.

and it was a white hero story.

and the gender dynamics got murky in the end.

and it was a mainstream movie that had the audience cheering when the military was outmaneuvered.


    the good:

– visually my breath was jolted to a full stop in my body several times as I experienced flight, ducked unimaginable creatures, lifted through floating mountains…I want to see it over and over, and go there, and do that.

– the organic technology presented in the film and by the film…to be able to embody a physical avatar, to be able to easily physically bond with an animal or a plant…the way they animated the creatures based off of actors performances…this is leaning into ‘the singularity’ thinking in ways that should make us uncomfortable, but mostly made me feel giddy. [half of me is running towards the composting simple life of what we can grow, living within the space we can walk. the other part wants to fly, time travel, space travel, integrate technology and humanity towards a more evolved and capable existence.]

– the ecological analysis, that the world is a web of complete interconnectedness, of life…that life is precious, that a planet and everything on it is connected…this is very much what i believe. it is what i have spent the last several years trying to slow down enough to experience, to lean in close enough to smell and feel, to embody in my work. they made it phosphorescent, magical, lighter than life. but this planet can feel like that, too.

– the critique of war, particularly the war on iraq, was overt and radical and impressive in a movie with such a mainstream target audience. the terms “shock and awe” and “preemptive” were used by the bad guys, the destruction could have had a halliburton stamp on it. i appreciated the grief and anger james cameron put into the script, written and directed and produced parallel to iraq, afghanistan.

    The bad:

– I hated that the strong female indigenous lead, who teaches the human avatar Jake Sully to speak, eat and live, has to step back and jump behind him (physically and hierachically) after they mate, when danger strikes. its not for long, and she comes back into her strength before the end, but that moment was too alpha for me.

– the fact that ultimately the white human in avatar body has to not just be accepted but has to become the leader of the struggle, the hero, and the one who lives…this reinforces a level of white supremacy that goes all the way into the heart of whiteness. if he had come to fight, taking leadership from the Na’vi (the indigenous people on pandora), providing his intel and taking a place in the tribe, it still would have been a reach. this is the part of the story that most needs to be relinquished. if there is ever to be redemption between white people and all the peoples they have conquered, displaced, oppressed, enslaved, bamboozled, hoodwinked, jim crowed, concentration camped, left to die, forced to work, exoticized, called minority and worse, and felt superior to…then there must be a true release of the hero myth.

– the whole idea of an individual savior is both put forth as necessary and questioned as hypocritical in the film. jake sully has to tell the Na’vi they are in danger, once he escalates their danger. and yet he is powerless, all the force he can muster is nothing compared with that of the creation force. he is vulnerable and needs community and nature and spirit. in a scene towards the end you see the tiny frail human in the arms of the massive Na’vi female and it was such a Pieta moment – her as the delivery system and protector of the savior. i am only glad he couldn’t have done it on his own tho, more action heroes need such a reality check.

    The gray:

– is this the only kind of story that will allow mainstream america to consider embracing indigenous wisdom and ecological sanity? we watched it in a suburban michigan theater and folks were cheering as english-speaking human military were taken out, collectively sad and silent in watching the destruction that humans were exacting on the planet. action scenes, white male hero, awesome technology…is that the only way to slip radical analysis to the masses?

– is it wrong that i felt jealous of jake sully’s journey? to be able to leave behind the human/western way of interacting with a planet and be fully embodied in a new life, new customs, new freedoms and spiritual connections. i came home and flipped through pictures i drew a decade ago that look like the world in that movie, i have been aware for some time that i am being called towards a belief system that is counter to how i was raised. ‘i want to go to there.’ beyond the cool flying part, and getting to leave capitalism behind, the idea of becoming indigenous again is one that i have heard come out of mouths of people i greatly respect (both currently indigenous and not – with melissa nelson as a key thinker on this) as ground we need to explore, carefully, with humility, without coercing or co-opting. the idea that a process of rediscovering our own indigenous history and building new connections to the land could actually be an organic one, and an opening past resistance to resilience, interests me.

the grayer:

fundamentally, this movie posits a theory that has been explored before – that it is necessary for a certain number of oppressors to actually switch sides and stand with oppressed peoples in order to end oppression. and while i don’t think that in that switching sides there should be a hero role, or even much applause (to paraphrase chris rock, don’t give credit for shit people are supposed to do), i do think there is a very necessary piece in that story to be considered. historically we have seen that the basic tenets of colonization and oppression have been so counter to some indigenous cultures that they were incomprehensible. in such cases, oppressors who liberate their minds can help win a victory for the oppressed peoples.

the thing is, jake sully doesn’t win. he is defeated after he alerts the life force of the planet about the danger to come. this is the life force which is networked throughout the entire planet – is all and knows all. it’s not even clear that sully’s warning was needed. that life force rallies all of its creatures and forces together to drive out the oppressor. as breathtaking as the action was, it is quite possible – it is the most plausible outcome – that the power of the web of life would have been generated without a hero.

the heroics of jake sully were a necessary part of his being able to participate in the revolution – i just don’t think they were necessary for the revolution to succeed. i have come across jake sully types in my work many many times. i, and other people of color and/or women, have spoken about this: is the only way a white man or any man can truly relinquish the power to oppress is to believe he is gaining a new power, a new and higher place in a hierarchy of people…in the case of white man, it is a trajectory from slavemaster to savior.

men, particularly white men, need to hear and see stories that help them (and anyone else engaged in violence and dominance behavior) recognize they have a part to play in a new way of living, and it requires a release of the whole dynamic of power over others.

but how does that message get delivered? even if it’s in 3D, i don’t know how many millions will turn out to see an eco-justice anti-war tale about mother earth rising up against the military.

and since the story is so deeply a story about our relationship to this planet, our obliteration of our natural resources, our disrespect of indigenous cultures and forgetting our own indigenous stories, our displacement and destruction of the only place we have, the only water that we know exists and can sustain us…since it is SO close to home…can we perhaps as people with analysis, see it as a step in a process?

i don’t know the answers to these questions, but i think the gray areas are very important in terms of us figuring out how to continuously engage in a revolution of behaviors and dynamics. we aren’t in a fantasy, we can’t just kick the oppressive destructive forces off the planet…they are in us, of us, with us. our solutions have to be ones that deconstruct the impulses and behaviors of oppression, and that has a place for ex-oppressors in our visions of the future. not a hero role, but a meaningful, life-affirming role.

p.s. i am ready for the coming wave of 3D movies, and may write something about how 3D is basically bringing the experience of safe group tripping into the mainstream.