The Avatar Movie from an african
For OpEdNews: Ezili
Danto - Writer
Looking at the
Avatar movie from the perspective of the "other
"Once upon a time, trees were sacred things
in Haitian/African culture, looked upon as living
energies that provided strength to the people. Thus,
cutting down trees was relatively a taboo. But these
core Africanist values were scorned and desecrated by
the influences of Western colonialism and Christian
missionaries on traditional Vodun. These core values
were uprooted during the anti-Vodun Rejete campaigns
(1940-41) as a means for the Catholic Church to get
rid of Vodun as its rival religion and philosophy in
Haiti and as a way for the US to clear peasant
Haitians off lands they wanted to acquire for their
agricultural initiatives in Haiti in the 1940s during
the post-U.S.-occupation presidency of Elie Lescot (1941-46).
The Catholic Churches' brutal anti-superstition
campaigns in the 1940s, which made it alright to
destroy trees that holds up not only the land but a
culture, adds to deforestation in Haiti. For, once
these core values were broken down and substituted
with foreign ideals (senility?) - foreign psychology
irrelevant to Haitian survival, things in Haiti for
the vast majority, as Chinua Achebe, would put it:
began to "fall apart..."
In order for consumerism,
corporate greed and imperialism to work there must be a
narrative. A narrative that claims to be about the common
good, about science, development, advancement, education.
In that way, although it is just a regular sci-fi movie
with the same ol' plots and the same white hero narrative,
I take the time here to analyze the Avatar movie because
if James Cameron was looking to tell a story from the
point of view of people of color, he fell short. The
racist subtext effaced that desire.
I went and saw the Avatar movie looking to find a
redeeming deeper meaning in it as so many on this Ezili/HLLN list had such divergent opinions.
First, let me say, what I am about to write is not an
attack on anyone. It's what I think, from my point of
references, after seeing the movie.
Those of us who are concerned with human rights,
environmental degradation, corporate greed will find that
the Avatar movie is a parable and metaphor for how
Western culture, corporate greed, consumerism, white
privilege and imperialism is destroying the earth through
wars for oil, occupations for taking "the other
world's" resources and minerals, through mining,
clear-cutting, taking down the environment without
regards to the human being and the ecology that's
destroyed. So, if you are a moviegoer, this is not a bad
choice and I recommend the movie for that. I also
recommend the movie as a study of the white savior
complex. It's very instructional in that way.
I've done Haiti work all my life and have run into the
"assimilated" white savior who feels so
assimilated and "Haitian" he can insist on his
cultural empathy as credential for LEADING the indigenous
Haitian to liberty!
Ezili's HLLN has always maintained that the best function
of friends of Haiti is not to strum dependency but load
our gun and also to go to Washington and push their own
to change their policies towards Haiti. No one can give
another his/her liberty. We Haitians, we Blacks, we
Africans must take what's ours, own our own liberty, as
all human beings must. Otherwise it's charity, degrading
The movie is also worthy as a study because one can see
the analogy to Haiti, Iraq, Afghanistan and every other
place where the US/Euros have gone to invade, conquer and
plunder in the name, of course, of bringing democracy or
humanitarian aid or bringing civilization and God!
In an interview, James Cameron reportedly said he was writing from the
indigenous point of view. If I took him seriously, and
let him look through my eyes, this is what he would see:
A real life example of what happened to the fictional Na'vi
people in the movie is happening to Haiti right now. The
US military took down president Aristide, deported him to
Central Africa, and took over Haiti with hired thugs and
death squads, then used the UN and the NGO squads to
deflect charges of terror, racism and imperialism.
Meanwhile the UN is protecting not Haitian rights and
sovereignty but the right of the NGOs, corporate greed,
sweatshops, trans-national corporations' right to
privatization of Haiti's assets - bling (gold, iridium,
copper, oil, diamonds, marble)- and the mining and oil
companies to do as they please in Haiti. How greed and
imperialism destroys the environment...The Avatar movie
is a good analogy, a good parallel for this. In it, we
see the mad preppy corporate guy, head of the mining
operation who employs a small army of former marines for
security and directs them to attack the Na'vi people
because his company wants the blang -a mineral called
unobtainium - that's underneath the soil in Pandora where
the Na'vi people live.
In the Avatar movie, the fictional cultural expert played
by Sigourney Weaver is the expert who is wiring the
humans' brains into the bodies of Na'vi avatars to try to
win the indigenous people's trust; building schools in
the Na'vi people's world and trying to "educate them,"
all, on behalf of the mad preppy corporate guy so to
befriend them, manipulate them and convince them that the
more civilized thing to do is to leave their ancestral
lands where the life-force of their mother Goddess and
Tree of Souls (ancestors) live and go elsewhere.
Manipulating for corporations' profit. If the
anthropologist team doesn't succeed with their
psychological brainwashing then the mad preppy will just
get his military forces to crush the Navi's with tanks
and bombs. Sounds familiar?
Think: false foreign aid to Haiti and Africa, false Euro/US
benevolence, false charity to get a foothold and plunder
indigenous people's lands and labor regardless of the
human or environmental consequences.
Some years ago, in the essay entitled, Ezili's
HLLN Counter-Colonial Narrative on Deforestation, I
"Once Haiti's natural zones for agriculture were
confiscated by big agribusinesses and pushed off their
ancestral lands, disenfranchised peasants had no choice
but to go into the harsher lands in the mountains or
wherever they could, to try to grow some food to feed
their families, while a small group of the world's rich -
such as the procession of US lumber companies in the 19th
century and then, in the 20th century the procession of
US lumber, sugar and fruit companies paid large sums to
corrupt government officials to cut down pine, mahogany,
cedar, oak and other trees for access to the Haitian
forests and peasant lands in order to pillage Haiti's
resources, under the guise of "development,"
"job creation" or "anti-superstition.""
Yes, the Avatar movie is a good analogy to colonialism,
and the role of the missionaries, development folks and
USAID experts of modern day and may be seen in that light.
But as entertainment, that's a matter of taste. And for
me, except for the very beginning when the spectacular
scenery and 3-D experience was so riveting, the analogy
is much too life-like to the situation of Haitians vis-ā-vis
the US/Euros for the entertainment value to mean much.
Jake Sully, played by Sam
Worthington is the white hero who enters the Navi's
land, learns, in three months, all their secrets, becomes
a super-Na'vi and is able to return and save them from
the attack of his crazy nation's war mongers.
It's relevant to note that the main Na'vi characters are
voiced by four Black actors: Zoë Saldaņa
who plays the warrior princess Neytiri;
who plays Mo'at, the Na'vi priestess and Neytiri's mother;
Laz Alonso who
the young warrior prince, Neytiri's betrothed and heir to
the chieftainship of the Omaticayas, Neytiri's clan; and Peter
Mensah who plays Akwey, leader of a plains clan of Na'vi;
as well as Wes
Studi, a Cherokee, who plays Eytukan, the father of
Neytiri and the supreme leader of the Omaticaya clan of
Pandora. The evil humans are white.
The movie is a fantasy from the point of view of white
people. At the end the white man leads, just as he would
lead as a colonizer, but this time he leads the natives
from the inside. The hero is always a hero in any world
and he's always white. That's why Danny Glover found it
impossible to do a movie about the Haitian revolution
with Jean Jacques Dessalines and Toussaint Louvertures as
Frankly, I found the Avatar movie patronizing and no,
Jake was no more than a white outsider who comes in and
does his Tarzan thing. The racial subtext of the movie
was extremely blatant.
This was my first 3-D experience and that was dazzling
and I agree the scenery is spectacular...at the beginning.
The 3-D IMAX is stunning viewing and combined with the
lush green scenery, the message that we need to protect
our environment, wild life, respect other people's
cultures and way of life, and control the profit-driven
military-industrial complex makes Avatar worth the time.
But it gets so, so typically racist, violent, violent,
violent - literally and psychologically - and despicably
When the Omaticaya clan's Tree of Voices and the
Ancestors fell, that genocide resonated. It reminded me
of how the Catholics in Haiti, destroyed the mapou trees
in Haiti because in Haitian Vodun each village compound/Lakou,
each family had a tree with the spirit and life of their
ancestors. But in the 1940s rejete massacre in Haiti, the
US sponsored the burning down of the most sacred of trees
and the psychological devastation still hasn't left the
Haitian psyche to this day. So much so that trees became,
for many, just wood for charcoal burning! I cringed when
that Navi tree went down. The Will
Heaven and Annalee
Newitz reviews have it correct, this is no more than
a white savoir movie where the "assimilated white"
becomes the messiah for the "savages."
Here's a few other parts that grated my nerves to no end:
In the movie, the white man is the ONLY one who can pray
to the Na'vi's mother goddess (Eywa) and she HEARS him,
not her own people 's prayers and grief but HIM. The Jake
character prays to Eywa to intercede on behalf of the Na'vi
in the coming battle and when the battle seems lost,
suddenly the creatures of the forest start to help attack
the expendable corporate soldiers fighting for blang - (Gold
and sugar in Haiti and the Americas during the African
Holocaust and oil, gold and iridium right now under UN
proxy occupation for the US). We hear Neytiri yelling
"Eywa heard you Jake, Eywa heard you!"
The white man mates with Neytiri, the most beautiful,
most powerful warrior princess in the realm but he
expects her intended, Tsu'Tey, the young warrior prince,
the king-to-be to meekly accept the fait accompli and fly
with him because now he's a super-Na'vi after having been
the ONLY one to tame and ride the Toruk, an immensely
powerful red flying beast that only five Na'vi have ever
tamed in their history.
The Toruk is recognized by the Na'vi people as the most
ferocious beast in their realm. When Jake, the white hero
character, swoops down from above astride the red Toruk,
he becomes not just a mythical hero, he becomes Eywa the
mother Goddesses' - chosen one, the white messiah, and
now he wants the young warrior king of the Na'vi people,
Tsu'Tey whose character is voiced by the Black actor, Laz
Alonso, and whose princess, voiced by the Black actress,
Zoë Saldaņa, he's mated with to meekly ACCEPT, submit
to him as leader of the Na'vi battle AND to TRANSLATE FOR
HIM as he addresses the new King's people and revs them
up for war against the humans! The parallel emasculation
of the Black man here cannot be more obvious.
Dr. Grace Augustine played by Sigourney
Weaver, says at one point in defending the Na'vi tree
"This isn't some pagan Vodun, this is their home and
destruction of the Hometree will affect the biological
connection to nature's lifeforce of all Na'vi organisms."
Something like that.
This is the same anthropologist who, later on, in the
movie would be rushed to the Tree of Souls and Mo'at, the
Na'vi high priestess, for healing through the making of a
sacred connection to nature's lifeforce to save her. The
whole chanting ritual and raising up of sacred energies
pretty much looked like Vodun (in Haiti, Vodun means lifting up "sacred energies".)
If James Cameron was indeed doing what he said he wanted
to do and writing from the indigenous point of view, if I
took him seriously, than I would not have to see how
Grace, the white woman's life was made to be so important
that in the middle to their grieving of all that they had
lost from the shock and awe attack upon their village,
that HER HEALING was the priority. She's so important to
Jake, the whole village that's just lost its beloved king
and perhaps thousands upon thousands of their people,
take time to value THIS LIFE above all else and sit in
unison to chants for her wellbeing! But alas, Dr. Grace
dies. But wait, all is not lost. Her life is so unique
and valuable, that her lifeforce gets to be DESERVING
enough to join into the collective Navi's Goddess (Eywa)
This is such an obvious white fantasy in a long, long
line of the noble white savior films. After the Sigourney
Weaver character's Hollywood demonization of Haiti's
sacred way, her demeaning "Pagan Vodun" comment,
it would have been poetic justice if Cameron truly wanted
to speak from "the others" point of view, if
the good doctor's spirit had NOT gone directly into the
blissful Navi Eywa collective soul but spent some time in
some Christian purgatory or some such place!. For that
privilege too reminded me of the foreign Vodun converts
who come into Haitian culture and claim our ancestors,
priesthood and to be Vodun spirit masters in just one
generation of submission.
If I were to take James Cameron's sci-fi movie seriously
I'd say it was Richard Pryor who once remarked, Do you
have any dreams? They'll want them too.
Ezili Dantō of HLLN
Human Rights Lawyer,
Ezili Danto/Marguerite Laurent is dedicated to correcting
the media lies and colonial narratives about Haiti. A
writer, performance poet and lawyer, Ezili Danto is
founder of the Haitian Lawyers Leadership Network, runs
the Ezili Danto website, listserve, eyewitness project,
FreeHaitiMovement and the on-line journal, Haitian