The Avatar Movie from an african perspective

For OpEdNews: Ezili Danto - Writer

Looking at the Avatar movie from the perspective of the "other world"


"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 and meaningless.

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 wrote:

"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; CCH Pounder who plays Mo'at, the Na'vi priestess and Neytiri's mother; Laz Alonso who plays Tsu'Tey, 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 the heroes.

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 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 so.

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) vibration.

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 Perspectives.