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Does ‘Avatar’ Use Blueface? Cultural Appropriation and White Saviorism in Film

'Avatar: The Way of Water' movie poster.
'Avatar: The Way of Water' movie poster. By Courtesy of Wikipedia
By Emma H. Lu, Contributing Writer

Fourteen years ago, the cinematic world was taken by storm with the release of the blockbuster sci-fi film “Avatar,” directed, written, and co-produced by James Cameron. Cameron’s facial motion capture technology and extensive use of CGI drew countless flocks to theaters. This past December, Cameron returned with his long-awaited sequel, "Avatar: The Way of Water."

The ‘Avatar’ media franchise introduces a new world in Pandora, the fictional exomoon inhabited by the Na’vi, a humanoid species characterized most immediately by their blue skin. As humans seek to colonize Pandora and extract its valuable resources, the Na’vi serve as its capable defenders. Although it may be easy to treat the Na’vi as a novel, alien species, fiction often draws upon reality. Therefore, it is imperative to question the inspiration behind the blue figures on the big screen and the nature in which they are being portrayed.

In the construction of the Na’vi species, there are undeniable influences from Black and Indigenous cultures. Both films show Na’vi characters depicted wearing dreadlocks and braids, hairstyles with historical connections to Black and African cultures. Their usage of bows and poison-tipped arrows hold origin in native North and South American cultures, as well as traditional Indigenous clothing and body paint. The tongue in which the Na’vi communicate has roots in several Polynesian, African, and Native American languages.

After facing severe backlash to claims of the originality of his work, Cameron acknowledged the cultural influences of “Avatar,” particularly of Indigenous peoples. He wrote in 2012 that the “European destruction of native peoples, using military force, in order to acquire their land and resources, is the obvious basis for the ‘Avatar’ story.”

The reality is that, despite the substantial pilfering of nonwhite cultures, the writers and majority of the franchise’s actors are white. The casting of predominantly white actors for characters based on people of color serves as an act of appropriation some have dubbed as “blueface.”

In addition, with his blending of various Indigenous cultures and customs to represent the Na’vi, Cameron has been scrutinized for generalizing and equating many native cultures. As Dr. Autumn Asher BlackDeer — an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver, from the Southern Cheyenne Nation — mentioned in an interview with the Washington Post, the “Avatar” movies simply fall into the pattern of media portraying Indigenous peoples as a monolith.

Moreover, Cameron’s “Avatar” has been criticized for perpetuating the concept of the noble savage. The depiction of the Na’vi reproduces the trope wherein nonwhite cultures are romanticized for their characterization of being primitive and uncorrupted by civilization, entrenching them in a position still inherently inferior.

In his personal life, Cameron attempts to maintain a socially and environmentally conscious image. He is an avid environmentalist, practicing a vegan diet, and has filmed several documentaries highlighting the beauty of nature. Cameron’s alleged love for the environment shines through in both “Avatar” films, as Cameron portrays the Na’vi interacting with their natural environment and villainizes practices like mining and poaching. Still, Cameron can’t — and shouldn’t — encompass and speak for the relationship between Indigenous peoples and their lands.

The story of “Avatar” centers around protagonist Jake Sully, a marine sent by the Resources Development Administration (RDA) to gather information on the Na’vi. Sully infiltrates the Na’vi using the physical form of a Na'vi-human hybrid called an “avatar,” but instead of completing his mission, finds himself falling in love with a female Na’vi named Neytiri. Sully then proceeds to lead the Na’vi clan in battle against the RDA and take on his avatar form permanently. Aside from the visually spectacular nature of it all, at its core, the story is one of a white ex-marine assimilating fully into an Indigenous culture.

From dressing up as Native Americans for Halloween, to using Indigenous names and symbols as sports team mascots, cultural appropriation is a rampant, and often unaddressed, part of American society today. As “Avatar” features a white man assuming the body of another culture as his own — one that is inspired by actual communities of color — it trivializes the significance of cultural identity and treats it as transient. Entire cultures become as easy to slip on and off as a costume.

Beyond the implications of Sully’s assimilation, there is the matter of his ascension to a leadership position over the Na’vi. With the storyline reflecting the European colonization of Indigenous people, it seems almost like a revision of history, one in which white settlers get to be the “good guys” too. Sully’s ability to lead the indigenous population to success is a case of white saviorism, not to mention an erasure of the brutal and severe realities of colonization.

Both “Avatar” films have had production budgets of at least $250 million each, not to mention the millions spent in marketing — a privilege not many filmmakers of color ever see. Through using the histories of Indigenous peoples, Cameron has made billions — and more sequels are set to come.

With the release of “Avatar: The Way of Water,” numerous Indigenous groups have called for a boycott of the film, including Yuè Begay, a Navajo activist and co-chair of Indigenous Pride LA, who wrote in an open letter to Cameron from her Twitter account, “Hire our experts in your writing rooms, as your consultants, as your talent, as your leaders. Stop trying to lead. You are NOT our leader.”

Instead of encouraging viewers to watch “Avatar,” indigenous activist Dr. BlackDeer has compiled a list on Twitter of sci-fi films by Indigenous creators. In an interview with Dazed, Dr. BlackDeer said: “Indigenous people know what’s best for our communities, we can tell our own stories.”

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