Christmas Day found my mother in law insisting that we all go to the movies to see Avatar; specifically the IMAX 3D version, but the IMAX Theater was all the way across town… whahh…. I was not averse to seeing the movie, far from it. It was a movie I was waiting for. But I would have been happy to see just the regular movie version much closer to where I live.
But… I would have been wrong. Seeing that movie, in IMAX and 3D, is the only way to see it. The movie’s raison d’etre is after all, visuals. That’s the big selling point; something that looks fantastic on screen that you’ve never seen before. On that basis, the movie fulfilled the hype. The visuals are lush, fantastic, and certainly something much beyond what I’m used to seeing on the screen. It provides the perfect beauty of a painting with the realism of … well real life. The visuals of the movie are art, in and of itself.
As for the story… well if you’ve already seen the movie, you know it. In fact, if you haven’t seen the movie, you still know it. It’s pulled intact from Hollywood’s grab bag of twenty or thirty standard movie plots. If you’ve seen any Hollywood movies in your life time, then you’ve already seen this one. Dances with Aliens is a pretty succinct description. But good story telling is good story telling. I enjoyed the movie immensely even knowing how the story would play out. Knowing the formula doesn’t necessarily ruin a movie for me. The fun is the journey.
But I didn’t see much more than that. Good popcorn type fun, but others saw much more into the movie than I did. Science Fiction author Steven Barnes, who wrote about the movie at the author’s website, had a more unique view of the movie, If Spike Lee had directed Avatar? Although that seems to be a subject ripe for a Mad Magazine satire, to Barnes it brought up issues of light skinned Na’vi lording over the darker blue skinned ones. I didn’t even notice if there were various shades of blue among the alien Na’vi. My view of a Spike Lee directed Avatar would have included the Na’vi calling each other “motherfucker” a lot and including an ending that would be totally incomprehensible to me.
But what really struck me was a finally throw away line at the end of the piece:
Oh…and if Spike had directed Avatar, there would have been at least one black male character to identify with. Say…the other Avatar scientist? Maybe one of the support staff?
What made me marvel a bit at this line is that after watching the movie, I never realized nor had it occurred to me that there were no black characters in the film. True Zoe Saldana was one of the major characters of the film, but she was in blueface for the entire film so her film character was that of the alien Neytiri. Anyway, she’s Dominican so it’s unclear to me if she regards herself as Hispanic or as Black. That’s a whole nuther kettle of fish.
But Barnes comment was a reminder to me of how on a day to day basis that white people are isolated from race. In America, we live in a white world. If you’re white in the US, you just don’t have to think about race that much. If I turn on the TV, I don’t worry about finding someone on the screen to identify with. Firstly, because there is no one like me, and secondly, being able to live so removed from race and racial issues, the odds are against me not finding a “character to identify with.” For Barnes, the issue is probably in his face on an almost daily basis.
Thanks to the television of Norman Lear, I grew up watching shows with predominately black casts, such as The Jefferson’s, Sanford and Son, and Good Times. At least as a child, I had no problem identifying with the characters. But television, like me, grew up. Television expanded from 4 or 5 channels in a metropolitan area to 30, 40, then 70 or more channels on cable television, not counting digital channels. Thirty or forty years ago, everyone, black and white, watched the same shows. Now both the television and movie audience is much more segregated. There is a channel for every taste, and ethnic and racial group. We are gaining in choice, but we are clearly losing something else. Perhaps a common popular culture?
But maybe, just maybe, there was more to James Cameron’s vision than a casting oversight. Among the “human” cast, actors Dileep Rao (Dr. Max Patel), Sigourney Weaver (Grace Augustine), and Michelle Rodriguez (Judy Chacon) were the only “good guys” in the film. Other than Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully, all of the “white” males were bad guys. Women and Asians were the good guys. Given Cameron’s politics, that was probably intentional. It rather fits into the story and Cameron’s worldview. Maybe Barnes should be glad that black males were left off this list, although in a broader sense, he may have brought up a good point. One that I would never have noticed if it hadn’t been pointed out to me.
Most stories, but particularly in science fiction, require a sympathetic character that we need to identify with in order to be drawn into the story and to introduce whatever strange world we are being introduced to. But how much does that sympathetic character need to be like us in order for us to really empathize with him or her? Do they have to have the same skin tone, the same sex? And if the movie doesn’t provide that, is it a slap in the face to the viewers who don’t look like our protagonist?
But I didn’t notice those things watching the film, but I’m pretty sure that if I had walked into that theater and every character had been black, I would have noticed. The question I can’t answer is, would I have felt as excluded by that theoretical movie as Steven Barnes did from Avatar?
Maybe Spike Lee should take a crack at a remake…