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Avatar 2 is the white man’s fantasy of the indigenous resistance

Avatar 2 is the white man’s fantasy of the indigenous resistance

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A scene from Avatar: The Way of Water

Avatar: The Way of WaterImage: 20th Century Studios

This story was originally published by Grist. You can subscribe to the weekly newsletter here.

If you’d like to see some examples of true Indigenous Futurism filmmaking, may I suggest you watch something other than James Cameron?

Take Cree-Metis filmmaker Danis Goulet’s Night Raiders, or Blood Quantum, late Mi’kmaw filmmaker Jeff Barnaby’s very timely final film, released to stream just before the start of the COVID pandemic.

Both films look at Native American history and reframe it from an indigenous perspective: boarding school trauma in the case of Night Raiders, and Native people’s unique relationship to foreign diseases (think smallpox) in the case of Blood Quantum. Both films address issues that affect and have influenced the Indian country.

However, if you want to see a white man’s version of an Indigenous Futurism film, then the local multiplex with Avatar: The Way of Water is the way to go.

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The plot of what some are calling Avatar 2 is simple enough: the earth is dying, humans need resources, and this requires a complete takeover of the planet Pandora, which also requires the “taming” of the indigenous inhabitants, the Na’. vi.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and his family, a former Avatar and now transformed into a full-fledged Na’vi, are driven from their homeland by Sully’s former military colleague Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who has also become a full-fledged Na’vi, and seek revenge want. Sully tries to protect his family from further dangers. Why is he running? Is it white guilt? He claims to be protecting his indigenous clan, but his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) wants to fight.

The Sully family flies far out to sea, where they meet Tonowari (Cliff Curtis), the chief of the Māori-inspired Metkayina clan. The Metkayina have been slow to accept them into their territory (the Sullys are not good swimmers and their tails are too small), but will eventually embrace the Sullys as one of their own, and in time will unite in the fight against the approaching Earth invaders who sky people.

Cameron’s latest work is an odd mix of superficial indigeneship displayed from a white man’s perspective: long braids and dreadlocks attached to alien bodies, the bodies laden with “exotic” Ta Moko-style tattoos. Ten foot tall men and women with big eyes and elf ears are set in exotic alien locations reminiscent of fantasy artist Frank Frazetta or certain Lakota friends I’ve met. In addition, these beings, the Na’vi, have a connection to the land and its inhabitants. It’s fantasy indigeneity.

It’s hard not to be skeptical about Cameron’s understanding of the indigenous material he appropriates here. Sure, you can make up anything you want in a fantastical story, and even have your left-leaning cake. There are no rules to filmmaking, or the arts in general, and when you have the funding, the world is your oyster. You can create a world where we can see the myopia of white men towards the environment; a tale of materialism and colonialism showing the aftermath of hunger and thirst for money and resources from beginning to end. Where’s the mistake?

The flaw is that James Cameron can travel the world, “research” and hire Indigenous film legends like Wes Studi (Cherokee) in the first Avatar film and Cliff Curtis (Maori) and Jermaine Clement (Maori) in Avatar 2, but he can’t escaping who he is: a filmmaker who told the Guardian in 2010 that his inspiration in making the first Avatar film was based on the Lakota Sioux.

“I couldn’t help but think that if she [the Lakota Sioux] had a window of opportunity and they could see into the future… and they could see their children commit suicide with the highest suicide rates in the nation… because they were hopeless and they were a dead end society – which is happening now – they would have fought a lot harder.”

Cameron’s comments are deaf, condescending, and not the kind of ally I want or need to tell Indigenous stories. It’s one thing to read and research about a culture; it’s quite another to be of it. Perhaps that is why the film is currently being boycotted by many Indigenous groups, one of which is led by Asdzáá Tłʼéé honaaʼéí, a Navajo artist and co-chair of Indigenous Pride Los Angeles.

The animation in Avatar: The Way of Water is visually stunning. The animals in particular – I call them sea creatures and aerial creatures – are very lifelike, with shadow and texture, and many have their own souls and minds and communicate these to the Na’vi. The concept (much like the film) walks a fine line between cheesy and magical, and you only have to go by the concept if you believe it. You think that once you’ve paid for the theater ticket, you’re ready to go. I watched the film as an amusement ride, once in a 3D IMAX theater and once in a normal cinema. As a glasses wearer, I have to say that I liked the film better without the 3D equipment (the danger of smearing popcorn butter on the bulky 3D glasses is also lower).

Amidst the diverse subplots, exotic character names, Pandora versions of whales and sharks, and intriguing technology, the film’s thesis seems to be: family first. In this case, it’s the Sully family who fight the elements and their enemies to survive on the frontier.

Sully (a Marine in his past human life) and his sons communicate in military language and it’s a bit spasmodic; his sons reply “yes sir” to their father, not out of respect but because that is how they treat each other; they are sons in their father’s army. It’s a Sully family quirk. Is that wrong? Not necessarily, but it’s certainly harrowing to hear in a family said to be influenced by indigenous culture.

And while it’s not entirely off topic, the poor white kid the Sully family adopted, Spider (sort of a cross between the wild kid in Mad Max and Justin Bieber from the gas station days) is often forgotten or left low on the priority list the family. The mother practically despises him and he knows it. The Sully clan’s lack of respect for their human adoptee becomes comical as the film progresses.

At 3 hours and 10 minutes the film needs a more aggressive editor. While the time spent in Metkayina Territories offers a nice backstory, we probably won’t need to spend as much time exploring this new Na’vi version of Maoriland. I was fascinated by the updated Western film influences: trains are derailed by Comanche, um, I mean Na’vi, and plundered for modern weapons, the Sky people see the Na’vi as obstacles to “progress”, the Sully family are seen as filthy “half-breeds,” half Skymen, half Na’vi.

A film like this costs a lot of money and is therefore a technological marvel. Still, I wonder what if a producer gave a Maori-inspired project like this to a real Indigenous filmmaker, maybe a real Māori filmmaker like Taika Waititi, and we let a real Indigenous filmmaker tell the story instead of a story would be told through the lens of a white man updating colonial western film tropes? How would that look? And why are we looking at an indigenous story through the lens of a white man (3D) again? Well, the obvious answer is that James Cameron has the money to make it happen. But when are indigenous people allowed to produce something like this?

Or maybe the better question is: Is that the sort of thing that Native Americans even want to do?

There are many real issues affecting indigenous peoples in 2022. The forthcoming ICWA Supreme Court decision on whether or not Indigenous adoptees may remain with Indigenous families comes to mind. We have water issues (which, ironically, this film has nothing to do with), of course colonialism is pervasive, and the struggle for resources is always at play, but do we need a white man to clothe these issues in the world of fantasy? where 10 foot aliens fight “hard enough” to save the day and prove we’re not a “dead end society” after all? Perhaps Indigenous futurism should be left in the hands of real Indigenous filmmakers who know and can tell these stories?

When the first Avatar came out in 2009 I really enjoyed it. The technology was shiny and new, there were fewer indigenous stories in the film, maybe I even asked less about the kind of indigenousness I saw on screen; the times have changed. In 2022, we had three Indigenous-led television shows in the United States: Rutherford Falls, Reservation Dogs, and Dark Winds. Reservation Dogs alone had at least half a dozen Indigenous directors on its ranks. The time has come for Indigenous directors to remake these Westerns and continue making our own Indigenous futurism films in our own image, flipping the script, teasing the tropes, putting Indians before cowboys. We have enough proven talent at this point and don’t need aloof, privileged directors like James Cameron to appropriate indigenous culture for his stories. We can tell our own stories. We better tell them.

Jason Asenap is a Comanche and Muscogee Creek-based writer, critic, and filmmaker based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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