By Jessica Lee
Deer pointed to large Hollywood films, such as Dances with Wolves, Little Big Man, Windtalkers and Avatar, where the hero who saves the indigenous people is always a non-indigenous person. He asked Cameron why he also chose this narrative, and instantly received a large cheer from the audience.
Cameron responded, “That was one of the backlashes against the movie, that the so-called main character was not an indigenous leader himself.” However, he said that the goal in making the film was not to try to “tell indigenous people how bad things are for them,” but rather to “wake up” people who play the roles of economic oppressors or invaders in real-life. “I understand the white messiah argument,” he said, “but in this movie, I am trying to make everybody a white messiah, for everybody to have the sense of responsibility to help with the problem. I think it is such absolutely courageous how you are fighting for your rights … But it is going to take people from the other side meeting you part way and taking responsibility for what has happened in the past and the way we need to live in going forward.”
Cameron continued, “But, if you’ll notice, I tried to go behind the normal Hollywood paradigm and have Jake work within the leadership system of the Na’vi, by not displacing the leader Tsu’Tey who had taken over leadership of the clan when the patriarch, when the father dies, as he stands up with him and ask him to translate for him—so that the message comes from both of them together. I tried to show two cultures meeting halfway to find a solution. And perhaps Hollywood can go further in that regard. Maybe it my own parochial, chauvinistic perspective as a writer. As an artist, it is very important to write from the heart, and Avatar is what came out.”
Cameron's excuse is he wants everybody, not just indigenous people, to have a sense of responsibility. For change to happen, he thinks the Western, industrialized side must meet the indigenous side part way. Both sides must work together to find solutions.
Great, but what does that have to do with choose a white-messiah figure to lead the battle? Why couldn't a Na'vi leader be the one who brought the Terran and Pandoran sides together? Why couldn't the Terrans have followed his lead rather than the Pandorans following Jake's lead?
Cameron has admitted being ignorant about indigenous issues, and it shows. If he were following the Native media, he'd know that Natives lead hundreds of conferences, campaigns, and protests every year. They don't sit around waiting for white folks to bridge the gap with them. They take the lead and bridge the gap themselves.
That's what's missing from Avatar--that sense of indigenous people determining their fate with or without outside help. Indians leaders such as Tecumseh, Osceola, and Geronimo resisted the US for years, on their own, without a white man's advice.
Jake Sully...a co-leader?
Cameron's claim that Jake and Tsu'Tey were co-leaders is pure rubbish. Jake is the one who conquered the unconquerable Toruk, proving himself the messiah who could rally tribes from across the planet. Jake is the one who made the big speech, led the troops into battle, and secured the final victory. Even if Tsu'Tey was the Na'vi's nominal leader, his role was inconsequential.
The real reason for making the hero white is that Cameron was working inside his comfort zone. He chose to feature white characters because he's white. Which means he's consciously or unconsciously prejudiced against others.
I guess we'll find out for sure in Avatar 2. Now that he's made a billion dollars and proved the marketability of blue aliens, he can do whatever he wants. He could give Jake Sully a minor role in the sequel, or not use him at all. He could do an entire movie with Pandorans only--no humans in avatar's clothing. If he chooses to make Terrans the heroes again, it'll strongly suggest his bias.
For more on the subject, see The White Messiah Fable and White Guilt in Avatar.
Below: "James Cameron receives several gifts from indigenous communities after Avatar was screened to some 400 delegates of the U. N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the New York Directors Guild Theatre in Midtown Manhattan April 24."