Avatar: Way Of Appropriation

Why director James Cameron is in hot water.


Fans have long awaited the second installment of the Avatar franchise, Avatar: Way of The Water, after the first was released 13 years ago and was the highest grossing film in history; But its release on December 16, left many native tribes to urge fans to boycott the movies and its seemingly racist message. 

Director James Cameron says he had nothing but the best intentions in making the Avatar movies, but many have trouble accepting this after an interview in 2010 saying, “This was a driving force for me in the writing of Avatar–I couldn’t help but think that if they [the Lakota Sioux] had had a time-window and they could see the future… and they could see their kids committing suicide at the highest suicide rates in the nation… because they were hopeless and they were a dead-end society – which is what is happening now – they would have fought a lot harder,” This hit a little too close to home for many Native Americans, as he seemingly blamed the Lakota Sioux for their mass genocide.

The film centers on ex–marine Jake Sully, who is now permanently implanted in his 9 foot tall, blue “avatar” and his Na’vi family. The Na’vi are at war with humans who want to colonize their planet and Sully is leading them. When he realizes his presence is a danger to the people he’s leading, he and his family leave their Forest tribe to seek refuge with the Ocean tribe, a Na’vi group who show them the ways of the water.

Cameron has said the Avatar series is a blatant metaphor for indigenous genocide and colonization of native lands. “Europe equals Earth. The native Americans are the Na’vi,” said Cameron. While raising awareness about past wrongdoings is seen as good, what people are having trouble with is the simplicity of the message and the sweeping stereotypes being portrayed in the movie, made by white people. The Forest Na’vi have practices similar to many different Native American and African societies, while the Ocean Na’vi are Polynesian in their ways. But many feel the makers of the movie are using their way of living as “cultural glitter,” without giving them any real credit. 

Sully is adopted by the Na’vi people, despite his human origin, in the first movie. He learns the customs and even rides the tribe’s flying creature, the Ikran, in record time. This has been seen as the filmmakers portraying Sully, a human, as superior to his Na’vi counterparts. This is perpetuated when we see him leading the tribe and the army fighting the humans in Way of The Water. This plays to the common white savior trope portrayed heavily in the media. 

Native American activists have spoken out about this movie, “Join Natives & other Indigenous groups around the world in boycotting this horrible & racist film. Our cultures were appropriated in a harmful manner to satisfy some white man’s savior complex. No more Blueface!” said Yuè Begay, a Navajo artist, on twitter. She is mainly outraged that the movie portrayed these native stories using white actors. “We should’ve been the ones whose faces and voices appeared on the screen. We are the experts in portraying our hurt, suffering, and more importantly, our resilience,” she said. 

Director Cameron plans to make five Avatar movies in total, but many wonder if these films will be as successful in light of all this controversy.