'Avatar' A Box Office Hit, But Some Say It's Racist

The new 3D sci-fi movie 'Avatar' took in big bucks over the weekend. Director James Cameron's latest creation is being hailed for its mesmerizing special effects. But some see striking similarities between the "blue cat people" portrayed in the film and people of color. Washington Post Columnist Courtland Milloy tells why he thinks 'Avatar' is metaphorical narrative about race and power. Milloy is joined by Wesley Morris, a film critic for the Boston Globe.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Coming up, we'll talk to the author of a new book that takes a look at the troubled political history of Rwanda from the inside. He is the former speaker of the parliament who took office hoping to be part of the rebuilding of a country that had been racked by so much violence. We'll find out why he is living in exile now.

But first, some movie news. James Cameron's 3-D blockbuster "Avatar" tops the box-office for a second straight weekend, earning $75 million in the U.S. alone. Worldwide, it's pulled in over $600 million, easily recouping the astonishing $400 million it reportedly cost to make the three-hour epic. The plot centers on a former Marine, Jake Sully, sent to infiltrate an alien population's planet, Pandora, is targeted by an intergalactic mining corporation.

(Soundbite of movie, "Avatar")

Mr. STEPHEN LANG (Actor): (as Colonel Miles Quaritch) We have an indigenous population of humanoids called the Na'vi. They're fond of arrows dipped in a neurotoxin that will stop your heart in one minute. And they have bones reinforced with naturally occurring carbon fiber. They are very hard to kill.

MARTIN: Sully ends up falling for a female Na'vi and switches sides. For this, he gets labeled a race traitor by other characters in the movie. The film is being hailed for pioneering new techniques in special effects, but it had also sparked a very interesting debate online about whether it just rehashes old stereotypes about race and power and who gets to be the hero and who is the victim.

Joining us now to talk more about this is Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy. He recently wrote about this issue. Also with us is Boston Globe film critic Wesley Morris, who joins us from member station WBUR in Boston. Gentlemen, thank you to you both. Happy holidays to you both.

Mr. COURTLAND MILLOY (Columnist, Washington Post): Same to you.

Mr. WESLEY MORRIS (Film Critic, Boston Globe): Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, I'm going to make a confession. I normally don't discuss a film without having seen it, but I have not had three hours in my life to...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: ...to see this film to this point. So, I have to take both of your words for it and try to be attentive to spoilers. But...

Mr. MORRIS: Michel, I told you to go.

MARTIN: I know you did, yeah, but you didn't offer to babysit so I could go. So, thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But Courtland, you wrote that some might wonder how blue cat people become stand-ins for oppressed people of color and you said it's actually more obvious than it seems. How is it obvious?

Mr. MILLOY: Well, as you mentioned earlier, the use of the bow and arrow and the poison tips are very much part of South American indigenous culture, African culture, Native American culture. But that's only part of it. The look, the way the colors are used as makeup for the Na'vi people are very much associated with people who have been colonized in other words.

MARTIN: So, they are the other?

Mr. MILLOY: They are the other.

MARTIN: They're hard to kill. All the myths, they're hard to kill, they're superhuman.

Mr. MILLOY: Yes.

MARTIN: Now, you quote a white science fiction blogger, Annalee Newitz, as saying: this is the essence of the white guilt fantasy laid bare. It's not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color. It's not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It's a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the oppressive white outside. Think of it this way, "Avatar" is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meat sack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege. You buy all that?

Mr. MILLOY: Well, what I found interesting is that the readers of this quote generated the bulk of the conversation about race and what white guilt was about. And a lot of the discussion was whether or not this was true. A lot of the white readers that I heard from would say that it's not. But you find out that many of these people only came to country, you know, within the last 100 years. So, the knowledge of African-American history in the country is sorely lacking. So, people will begin to talk about what the role of African-Americans were in this country. And through that process of discovery, you have the conversation about race going on.

MARTIN: Wesley, what do you think? I know you liked the film. So, tell us what you think about the conversation that it has sparked about race. Do you think that some of the criticism is apt?

Mr. MILLOY: Oh, yeah. I don't - I don't think...

MARTIN: I'm sorry, I was asking Wesley to weigh in here. Wesley?

Mr. MORRIS: Well, you know, I'm - it's complicated. I mean - on the one hand, any interpretation of a movie, be it accurate or insane, is valid according to the person making the observation. I think in the case of "Avatar," there are so many other things going on that I find it - it's a little limiting to sort of look at it through a prism of specifically race. I mean, there's - it's such an elastic metaphor, the Na'vi. I mean...

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MORRIS: ...they stand in for race, ethnicity, civilization, political situations...

MARTIN: Environmental care.

Mr. MORRIS: Environmental care. They're a non-human species. I mean, this movie, I mean, if we're going to - if we can - if we're going to say that James Cameron is operating sort of through this white liberal guilt, I think he is probably guilty about a lot of things.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORRIS: But it also - it's interesting that he uses his guilt not - he uses it in anger. He uses it in wonder. He uses it in extreme empathy. It's the idea that he is sort of going back and forth and using his white privilege from the inside and the outside is interesting because, without giving the movie away, that's not entirely true by the time the movie is over.

MARTIN: Hmm. Courtland - so let me ask Courtland, what do you think? Wesley, you've gone on record with us and in your column, saying this is worth seeing. What, Courtland, what about you?

Mr. MILLOY: Yes. Because of the racial angle, it's good to talk about. And...

MARTIN: Do you think it's racist, though?

Mr. MILLOY: I think that anytime you bring up race, you have the possibilities of going into race. I don't think everybody, you know - I don't necessarily think James Cameron is a racist. But I do think that this offers an opportunity for people to weigh in on how they view race. And I think that is part of what we need to do. Wesley put it very, very well, when he said that people bring to the movie their own vision, their own experiences and nobody is right or wrong particularly. But when I wrote about it in racial terms, you - I got this tremendous amount of feedback. People are hungry for discussions and to get their views out.

MARTIN: Well, Wesley, do you think - you get the final word unfortunately, this is a rich discussion, do you think that Hollywood is a good place to have conversations about race?

Mr. MORRIS: Sure. I think it's probably one of the best places to have this conversation. I also just would like to say that, you know, in terms of "Avatar," I don't think that the relationship between this Jake Sully character, who is basically our avatar into this special effects 3-D world is -I don't think the movie is racist. I think that, you know, James Cameron is one person who has some ideas about how he feels about this community that he has created. And I don't think the - the characters are too rich to be limited...

MARTIN: Hmm.

Mr. MORRIS: ...merely by their race. They're actual characters.

MARTIN: Okay, we'll have to leave it there for now. And we will have links to both of the pieces that you have both written about the film and our previous conversation with you about the film on our Web site. Just go to npr.org and click on programs and TELL ME MORE.

Wesley Morris is a film critic for the Boston Globe and he joined us from member station WBUR in Boston. Courtland Milloy is a columnist for the Washington Post. And he joined us from our studios here. Thank you both and happy holidays.

Mr. MILLOY: Thank you. Happy Holidays.

Mr. MORRIS: Thanks, you too, Michel.

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