I am here on the second day of 2010, in this Greek Bahamian womanish body, at this worn kitchen table in a studio in Oakland, pieces of 2009 still nudging at my awareness: a Christmas tree I will have to dispose of soon, stacks of books and papers and unopened letters from fall semester in need of sorting, loose ends of a season of teaching online and writing that caused me to fall in love with storying in a way I have never experienced before.
Inhabiting the story more fully than I have since my childhood (when finding the story and witnessing to characters' lives came easily, was not a cerebral task but an embodied one on the fuchsia carpeted floor of a room of my own) I began to see story from the inside. Story as choices. Story as vision and talking back and asking again and again, what if? Story as medicine. Story as transformation. The power of story to create again and again our lives. The framework of our awareness. Of how we get to see ourselves and the beings with whom we share this planet, this universe. I think again of Leslie Marmon Silko saying “Don’t be fooled. Stories aren’t just entertainment. They are all we have to fight against illness and death.” And although she may not have been speaking specifically to me, I know she is right.
So, when my girlfriend and I sat down in a darkened theatre for three hours to watch James Cameron’s story Avatar in downtown Oakland yesterday, I wasn’t fooled. Yes, the visual effects were beautiful, stunning. All 350 million dollars’ worth of them. But the story is clichéd, dangerously so, because while it appears to call into question colonialism’s devastating effects on the colonized, it ultimately reinforces a colonial worldview: the colonizer’s transformation into enlightened savior depends fundamentally upon the initial devastation of the colonized.
Jake Sully’s (Sam Worthington) story begins with the ‘Sky People’s’ invasion of Pandora. There are sufficient references to a US social system (the military, Sully’s mention of “these economic times”) to connect the ‘Sky People’ with America and an American owned landscape, one in which natural resources have been so completely used up that corporations seeking new wealth have had to expand their reach beyond planet earth. On the planet Pandora is the hope of mineral wealth and the only thing standing in the way of getting it are the indigenous Na’vi.
Sully is a physically challenged white marine who will be used to infiltrate the Na’vi. He is also, we are led to believe, the intellectual inferior to his dead brother, whose place he must now take on a mission into Pandora by way of his Avatar. (The mission is at once military and scientific: the two arms of a colonial enterprise in space. In futuristic models, science takes the place of the church). Perhaps Cameron meant these qualities to create a sympathetic character, however I can’t help but observe the similarity here to historical colonial projects in which men of inferior standing in their own European countries could become ‘lords’ of small empires in the countries they colonized.
Sully’s story proceeds in a familiar way. His brutish arrogance and curiosity get him into trouble quickly in a forest he has no understanding of or connection to. He escapes near death in that forest and is spied by a ‘native’ of Pandora, Neytiri, (Zoe Saldana) who saves him from yet another close encounter with the forest’s four footed inhabitants. Why save me? He asks. Because you have a strong heart, she replies. And so we begin to see signs of his chosenness. (Because at least if he is ‘chosen’, we can argue that he isn’t like the other invaders, and if he is chosen, all this was meant to happen, it was destined to take place – the invasion and destruction of the Na’vis’ Hometree, and Sully’s avatar’s rise to ‘savior’ of Pandora.)
Once introduced to Neytiri’s clan, the Omaticaya, Sully’s avatar is allowed to live with the Omaticaya and ‘learn our ways’, and predictably falls in love with Neytiri, and she with him. He also falls in love with the forest and the Omaticaya way of life and commits himself to fighting on their behalf. But he doesn’t just fight on their behalf. Instead, remembering the story of Neytiri’s grandfather who brought the clans together by riding a large flying creature, the Toruk, and using that story to gain trust and, importantly, power, in the Omaticaya’s imagination, Sully’s avatar mounts the Toruk, bonds with it and flies down into the gathering of the Omaticaya by their sacred tree, the Tree of Souls. In a scene that was starkly unselfconscious in its imperialistic arrogance, Sully’s avatar becomes the Omaticaya’s new leader, as they kneel and make a pathway for him, awed by his newfound status.
Once located on their stage beneath the Tree of Souls, in a position to speak to the Omaticaya as their new leader, Sully’s avatar directs them as to how they must call on all Na’vi clans of Pandora to fight together to resist the Sky People, an idea that any of the Omaticaya could have articulated as well or better. Claiming an understanding of how colonialism works, (people come in and just take what they want) he then refers to Pandora as “our land”, and the Na’vi ‘masses’ are roused to fight with him in determined resistance. To Cameron’s credit, Sully’s avatar does ask Eyra (the ‘All Mother’ – the Omaticaya’s source and lifeline to their ancestors) to search through Grace Augustine’s (the now dead leader of the science arm of the colonial mission) memory of the Sky People’s world in order to use that information to fight them. But the point is that once again, the colonization of the indigenous population is the background story to a colonizer’s story of transformation. Of course the Na’vi fight back and win. Of course Neytiri helps kill Colonel Quaritch, and saves Jake Sully from dying so that Sully’s avatar will live. And, in the climactic last scene of the film, Sully lets go of his human body to become fully Omaticayan.
I am certain that many viewers saw in this final act of relinquishing his human self a triumph. In fact, when I was there last night, the audience applauded as the credits began to roll. After all, here is a white American marine whose job was to infiltrate, gather information and persuade the Na’vis to relocate so that the corporation could mine the mineral wealth underneath their Hometree, who instead becomes “a traitor to his race” and colludes with those whom he set out to trick and colonize. But he doesn’t just collude with the Na’vis, he claims leadership of them and we are led to believe that without him the Na’vis would have perished: a regurgitation of the neocolonial narrative of the ‘Great White Hope’.
Far from symbolizing hope, when Jake Sully relinquishes his human body, Cameron symbolically gives up on the possibility of transformation for human beings, and, I would argue, white people within a racially polarized society. In Avatar Cameron creates a world view that is fundamentally dualistic: a white dominated military force invading an indigenous population of blue people (people of color). He shows us that one is essentially monstrous and the other is essentially good. And that ultimately, in order to become what is good, the monstrous (a veteran marine, in a damaged body - a metaphor for the ways human beings have damaged themselves and the earth, are crippled by their own values) must be transformed by giving up himself. The suggestion then is that white people are not capable of transforming ourselves as white people, and instead we must take on the identity of the ‘native other’ to heal ourselves of ourselves.
The idea of white people as being so essentially divided from the ‘other’ is problematic. The idea of white people as being so implicitly alienated from what is ‘indigenous’, aligned with nature and an earth-based spirituality is also problematic, to say the least. ‘White’ Americans were indigenous people of somewhere before they became ‘white’ in a land where they were not indigenous. In the places where Europeans were indigenous, we also had earth-based spiritual world views which we relinquished, (many of us, but not all) as the religion of the ‘sky God’ took over. In our collective colonizing projects, we erased our own memories of these spiritual world views, then looked for them in the people we colonized. And though it may morph here and there, we are still telling (and living) that story.
For Cameron to end his movie with the human beings (the majority of whom are white) being called ‘alien’ by the now transformed Jake Sully is not triumphant. It is a sad commentary on the possibilities of the imagination in these times. It gives white people permission to a. imagine that people of color are responsible for teaching us to be more ‘humane’, and to b. opt out of imagining transformations of our own communities and the inheritance of a colonial and imperialistic and racist world view that keeps us trapped in stories like this one (and, dare I say, binaries like 'white' and 'people of color'). And, it feeds into the seductive idea that if white people ‘disappear’ (or at least all the bad ones) balance will be restored.
As a white woman, specifically as a Greek Bahamian woman who grew up on more than one story, I am not reconciled to any of these options. As a storyteller I know it’s in my power to imagine new stories; to ask myself questions like "What would a white American man’s story look like if the predictable plot were interrupted? What if the journey to Pandora was interrupted and Jake Sully’s story rose and fell and rose again on different soil, on the soil the Sky People left behind? What if white people’s enlightenment and transformation did not depend upon the devastation of people of color? What would that story look like?"
Leslie Marmon Silko’s words resonate in the walls of my kitchen, in the aloe plant and yellow hibiscus blooming on the linoleum floor beside me. Stories are medicine, and they can be poison too. As a storyteller - as a white woman who crafts stories - I am aware of the large responsibility of storying, of the risks involved in the work of imagining - the need to discern medicine from poison, and how, perhaps, to make use of both.