Avatar: Another Film About the Conquest and Colonization of Indigenous Peoples

Hollywood and James Cameron have high expectations for the new film Avatar, with its cutting edge technology and supposed science fiction plot.  However, on closer inspection, this film is a thinly disguised film about conquest and colonization of Indigenous peoples.   No doubt, this film will be as popular as the establishment hopes given the actual plot.

As a professor of American Indian Studies who has taught numerous classes on American Indians in Film, there are many examples of this plot throughout the history of filmmaking.  The typical plot of films about the “White Man’s Indian” [1] is the plight of the conquered peoples, helpless before the approaching colonizer, only to be saved by the sympathetic hero who appropriates Indigenous identity and in effect becomes more indigenous than the people he set out to conquer.  Examples of these films include classics like Little Big Man and Dances with Wolves.  In each of these films, the conqueror (the White character) feels sympathy for the conquered and decides to become one of the conquered and thus only he can save the people.  For a lengthy discussion on this, please review Jacquelyn Kilpatrick’s book Celluloid Indians.

Having taught about this premise in filmmaking for years, the film Avatar sounded the alarm bells in this professor.  Even more distressing was the lack of critical discourse about the film upon its release.  Now, the criticism has begun  on Facebook, in the Washington Post and in Blogs; hopefully the film will spark a discussion on race in film.  No doubt Cameron and Hollywood do not want any discussion; they just want your money.  After all, the story of conquest and colonization of Indigenous peoples has always sold well; the American public has been buying it for decades.

[1] See James Berhofer’s seminal work The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present on pp xvi, “…to understand the White image of the Indian is to understand White societies and intellectual premises over time, more than the diversity of Native Americans.”


One Comment on “Avatar: Another Film About the Conquest and Colonization of Indigenous Peoples”

  1. Daphne Young December 30, 2009 at 5:18 p12 #

    Interesting point! Now I have a moral high ground for not seeing this lame film.

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