The recently released movie Avatar is a fantastic escape from realism however you leave contemplating the dilemmas people face: the “war on terrorism”, how we treat the environment, the clash between majority and minority cultures, colonization and colonialism, spirituality and religion, gender roles, and these were just the ones it brought up for me. A recent New York Times article discusses how many people have their buttons pushed by this movie. According to the author David Itzkoff:
That so many groups have projected their issues onto “Avatar” suggests that it has burrowed into the cultural consciousness in a way that even its immodest director could not have anticipated. Its detractors agree that it is more than a humans-in-space odyssey — even if they do not agree on why that is so.
“Some of the ways people are reading it are significant of Cameron’s intent, and some are just by-products of what people are thinking about,” said Rebecca Keegan, the author of “The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron.” “It’s really become this Rorschach test for your personal interests and anxieties.”
So, for today let me bring you into my “personal interests and anxieties”:
As engrossing, entertaining, visually stunning, and ground breaking (technologically) as this movie has been one piece that stands out for me as an Ethiopian born and west raised individual is how it continues to perpetuate the age old colonization story. Rich white man has messed up his own, finds an unsuspecting group of “[savage]…blue monkeys”, plays nice to see if they can be tricked into giving up their goods, and then decides to obliterate in order to get what he wants. The slight twist here is one of the colonizers has a change of heart after getting to know the natives and then plays a leading role to rescue them from the dangers in the end. If it wasn’t for this white man the “savages” would likely be displaced at the least and destroyed in the worst case scenario.
Yes this is “just a movie” but don’t estimate what subtle messages (intended or not) do to people. In graduate school I worked with the Empowered Youth Programs which was an enrichment program for minority kids. I led discussion groups for mostly African American kidsto get them thinking about ways they can take control of their life to ensure a happier more fulfilling future. As I think of this movie I am reminded of one such group discussion. At the time I had read how for African American men especially there are limited role models to relate to. When you hear of a black man in the media he is usually a rapper, an athlete, or a criminal. In the article it mentioned how a black man had significantly higher chance of becoming a succesful physician (statistically speaking) than a rapper or athlete yet many black men continually believe their place is in music or sports (even when they do not have the talent). As a result, they misdirect their time and energy for an industry they are not likely to succeed in. According to the article if these kids saw more teachers, doctors, lawyers, etc. then they could open their minds more when defining what it means to be a succesful black man. More importantly, time and energy growing up can be used towards activities that could help them in these other pursuits (school, internships, etc.) Despite the data, despite the stats, despite my heartfelt explanation the message fell on blank stares in that group. The one 11 or 12 year old boy courageous enough to voice the common thought of the group basically stated my numbers were a bunch of crap and that he plans to pursue a career in the NFL no matter what I said. When I asked if he has played in youth leaggues or at his middle school to prepare the answer was no. What this child was telling me was that without training to play college ball nor the grades to get into college he expected to one day play for the NFL. I backed down when I realized I was dangerously close to killing the only dream this child held. One he felt the need to defend against this authority figure because without this dream he had nothing else to hold on to.
In the summer of 2009 President Obama visited Ghana and gave a speech that was discussed on NPR a few days ago. According to one Ghanaian listener Obama’s message at the time was that the future of Africa was in the hands of Africans. The gentleman mentioned that prior to this speech Ghanaians and Africans depended on foreign aid to make significant changes in their world. According to the gentleman this one man making this one statement has led Ghana to look internally more than ever to fix its own woes.
After seeing Avatar I had a long conversation with a Jewish nearly retired coworker who initially disagreed with the argument that Cameron did a disservice by having the final hero be a white male. This white man and I struggled through a difficult conversation on “micro aggressions” (a psychological term meaning “actions or inactions by individuals that perpetuate the status quo of racism, homophobia, sexism and xenophobia”, overt discrimination, discrimination across other demographics, social responsibility), the role of media in perpetuating beliefs, and on and on. In the end we were able to connect through a “minor” media bit he had a reaction about. Larry King is Jewish and his real name is Lawrence Harvey Zeiger. He changed his name early in his career at the request of his boss and then built his career. According to my co-worker, this small change of a name, that to many in and out of the community meant nothing, was feeding into the status quo belief that identifying as Jewish even ethnically (without practicing) is not ok. He wished King would have stood up for himself as a message to Jews everywhere that they do not have to change who they are to be accepted by mainstream America.
As the New York Times article states, we each react to the world around us based on the lens that developed from our personal experiences. As my co-worker pointed out, asking an affluent (some say arrogant) white director to make a movie that is sensitive to all the criticisms (including mine) that are brought against the movie is a tall order. I understand this and yet still wonder how much more powerful a message it could have been had he been able to make a small (in my view) adjustment of giving the Na’Vi a larger role in their own salvation (please do not read any religious context in that word – I am talking about something completely different.) However, what I do appreciate about this movie is that it has opened up an opportunity for dialogue between people who see and think differently. Were it not for Avatar, this conversation between my co-worker and I would never have happened and I am grateful for the opportunity to better connect and understand a man who comes from such a different background than I.
In closing I want to bring this conversation to the Eritrean and Ethiopian diaspora. Similar to African Americans, if we see our faces in the media it is usually around famine, war, or some other chalamity. The message, especially for young Eritreans/Ethiopians who do not have their own memories of that land and people, is that we are victims, can’t help ourselves, and we are not as good as the west. I pray for more positive representations of our people to build the moralle and initiative in us. That is one of the biggest reasons that Liya and I are working on this book project. We want to show the wide varieties of options for kids who look like us. Liya recently wrote a piece for Ethiopian Americans for Change discussing how our people are good at following the status quo of what is put before us. (How many of you have taxi drivers, doctors, and small store owners in your family? How many of your parents want you to follow in these footsteps?) Part of this project is showcasing the diversity of the diaspora so people who are so inclined may be encouraged to get off the beaten path and pusue their passions and talents – to encourage people to be true to who they are. As my co-worker said, I might be expecting too much of the majority culture to ask them to focus on my people, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t. Half African Obama has done tons for the morale of Africans and African Americans, what could succesful Ethiopians and Eritreans do for our people? To see what succesful Eris and Ethios are doing go to our facebook group and scroll through the wall. I regularly showcase our people there.
Are you doing something unique and doing it well? Are you following the usual path but are enjoying it? Get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org – I would love to showcase you as well.