Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Exploitation of Aliens

Avatar (2009, color, 3D, IMAX)
District 9 (2009, black & white)

I stray from my usual obsession with vintage movies to discuss two films that have created quite a buzz last year, a buzz that continues into the new decade for a pair of Oscar’s Best Picture nominees. And a buzz on which I feel compelled add my two cents.

To begin with, the two movies couldn’t be farther apart graphically. Visually, Avatar is a stunning beautifully, vividly colorful story that feels like a moving 3-D mural, while District 9 is a photographically gritty, old-school black-and-white offering that intentionally adopts a documentary format. But their graphic differences are not where I want to spend my two cents, except to say that they both are fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable cinematic efforts. I’m much more interested in investing my Lincoln coins in a subject of the interpretations of their plots.

Thematically, these two movies have somewhat similar storylines ─ the human exploitation of being from other planets. In Avatar, the humans go to another planet to create their greed-inspired mischief, while in District 9, the aliens come to Earth and are exploited by humans trying to learn how to use the visitors’ bio-mechanic weaponry. The concept of showing the human race in such a predatory portrayal has upset many people, quite a few of whom have denounced the movies ─ especially Avatar. And from what I’ve seen, these denouncers are almost exclusively members of the culturally dominant segment of our society. Also, the idea that these movies could be meant to be allegories about race relations has upset other groups of people. For instance, some black folks are upset that the good guy in Avatar who leads the alien civilization in revolt is Caucasian and say the movie is an attempt to assuage white guilt. And because District 9, although made in South Africa, is said to be an allegory about illegal immigration is the United States, I suspect that more than a few Latinos are upset by being portrayed as disgusting-looking shrimp-like beings euphemistically called “prawns” by the humans in the movie.

If ever two movies were ripe for dissection, these are them. While I do believe that these films are attempting to make political ─ and in the case of Avatar, environmental ─ points, some of this fuss I just find too self-serving. For instance, as my daughter points out, the blue creatures of Avatar could be looked upon more as Native Americans than African Americans. And although I agree with her analogy, I also think that the blue humanoids could be looked upon as Africans, as opposed to African Americans. However, this is a useless argument as far as I’m concerned. For me, the movie is about exploitation, regardless of the color of the people being exploited.

Which brings me to the exploiters in these two movies: In Avatar, my daughter sees Halliburton as the root of the evil. While I can agree with that, in this movie I tend to see the companies that made their fortunes on the backs and property of native people that were exploited during the colonial period of world history ─ like the Dutch East India Company purchasing Manhattan Island for $24 in trinkets. But that’s a generational difference of perception. As for District 9, my younger son and I agree that the exploiter is the military industrial complex that is ever-seeking a more efficient way of killing.

As for the claim that Avatar offers a way for white Americans to assuage their guilt over their historical treatment of peoples of color: I suppose this could be true, but I think this is another useless argument. While the bad guys in both movies are led by whites, black bad guys abound in both stories. Also, while once the only depiction of black people in movies that were distributed to general audiences were shiftless, lazy, big-eyed, inane caricatures, that is not longer the case. Now, there are just as many white fools in movies as there are black ones ─ and, more importantly, there are many, many more instances of black heroes on the big screen than ever. So if you’re looking for a way to show how whites assuage their guilt, you could just as easily look at how many of them enjoy movies where a black person saves the day.

I discussed the Avatar observations with my older son, my daughter and her husband. I discussed the District 9 themes with my younger son. They immediately dismissed a lot of the brouhaha as bull doodoo ─ and I have to say that I agree with them. They didn’t want to hear about who did what to whom back in the day. They know race relations aren’t perfect, but the world they see is one that is trying to get beyond the lingering garbage, a clean world where race hatred eventually becomes a thing of the far-distant past. Are they being na├»ve? Maybe. Are they being unrealistic? Again, maybe. Are they being overly optimistic? Certainly not. Should they fear the racist attitudes and actions that still occur ─ or for that matter, the religious fanatics of all stripes who would do them harm? No, never! I’ve tried to teach my children not to fear racial animosity or violence ─ to accept that it occurs and try to not let it turn them into whimpering victims. Life is too short and too sweet to be looking over your shoulder afraid of the person walking behind you. Most times, that person has too many other things on his or her own mind to be concerned about you. So my children’s reaction to my discussion was most heartening.

And speaking of religion, apparently the head of the Catholic Church has condemned Avatar because the aliens worship nature rather than God. This is an argument I don't understand. It seems to me that since God created nature, when you worship nature you are singing the praises of God's generous creation that sustains all of us. So in fact, you are worshiping God.

But back to the exploitation: We should all remember that although the United States was founded as an imperfect union where exploitation was rampant, many people of color overlooked that flaw and contributed to making this country great ─ people like Crispus Atticks, Phoebe Frances, Sacagawea, Frederick Douglas, George Washington Carver, W.E.B. DuBois, Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, to name just a few. Racial barriers are coming down every day ─ as evidenced by our current President, Barack Obama, and the growing number of interracial couples showing up in movies, on television, in the streets and in our families. (In case you haven’t noticed by my picture, I’m black. My mother’s father was a Native American. My children’s mother is of Chinese descent. My White French wife’s daughters’ father was born in Puerto Rico. And my son-in-law is of Irish descent.) Has the United States cleansed itself of prejudice and bigotry? Of course not, and it won’t until all forms of prejudice and bigotry are eliminated from the hearts and souls of every single citizen of the United States. And then maybe exploitation ─ which often happens when people take advantage of those of their own race or ethnicity as well as when one racial or ethnic group takes advantage of another ─ will cease to be.

One final observation about the movies: The main character in both films ends up acquiring the racial makeup of the oppressed. But then, there is another difference here. In Avatar, the hero gladly accepts his new circumstances. In District 9, the “hero” longs to return to his original self.

Look, whatever a person gleans from a movie, a book or any story largely depends on what was ingrained in that person by his or her parents, relatives and other influential people in their lives, as well as that person’s life experiences. There’s just no way around this. So while it’s always tempting to place a value judgment on these things ─ and Lord knows, I do it all the time; just look at my previous and future blogs ─ sometimes it’s useful to ignore that something that you think is aimed right at your very being and just sit back and enjoy the movie. After all, it’s entertainment. Let it entertain you.

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