Friday, December 25, 2009

Avatar, Africans and Racism: Some Brief Reflections on James Cameron’s Tale about White Supremacy

I’ve seen Avatar three times in the past five days.

Suffice it to say that Hollywood rarely makes direct references to racism/white supremacy especially when it comes to African people.

Avatar does it and does it well.

I loved the film because it is one of Hollywood’s best attempts to deal with the horrors of white supremacy and the African response to it. Julie Dash’s hauntingly beautiful 1991 film Daughters of the Dust was remarkable for its rendering of the intersection of racism, white supremacy and African spirituality. James Cameron’s latest film expands on Dash’s contribution by providing science fiction as a backdrop for discussing global white supremacy.

Avatar is not the first attempt at discussing racism in the context of science fiction. Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner, a rendering of Phillip Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, used androids (“skinjobs”) seeking freedom from their makers as metaphors for Black people pressing for civil rights. Here’s a dialogue between Harrison Ford, playing a bounty hunter (“Deckard”) and, M. Emmet Walsh playing a racist cop named (“Bryant”) discussing “skinjobs”:

Bryant: Hi ya, Deck...You wouldn't have come if I just asked you to. Sit down, pal. Come on, don't be an ass-hole Deckard. I've got four skin jobs walking the streets.

Deckard (voice-over): Skin jobs. That's what Bryant called replicants. In history books, he's the kind of cop that used to call black men niggers.

It is interesting that Dick wrote “Androids…”during the civil rights era --- the year that Martin Luther King was assassinated.

It is also interesting to note how white critics are making weak attempts to transform the blue Na’vi people into anything but Africans.

Repeat after me: The Na’vi are clearly Africans and here are the proofs:

1. All the lead roles are played by Black people (DUH!)
a. Zoë Saldaña plays Neytiri, the princess
b. C. C. H. Pounder plays Mo'at, the Omaticaya's spiritual leader, Neytiri's mother, and consort to clan leader Eytucan
c. Laz Alonso, plays Tsu’tey, Sulley’s rival for Neytiri and heir to crown of the Omaticaya
d. Wes Studi, plays Eytukan, the leader of the Omaticaya and is the sole indigenous character (Cherokee) among the clan

2. The phrase, “I see you” is taken directly from the Zulu (South African) greeting, "Sanibonani" which means, “I see you”. The reply, "Yebo, Sanibonani". “Yes, I see you”, has been widely used for centuries among the Zulu.

3. The Na’vi wear locs in their hair (not “dreadlocks”) throughout the film, a hairstyle that is as old as Egypt (KMT)

4. The dress of the Na’vi is an amalgam of south and west African clothing

5. The names of the Na'vi are direct borrowings from Africa. (Thanks to Charisma (below) for this insightful point. "The princess' name is Neytiri, which immediately caused me to think of Nefertari; a woman with beauty and brains who ruled in the new kingdom with her father. Another example is one that almost jumped off the page as I read your blog! Mo'at as the spiritual leader in the film (according to the blog), shares a profound reflection and parallel to the ancient Goddess Ma'at.

In ancient Kemet Ma'at is known as the female balance. There are 7 virtues of Ma’at, which are truth, righteousness, harmony, balance, reciprocity, justice and order. Ma’at is the symbol, energy or deity of truth justice and balance. There are 42 declarations of Ma’at that were used in ancient Kemet as a moral code for the living and the standard that the dead would be judged by."

White reviewers of the film are in a state of denial about likening the Na’vi to “indigenous Americans”. Historically, violent, rapacious, imperialistic, white supremacist attacks have not only been directed toward Africans, but indigenous people as well. Indeed, if Avatar doesn’t do anything else, it shows that white supremacy directs its malicious onslaught against all people of color both inside and outside of Africa.

The reaction to the film is also split along racial lines. Some white critics have referred to it as “cowboys and Indians in outer space”, or emphasize its “technical achievements” or dispassionately talk about Cameron’s innovative use of motion-capture animation technology. Black people see the film for what it is --- a metaphor of how Africans have been treated for centuries, and the European worldview that encourages environmental degradation, ignores the sacred and dehumanizes any group it seeks to subdue.

It’s hard for people --- mostly white --- and some people of color, to talk about the most troubling social issue of today --- racism but Cameron has made this task a little easier by providing a visual, political and spiritual experience which can become a vehicle for doing just that. Don’t spoil it by twisting the film into something it isn’t --- “cowboys and Indians in outer space”… (((sigh)))…


  1. A wonderful and thoughtful article. I agree with everything you have said and thought the same while watching the film. I even became quite emotional while watching the film because I think it is the most explicate examination of how Africans and indigenous people have been treated in the last 500 years.

  2. Anonymous1:06 PM

    I haven't had the chance to see the movie yet. However, I did have the opportunity to travel to Kemet (Egypt) this past summer and I too find it to be quite interesting how some of the names used in the film as discussed in your post have a striking resemblance to names of ancient Afrikans. Give or take a few letters and knowledge of ancient Kemet, one may easily be able to see and compare how white supremacy continues to desecrate mother Afrika.

    One example is in the name Neytiri (the princess), which immediately caused me to think of Nefertari; a woman with beauty and brains who ruled in the new kingdom with her father. Another example is one that almost jumped off the page as I read your blog! Mo'at as the spiritual leader in the film (according to the blog), shares a profound reflection and parallel to the ancient Goddess Ma'at.
    In ancient Kemet Ma'at is known as the female balance. There are 7 virtues of Ma’at, which are truth, righteousness, harmony, balance, reciprocity, justice and order. Ma’at is the symbol, energy or deity of truth justice and balance. There are 42 declarations of Ma’at that were used in ancient kemet as a moral code for the living and the standard that the dead would be judged by.

    When looking at the character's hairstyle in the picture, as previously mentioned in the blog post, the resemblance is clearly Ancient Kemetic. The style reminds me of Amenemhet III from the middle kingdom, and whose name meant "son of truth, justice and righteousness. Amenemhet III was one of the most outstanding monarchs of Kemetic history who had complete knowledge of the political and social conditions of his time.

    I'm tempted to further discuss the role of Tsu'tey compared to the deity of wisdom and intellect Tehuti, but I have yet to see the film, and that's just another name similarity to this point.

    In retrospect, from an Afrikan mind perspective I'm certain the picture is crystal clear. ...They try to hide our history, 'cause they know who we are. This comes as no surprise.

    Thanks once again, Dr. Winbush for the food for thought.

    Charisma Wasiymah

  3. Charisma,

    Thanks for the *tremendous* insight on the film! The Mo'at/Ma'at similarities completely went over my head. When you seen the film, I'd love to get your take on it.


  4. Les C4:39 PM

    Interesting how different people see different messages in this incredible movie. I was struck by the beauty of the Na'vi people and thought there was no question they were based on Africans. Also striking to me was their love of the land and spirituality. I just hope folks can draw some wisdom from the film without turning it into the usual hate-fest that so often happens when there is a message to be learned from a film.

    I sat among a predominantly white, mixed in age and background audience In Cleveland, Ohio and was taken by the shared response we all had to the film...chatting about it on the way out. I think response splits not along racial lines but along a deeper fault line, that of those who truly believe we are all people/brothers and sisters of this planet and those who don't.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. AVATAR! My first experience with the word was when my grand daughter was watching a cartoon about a little bald headed boy in indiginous clothing. He was attempting to learn to master the four elements in order to save the world! At that time I looked up the word avatar, knowing that nothing is done by accident, only to find the meaning to be, "God In Person!" This was about two or three years ago. So, when I heard there was a movie about Avatar, I was very interested. However, I never imagined that the true history and characteristic of my people would be displayed in such a beautiful way. I prompted me to study Mr Cameron and his thinking. His study of the universe scientifically and historically. It has given me a greater appreciation for Art & culture. I intend to see Avatar again, for study purposes this time. The Na'vi language sounds quite like Mtu Ntr, the ancient Khemetic language. This is really interesting!

  7. Anonymous4:36 AM

    This is Cass. I have no ID:
    That makes me wonder if the 42 negative confessions in the Ma'atian tradition are the same / basis for the answer to the question posed to the computer Deep Thought in Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" : "What is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything?"

  8. Anonymous7:55 AM

    Just a point. A lot of Egyptian people in movies and TV have been portrayed as very dark in skin color(ie African American). This is wrong. Egyptians were not black. Egypt, however, was conquered by the Kush Empire around 700BC. This was also referred to as the Nubian Empire. The Kush people did have a very dark skin color. So this is the origin of the misconception that the indigenous Egyptians were black.

    1. Yes, the were. They were african, it is obvious. They have traveled to egpyt and found picks (the kind for afro-textured hair), who else would be able to use that?

  9. Interesting that you say this, because I think the exact opposite. Most of the Egyptians portrayed in medie are decidedly European in color, e.g., Cecil B. De Mille's "The Ten Commandments". In fact there seems to be a resistance to western media as seeing Egypt as an African nation or having African connections at all.

    What shows/media havve you seen Egyptians portrayed as African? Just curious.

  10. Hetep and REspect RAy, I just saw Avatar and will be doing a story on my blog and my Newsvine column ( Giving Avatar the Cultural Health Award. I will link to your very informative piece.

    @nonymous 4:36 Said:

    "...This is wrong. Egyptians were not black..."

    Your error is caused by Cultural Illiteracy including no knowledge of the Melanin Dosage test or the Kametic language Aside from the fact that the Kametians Are African (Africans come in many shades.) We do not have to guess at their melanin capacity, the scientific testing and their words have already told us.

    You may have knowledge regarding Classical European Civilization, but you should leave Classical African Civilization to the Africans and their descendants, unless you have some scientific melanin evidence to provide.

  11. Great post! My husband and I watched Avatar last night and were blown away. The Navi are totally based on Africans - we know - we are Africans and identified some of the tribal dressing and war armor closely resembling the Maasai. The story reminded me of the 1900 Scramble For Africa when Europeans dissected Africa on a map then send in armies to invade and colonize so they could plunder the natural resources. Same plot different location - unobtainium easily conjures images of the race and war for oil.

  12. Anonymous12:10 AM

    I agree with you my brothers and sisters. Unfortunately, it is going to take Yahweh Himself to come back to stop the Western onslaught on all people of color. Western culture has defined the word "civilized" for far too long and the movie proves it. Please pray for them, because the world that THEY have built is destroying everything. Spiritually and physically. We were created to Worship the Father, multiply, and to tend to the earth. Anything else is just icing on the cake....

  13. Anonymous8:10 PM

    As i watched the movie, I kept thinking "Wow everywhere White America went......:( they left mass destruction

  14. Anonymous9:37 PM

    There is nothing NEW under the sun...Truth will always overshadow falsehoods and beyond the pale facinations!

  15. Anonymous10:38 AM

    I agree, though I thought the same thing while being white, it's not all black-and-white in the world

  16. Anonymous4:32 PM

    Great technology on the story of the continuos onslaught of Afrika, Afrikans and other oppressed peoples. Europeans always tell their stories, now it has been tachnically enhanced in 3D for REAL!

  17. Greg T12:17 AM

    A note on the comments made by (anonymous)at 4:36 AM dealing with the obviously misinformed assertions concerning the original people who lived in what is now called modern day Egypt. Perhaps he may clear up his confusion and or denial by researching Gerald Massey - Ancient Egypt Light of the world or A Book of the Beginning, Cheik A Diops - African Origin of Civilization. Martin Bernals Black Athena. The Journal of African Civilization edited by the late Ivan Van Sertama- The Nile Valley edition, or Anthony Browders Nile Valley Contribution to Civilization.

  18. Excellent, excellent article. I had the exact same thoughts about the movie!

  19. Anonymous12:28 AM

    I could not help but to have a good feeling about this movie all three times I've watched it. Obviously Avatar was based on the rape and pillaging of Africa but what I was mostly intrigued by was the spirituality that the movie addressed. The connection of the people to the planet and the universe moved me. The Na'vi are outstanding beings!

  20. Anonymous11:55 PM

    "Avatar Revisted" by Tony Browder, looks at it from a not so flattering angle.

    "White male stranger (with superior brain power) enters a "primitive" community, learns their ways, defeats their mightiest warrior, makes love to the hottest woman, and becomes the leader of the tribe."

    He says that it's a recycling of the same old love story (boy meets girls, boy falls in love with girl, boy saves girl and her people) as 'Last of the Mohicans", "The Last Samurai", "Dances with Wolves', 'Pocahontas" and many others. In other words it's the money making formula that pays homage to the "Magic Caucasian" (from Tarzan to District nine)

    He then goes on to talk about the Joseph Campbell, mythic journey and the stereotyped hero from Jesus to Neo of the Matrix.

    These productions seduce us into a state of Euphoria by their overt messages, while covertly reinforcing the supremacist message: you can't lift yourselves (certainly not without one of us helping you), your strongest leader can be bested by ours (perhaps even our weakest one), your women will always depend upon us for their very lives...

    Just some food for thought...

  21. HAWK (J. D. Jackson)7:50 AM

    July 8, 2010--Th.

    Greetings, Baba/Brother Winbush.

    Just as recently as last night, I watched "Avatar" on DVD. I found it more "informative"--about the white supremacist mindset--in the broadest sense of the word than "entertaining". As an "ex-Marine" and long-time student of what my grandmaster teacher Dr. John Henrik Clarke, among others, called/call "African World History", there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the movie is nearly 100% or more based on Africa and her people and European imperialism's devastating destruction and effect on Mother Africa and her countless sons and daughters--both at home in Africa and abroad.

    Your review is dead-on! Keep up the great work!


    HAWK (J. D. Jackson)

  22. Anonymous4:02 PM

    I actually got mixed feelings from Avatar...the good as mentioned above dealt w/the movie recognizing white supremacy & the humble/spiritual nature of "black" ppl. The 2 main things I didn't like was as the post directly above states: it portrayed the "white" guy as being stronger than the "black" guy and thus the hero of the movie.

    I also put a connection on the scientific experiments that have been going on at the expense of "black folk" They are still trying to figure us out, while we are following behind them, following us! Amazing!

  23. Anonymous12:53 PM

    It clearly shows that this people knows who we realy are,peaceful and respectful.

    by far on the notion of land and identity it shows that, the whiteman ivade the heritage of a blackman by destroying the bigest kingdom of the native land which in the movie its that big'tree' and to identify the na'vi people 'black' as taller and much more stronger in thier fitness, by destroying the biggest kingdom you automatically distroy the smaller kingdom, well in reference to that after the mass distraction of the land it came to a poit were some tribe native people aproaced the distracted land and beyond their difference both tribe commit to fight for their freedom.

    on the issue of identity, the na'vi people were strong and tall and their tone of their deep spiritual perfomance clearly indicate the importance of land,balance and connection between land and the outer realm of this world, from their hair styles,tradirional atires and of course the love for one another.

    if there is a place in this planet that was troumatised by evil and darkness is AFRICA and the movie shows all the dots that they tried to test our intelligece by trying to whitewash the fact that they were portraying black people