The story of the Avatar film takes place in the year of 2154 on a jungle-like planet named Pandora. Humanity has sought to colonize the planet due to Earth having been depleted of its natural resources. In the film the alien species are called the Na’vi and are nine-foot-tall, cat-like, and blue. The plot of the Avatar film parallels with the historical ways that Europeans sought out new countries to colonize for their resources, such as parts of the jungles in the African Congo. The idea that there is a historical parallel is strengthened throughout the film with glimpses of the scenery, tribal dress and the Na’vi language. The Na’vi people speak in a dialect that could be easily mistaken for a mixture of the Khoisan and Bantu language that is spoken countries throughout present day Africa, with its distinctive click consonants. Science fiction is, “deeply enmeshed in the historical moment in which it is conceived, gestated and produced” (Russel 192). Simply put, Science Fiction much like Afrofuturism, seeks to retell histories and future histories from the perspective of the creator’s imagination. It just so happens that the Avatar shows the Caucasian actors in the foreground, whilst the African American actors, “provide the voices and performance captured movements for the ﬁlm’s computer-generated aliens”, thus rendered absent and in the unseen background throughout the film (Russel 194). By having African American actors not visible, there is an exclusion of people of color throughout the film, thus resulting in why Afrofuturism has been created. This exclusion of African American visibility, creates an alien world in which humans have inhabited, with the majority of humanity being melanin deficient.
Fetishism, Stuart Hall reminds us, is “a realm where fantasy intervenes in representation,” and that comprises “the substitution of an ‘object’ for some dangerous and powerful but forbidden force” (Hall 266). The Na’vi people within the film are fetishized since they are the taboo and unknown, but not necessarily in a sexual sense. This is due to the obsession that the humans have towards wanting to become a being other than human. The main narrative of the Avatar is the theme of displacement, and this is taken quite literally. In one scene, the humans seek to displace the Na’vi people by, “sending a message…that they can take whatever they want” (Avatar) as the military seek out the natural resource on Pandora and are wiping out an ecology, as well as a huge portion of the Na’vi for personal gain and wealth. The utopia of the planet Pandora is quickly turned into a Dystopia, with the introduction of humans and technology. To disregard the ramifications that would occur to the Na’vi or Pandora if the “unobtanium” natural resource is removed provides evidence that, “to be more precise, Science Fiction is neither forward-looking nor utopian” (Eshun 290). Just by that premise alone, the focus of Science Fiction is in opposition as to what Afrofuturism aims to achieve.
The film introduces the main characters as a paraplegic marine named Jake Sully, who inhabits an avatar that resembles the Na’vi and a Na’vi female, named Neytiri Te Tskaha Mo'at'ite, who is the Chief’s daughter of the Omatikaya clan on Pandora. These two characters’ contrast not only because one is a Caucasian white human (played by Sam Worthington) and the other is a blue Na’vi alien, but because the actress who is within the computer-generated imagery is an Afro-Latina (played by Zoe Saldana). Due to the habitual nature of films to mask African American characters, it is not surprising that all the main Na’vi characters are portrayed by actors of African descent. By placing
humans inside of a Na’vi avatar, this provides the audience with the idea, that in order for humanity to empathize with an alien other, humans must transform themselves mentally and physically. The “blueface” of the Na’vi avatar is no different that the black face that was painted on many years ago during the minstrel shows, resulting in a form of didactic blackface. Didactic blackface refers to, “a rhetorical style of racial mimesis whose objective is not simply to entertain but to forge a social critique, which is premised on the belief”, that in order to fully understand the other one must become (temporarily) the other (Russel 207). Within the film, the tragic mulatto can be paralleled to Jake Sully, as he is attempting to pass as a Na’vi in order to understand the Na’vi experience. This form of didactic “blueface”, was implemented in order for Jake Sully to, “learn these savages from the inside, gain their trust, and how to force cooperation” (Avatar). Although the color of skin has been changed from black to blue, “the template of the otherness remains grounded in contemporary racial representation” (Russel 211). Cameron has made a major blockbuster film, using the age-old story of Pocahontas, with the exception that the Native Americans are now blue aliens and John Smith is a marine. This is exactly one of the reasons that Afrofuturism was created, to provide African Americans a Science Fictional reality, in which they are represented by those who are African American.
Cameron invites the audience to explore the idea that the Avatar is a film about the colonization of Pandora and how the character Jake Sully suffers from a type of “white savior” complex in regards to Na’vi within the film and how the Na’vi are is in a sense, the “white man’s burden” or sometimes even the ‘white man’s nemesis”. The “white savior” complex occurs when the humans inhabit Pandora and teach the native people English and the human way of living, to save them from their savage ways. The “white man’s burden” occurs when the humans infantilize the Na’vi people as if this alien species hasn’t been surviving on its own, without outside help of the human race. And finally, the Na’vi become the “white man’s nemesis” when they do not comply with the demands of the humans and decide to fight back for their land to avoid colonization.
From the perspective of the Na’vi people, the character Jake Sully is often juvenile, “stupid, ignorant and like a baby” in his actions, but is deemed the superior species simply because the humans believe themselves to be as such (Avatar). On the other hand, the character Neytiri is very stoic, but is yet depicted as a savage, due to her loin cloth, braided hair and lack of covering garments. More than once the films’ Caucasian characters refer to the Na’vi people as, “blue monkeys and fly-bitten savages” (Avatar). The question arises that if James Cameron had created an Avatar film with a planet where the inhabitants were black and not blue, would the film have been successful? There may have been an outcry of blatant racism if the Na’vi were black aliens and still, “evoked a nonwhite otherness and stereotypes associated with it (primitivism, noble savagery, ecological utopianism)”, rather than being seen as cyan- skinned “others” (Russel 213). If the film had been one with an Afrofuturistic theme, would it have been as successful? Of course, these questions can only be answered in time as more Science Fiction films are created.