‘Avatar’ and Tarzan

(NNPA)—Most Americans over 45 years old remember the movie “Tarzan, King of the Apes.” For those younger than 45, “Tarzan,” the movie, was set in the jungles of Africa and falsely depicted natives as primitive and backward. That is, until baby Tarzan is raised by the natives and taught their social mores and cultural rituals.


As Tarzan grows older he become “one of the natives” and eventually “king of the natives.” Such a scenario was not far fetched for the racist-tinged times of the 1950s and ’60s. However, evidence that the United States of America is not “post-racial” may well be found in the racially and ethnically stereotypical movie, “Avatar” released in 2010.


While “Avatar” shifts the motion picture paradigm brilliantly with respect to special effects, the essential story line is: Good-hearted Anglo soldier signs up to infiltrate native culture and convince them to vacate their homeland in order to permit imperialist nation to mine natural resources for national use. Mid-way through mission a soldier is conflicted and “joins” natives, only to become their leader against super power. Tarzan and “Avatar” are lamentably linked together by the cross of religious disrespect and cultural condescension. For example, the opening scene of “Avatar” features highly charged soldiers being briefed by a blond-haired, blue-eyed thunderously-testosteroned military commander who, in a barrage of bigoted bursts, refers to the indigenous natives as “savages…who shoot arrows.”

Such a reference is eerily similar to references by then-president Andrew Jackson of Native-Americans during the American historical era known as “Jacksonian Democracy” or “Manifest Destiny.” During the 1840s and ’50s United States Calvary soldiers were essentially given approval to “remove” Native Americans in order to secure land and the minerals (gold) underneath. In fact, the life of the indigenous peoples of the American west were so devalued that the phrase “an Indian’s life was not worth “one red cent.” The value placed on greed and military might over sharing and moral right in “Avatar” is based on the predicate of cultural disrespect. Equally shameful to the military commander’s bigotry is the highly educated civilian director of operations who—as many “liberal-minded” analysts do today—decries that, in spite of the natives’ rich cultural, ecological, spiritual, and moral society “…we give them education, money, and a new place to live.” In a religious context, the director of operation’s Christian references of “Jesus Christ” belittles the holistic religious practices of the native people. In one scene he says: “…my God, these ‘people’ are primitive and worship trees…” Sound familiar to today’s American occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan? Sadly, far too many social commentators paternalistically view “gifts” of education and social programs to the denied and dispossessed as consideration for exploitative and imperialist actions.

In addition to the movie “Tarzan,” “Avatar” cuts and pastes from previous movies such as “Dances with Wolves” and “The Last Samurai.” In each, a nice White guy is anointed as king of the natives to save them. If we are to truly be the USA, popular culture in movies must reflect cross-cultural respect. Inclusion and a shared ethos must be the order of the day. African-Americans and most people of color in the United States are undervalued for their intelligence, culture and world view. If not, American society is doomed to the same fate of the “sky people” in “Avatar.”

(Gary L. Flowers is executive director and CEO of the Black Leadership Forum.)


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