Too Real for the Big Screen?

Two sci-fi allegories provoke unjust criticism
Avatar, directed by James Cameron, 20th Century Fox, 2009.
District 9, directed by Neill Blomkamp, TriStar Pictures, 2009.
In a nationally televised speech in October 2002, President George W. Bush argued that toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime would bolster American security and win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. “Our demands are directed only at the regime that enslaves them and threatens us,” he promised. “When these demands are met, the first and greatest benefit will come to Iraqi men, women and children.”
In James Cameron’s Avatar, Parker Selfridge, the leading bureaucrat for the human mission to the verdant moon Pandora, says, “Look, you’re supposed to be winning the hearts and minds of the natives. … If you walk like them, you talk like them, they’ll trust you. We build them a school, teach them English.” Selfridge’s next line evokes what Bush may have been thinking several years after Saddam’s fall from power: “But after however many years, the relations with the indigenous are only getting worse.”
That Avatar is really about the Iraq war was not lost on anyone. Nor was it the first overtly political parable of the year, arriving only a few months after its fellow Best Picture nominee, District 9, attacked xenophobia with its allegory about an alien race landing in Johannesburg. Both films provoked criticism for being heavy-handed and too explicitly political. But, in fact, they are skillful commentaries on history that hold powerful messages for today, and it is their power more than anything that discomforts their critics.
Space-age Parables
The humans in Avatar have left a resource-depleted Earth in search of a valuable source of energy called unobtainium. Oil, of course, was the motive that the anti-war movement attributed to Bush’s Iraq mission. Many conservative critics thought Avatar was, in the words of one blogger, “cinema for the Hate America crowd.”
But Avatar also functions as a critique of old-style Western colonialism. The human invasion of Pandora mirrors the displacement of Native Americans in the New World. A corporation from a technologically advanced civilization arrives in a new territory and encounters an indigenous population. The colonists make contact, for the most part peacefully, but abandon diplomacy and turn to violence to achieve their material objectives. This parallel led some wags to dub Cameron’s film “Pocahontas in space.”
District 9 is every bit as rich with metaphor as its 3-D cousin. An alien population stranded on Earth is confined to a slum known as “District 9.” Military contractors try to evict the District’s residents through quasi-legal processes, but also use deadly force. The rule of law in the slums is at once provided and undermined by a heavy gang presence.  Not accidentally, the story is set in South Africa, where decades of apartheid depended on brutal enforcement of the separation of whites from blacks. The parallel is even more pointed given that many of the poorest South Africans still live in slums.
But whereas in South Africa the white oppressors descended from colonists, in District 9 the oppressors are nativist reactionaries. This allows the film to double as a commentary on immigration in South Africa, where still-prevalent racial tension means that new arrivals are often treated with suspicion, denied opportunities, and relegated to teeming slums.
In both Avatar and District 9, the stand-ins for Western imperialists are clearly the bad guys. In Avatar, they are guilty of unbridled ambition and cruelty; their thirst for resources and sense of entitlement leads them to conquer a new planet with little thought for the native population. In District 9, the cruelties are motivated by xenophobia, and are contemptible despite the aliens’ status as unwanted intruders.
The Anti-Allegory Backlash
Both film’s political and historical meanings hit a little too close to home for some viewers. Avatar was widely panned in the conservative media, by commentators like Andrew Breitbart and Matt Drudge, as well as the Christian website MovieGuide, which resented Cameron’s implicit critique of the United States and his favorable depiction of the eco-friendly tribes of Pandora. For these critics, Avatar was a heavy-handed indictment of the war in Iraq and a clichéd retelling of Western colonial encounters with the native people of non-Western lands. Then there was the columnist for the Daily Telegraph (UK) who said, “The U.S. public is frankly tired of the anti-war rhetoric of the Left, which has sounded increasingly hollow since the success of the surge in Iraq.” MovieGuide criticized Avatar’s “abhorrent New Age, pagan, anti-capitalist worldview that promotes Goddess worship and the destruction of the human race.”
District 9, meanwhile, kept a lower profile among American critics, who gave the film mostly positive reviews, but It was banned in Nigeria for its unflattering depiction of their people (the aforementioned gangsters). In South Africa, the film struck a chord with critics, who recognized the armored trucks, called Casspirs, that enforced segregation during the apartheid era. They also noted parallels between the benighted aliens and the destitute present-day immigrants from neighboring Mozambique and Zimbabwe. (Given the horrific economic situation in Zimbabwe, they might more properly be termed refugees.)
The backlash against the two movies, particularly that of American critics of Avatar, fails to undermine the legitimacy of the parallels that the films draw. Instead of offering substantive critiques, nay-sayers often simply questioned the character of filmmaker James Cameron, who has admitted his environmentalist leanings. But popular Hollywood films with left-leaning politics are nothing new. In reality, the vitriol that greeted these films is an indication of how well they convey their critical messages.
Learning from History
Avatar and District 9 are not merely history lessons; they have present-day political implications, too. Avatar might be taken to critique the Europeans who drove out Native Americans with blankets laced with smallpox. But many would also suggest that chauvinism underlies the outlook of many in the West today, with regards to the so-called Third World.
Similarly, District 9 is a harsh reminder of the treatment of blacks under the apartheid government of South Africa, but it also raises questions about the persistence of racism and xenophobia around the world. It is no wonder that these movies made many viewers uncomfortable.
What use are these reminders of the injustices of history? Certainly these films are not the first to engage with the wrongs of the past. But present-day injustices are often so difficult to recognize as wrongs. In both films, the corporations have some legitimate reasons for doing what they are doing, but they fail to recognize the fundamental inhumanity of their actions. Both films aim to jolt us into questioning our motives and recognizing our own cruelties, even if they distance their implications by making the victims humanoid aliens and not human beings. That these films make us uncomfortable is an indication of how much their themes of injustice continue to resonate with, and haunt, people today.
Alec Barrett ‘11 is a Senior Writer.
Photo Credit: Flickr (fibonacci Blue)

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