Sometimes early Americans dreamed of killing the Indian; sometimes they dreamed of slipping into his skin, becoming him. At least a hundred years before the ink on the Declaration of Independence was dry, there were already tales of white captives and runaways who had lost their way after stays with the natives. Long before the white Negro, there was a white Indian: a perplexing tribe of ex-Europeans gone to seed on a wild frontier that sat just west of modern-day Pittsburgh.
While genocidal fantasies concerning North America’s indigenous people have since gone out of fashion, an unbroken thread stretches from Cotton Mather’s New England captivity narrative, Humiliations Follow’d with Deliverances (1697), to today. Even as Reverend Mather proposed the “deliverance lately received by some English captives from the hands of cruel Indians” as a parable of the Puritan soul struggling against temptation, other stories began to appear in which those same Puritans waved the flag of surrender. In those yarns, young boys up past their bedtimes became fascinated by the flickering fires and darting shapes at the horizon and snuck off into the night to learn woodcraft, survival skills, the art of face painting. Bound girls were carried off to those same fires on strong brown shoulders, where they were brutally violated (“violation” and “brutal” being relative terms for seventeenth-century Puritans) or, worse, cast their lots with their new communities and chose new husbands.
In those early stories of race treason, the titillating pleasures of reportage and travelogue vied with the soothing, obsessive-compulsive satisfactions of step-by-step instruction. It turned out that there was a surprising quantity of technical minutiae involved in being a savage. Like primitive video game walkthroughs — those how-to bibles precious to impatient gamers everywhere — walk-in-the-heathen’s-moccasins stories very often had the feel of the educational procedural — white monkey see, white monkey stay roped to this here post until white monkey do like it’s told. Alabaster women were beaten, Cinderella-style, by jealous, rust-colored stepsisters until they learned the proper way to grind maize, while grown men reverted to a form of infancy and had to fast-forward through a lifetime of ritual achievements in two acts or less.
Outside of literature, of course, the scope of Euro-to-Indian crossover paled in comparison to the outright admixture of the Indian and the African. And contra the utopian fantasy of temporarily autonomous black-red zones living proudly outside white law, these hybrids were forged mainly in the pens of the slave economy. The British took over sixty thousand Indian slaves from North America’s Southeastern tribes and cross-bred them with Africans in the belief that their issue would make for strong but docile workers, even as the Cherokee, Seminole, Choctaw, and Creek nations kept black slaves until the American Civil War, most of them bought on the auction block. Upon emancipation, many of these black slaves chose to stay with their former owners. But in the mid-1980s, the Cherokee decreed the Cherokee Freedmen not “Cherokee by blood” and therefore ineligible for Cherokee citizenship, after some five generations of intermixing.
The Freedmen Controversy may appear to be a triangular exception to America’s rigid black-white polarity, but the moral of the story only serves to underline that persistent dyad. In the classic American racial fantasy, blackness is singular, irreducible, permanently inassimilable, whereas whiteness, the blank slate, is free to be whatever it sets its mind on being — up to, and including, not-white. There is no white man — no matter how bedraggled, foolish, or disgraced – who cannot somehow earn a place of honor at the other’s table/tepee, just as long as he learns his lines, plays his part, and tells you how sorry he is. He will always be the prodigal son, and nothing, not even genocide, will ever make him unwelcome.
The latest heir to Cotton Mather’s tale of moral tribulation on the frontier is James Cameron’s roundly acclaimed, two-billion-dollar grossing, wholly ridiculous science fiction film Avatar. Take it as a sign of Avatar’s idiot-savant-like facility with vast swaths of American symbology that it can be — indeed, has been — compared to live action movies, video games, paperback novels, pulp sci-fi stories, TV shows, comic books, collector’s card games, and action figures — a catalog that will only expand as Hollywood seeks to reproduce the film’s blockbusting success by cloning its DNA.
The things Avatar “is like” can be sorted into certain recognizable classes. First there are speculative tales of environmental devastation. Everything from 1992’s enviro-fairy cartoon Ferngully to both of Disney’s Pocahontas ’toons, to 2007’s digitally animated Battle for Terra — let alone half of Hayao Miyazaki’s oeuvre — have been credibly name-checked in the course of evaluating Cameron’s latest film.
Then there is the video game connection. Any fan of the genre will think to compare Avatar to gaming franchises such as Final Fantasy and World of Warcraft. The film’s jaw-dropping digital environments owe a significant debt to the look of WoW’s play spaces (Zangarmarsh’s iconic mushroom landscape and Nagrand’s floating islands, especially), but Avatar’s narrative arc itself apes the logic by which players advance through the game’s interlocked strata of character levels, professions, and abilities, an invisible experience-point bar following its protagonist Jake Sully as he morphs from crippled Marine to blue-skinned savior.
But the bulk of the comparisons connect Avatar to Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Dances with Wolves (1990), The Last Samurai (2003), and Gamer (2009) — films in which a man of a certain ilk becomes another kind of man. These stories would have been recognizable to Cotton Mather, and he would not have been amused. Of these, Kevin Costner’s western Dances with Wolves is most frequently invoked, and often uncharitably. (South Park dismissed Avatar with a concise, three-word sobriquet: “Dances with Smurfs.”) The films do have a great deal in common, starting with colossal success. Costner’s film grossed $425 million dollars ($688 million in today’s funny money) on a budget of $18 million, won seven Academy Awards (among them Best Director and Best Picture), and garnered overwhelming critical acclaim. As filmmaker John Boorman recalled, “The only voice raised against [Wolves] was Pauline Kael. She said it was a film made by a bland megalomaniac, that his Indian name should not have been ‘Dances with Wolves’ but ‘Plays with Camera.’ Its enormous and universal success hastened her retirement from the New Yorker. She felt profoundly out of joint with the times.”
Besides big money and critical accolades, Dances and Avatar also share many of the same narrative elements. Both films tell the story of an injured soldier looking for a second act on the frontier. In Wolves, John Dunbar (played by Costner), an officer in the Union Army, wakes in a field hospital with a leg wound that would typically be treated by amputation. Preferring a battlefield death to the surgeon’s saw, Dunbar attempts suicide by parading in front of Confederate guns, only to find his despair mistaken for bravery. His reward is the personal attention of a general’s doctor and transfer away from the front. Made whole in body, Dunbar picks a remote post on the edge of Indian country in South Dakota (“I wanted to see the frontier… [b]efore it’s gone,” he explains, earnestly and with anachronistic foresight), where he keeps a gentlemanly journal devoted to observations of the natural landscape, improbably befriends a lone wolf (with whom to dance), and, most critically, gets to know the natives. Before long his voiceover is announcing, as regards the Sioux, “nothing I have been told about these people is correct,” and, in short order, his own native curiosity and general good nature make him welcome among the locals. Soon he is marrying a Sioux woman (another ex-white person, but still) and taking his Sioux name. “I had never really known who John Dunbar was,” he tells his journal with predictable solemnity during one of his increasingly infrequent visits back to his post. “But as I heard my Sioux name being called over and over, I knew for the first time who I really was.” That self-same journal eventually leads to his being mistaken for a Sioux and, under cover of self-defense, Dunbar completes his transformation by taking up arms against his countrymen.
In almost every important respect, the trajectory of Avatar’s ex-Marine Jake Sully hews close to John Dunbar’s. The film opens on the far side of a battlefield injury, only instead of the Dakotas we have Pandora, an alien world rife with mineral wealth and pesky blue natives called Na’vi. As with the plot reverberation of Dunbar’s attempted suicide, Sully’s progress is impelled by a case of misinterpretation: shared DNA allows him to assume the role of his deceased twin brother in a program to infiltrate the Na’vi via “avatars” — remote controlled biological robots, grown in vats to resemble the Na’vi in all respects. Sent out into Pandora in his able-bodied alien shell, Sully keeps a video journal, discovers various wonders of alien nature, and, most critically, gets to know the natives. Before long, Sully is announcing in voiceover that with every passing day he feels stronger, surer, more himself, and, in short order, his own native curiosity and general good nature make him welcome among the aliens. Soon he is mated for life to a Na’vi woman (an English speaker and product of a human school, but still) and undergoing their ritual of manhood. “Everything is backwards now,” he says with familiar solemnity into his video blog during one of his increasingly infrequent stints in his own skin. “Life out there is the true world, and in here is the dream.”
Like Dunbar, Sully takes up arms against his own kind, but not before being outed to the Na’vi as a spy. There their stories diverge. A traitor to the US, Dunbar is forced to abandon the only place he has ever felt truly at home, departing the Sioux camp to protect it as cavalrymen scour the Dakotas looking for him. Although the Sioux chief will tell him, “The man known as Dunbar is no longer here, there is only Dances with Wolves,” the ex-white man knows better. The last shot of the film is of him and his bride striking out into a forlorn winter landscape while a title card shares a downbeat historical coda: fifteen years later, the last band of free Lakota Sioux would submit to US authority.
By contrast, Jake Sully — unburdened by history — unites the many Na’vi tribes, becomes their greatest hero, evicts greedy humans from the planet, and claims his avatar as his permanent home. Avatar’s last image is an extreme closeup of Jake opening his eyes for the first time as a true Na’vi, untethered to his broken body, which chokes to death on alien air beside him. His birthday, he calls it, and in addition to the new body, his other present is Pandora, the 230-million-dollar fantasy he now gets to inhabit as queen’s consort, if not quite master. (Unlike Dunbar, whose new wife is an adoptee outcast, Sully has the foresight to bed a princess.) Dunbar’s happy ending happens offscreen. In addition to his Oscar statuettes and a mogul’s ransom, Costner walked away an honorary member of the Lakota Sioux nation. You could not write a better ending, which may be why Hollywood keeps on remaking the film.
Dances with Wolves was, in fact, controversial in its day, assailed by academics, critics, and Native American writers, among others. The left called it a white liberal fantasy, in which the holocaust that befell North America’s indigenous peoples is softly refracted through the trials, tribulations, and introspections of that quasi-mythical beast, the “good white person.” The right assailed the film as so much Hollywood anti-Americanism, a propaganda Film piece designed to elicit cheers for the justifiable homicide of villainous white men. Both lines of attack have been brought to bear against Avatar (albeit less vehemently, as befits political complaints directed against a digital cartoon starring seven-foot-tall blue aliens), and both are, in their own way, tendentious overstatements. Dances with Wolves revises no particular history, creates no all-powerful white hero, offers Dunbar no do-over, no way to shortcut history or his place in it. It evokes the captured white girl of John Ford’s The Searchers, but rather than wanting to kill her in a fit of sexualized rage, Costner wants to take long walks with her by the watering hole. Rather than leading the Sioux into battle, he stays home with the women, learning crafts. The film’s main racial confrontation involves his rescue by his newfound friends. Wolves is a political trifle so timid that, having posited a single, sane, non-racist white nineteenth-century American, it demands that he disappear into the woods for fear he might muck up the timeline.
In Dances with Wolves’s formulation, the white man’s burden is to carry his guilt in perpetuity, and while Costner carried it all the way to the bank, his character bore it with such stolid, unquestioning equanimity that it feels mean spirited to castigate his creator for the temerity of dreaming him up, as improbable and historically beside the point as he may be. Really, what else is a bland megalomaniac with good Hollywood-liberal credentials to do? You can call Dances with Wolves an overlong, sentimental vanity project, but dishonorable it’s not.
Two years later, Costner would produce and star in the groundbreaking The Bodyguard with Whitney Houston, which remains the highest-grossing interracial romance in history. That’s if you define “interracial romance” the old-fashioned way, of course, as a film where the two protagonists begin the film different races and remain thusly throughout — otherwise Avatar, with its Afro-Latina and Caucasian leads, might take the prize. James Cameron claims to have been thinking of Avatar for two decades, so while some were busy pointlessly wagging the finger at Costner’s wan fantasy of becoming the Other, Cameron was busy figuring out how to obviate the whole question by turning his colored actors into cartoons.
In his final solution, you get to see the white actor who plays Jake Sully —yeoman Sam Worthington — flip back and forth across the line dividing him from the Other until the very last moment. But of the black, Latino, and Native American actors and actresses who play the Na’vi — Zoe Saldana, Laz Alonso, CCH Pounder, and Wes Studi — you see only blue.
Moreover, if any film can be charged with sugar-coating genocide, it should be Avatar. In addition to all its other cribbings, Cameron’s film partakes of a speculative subspecies that stretches from Pinocchio to Blade Runner and beyond, where man-made beings try to find their way in worlds where they are nothing but tools, spare parts, slaves. Discretely turning its gaze away from the inevitable outcome of its premise — acres of factories where avatars of every stripe and species can be grown — Avatar focuses on the story of a single “good” man and his conveniently empty shell, proceeding as if there were not whole genres of science fiction devoted to the problem of being born into a body, only to discover that your flesh is not your own. Manifest destiny, indeed.
Ultimately, the thing that Avatar is most like is another James Cameron film, Aliens. Sigourney Weaver presides over both films, and Avatar’s climactic final battle recapitulates the end of Aliens from the aliens’ point of view — pitting first Marines against aliens, then a human in an armored battle suit against otherworldly bone and sinew. Both films feature butch Latinas who give their lives for the narrative cause in a manner reminiscent of Spartans and Klingons. Indeed, the only honorable person throughout Avatar’s almost three hours is the doomed supporting character, Trudy Chacon. Played by actress Michelle Rodriguez, Chacon is the pilot who ferries Sully and the scientists from the avatar project around throughout the film, and she’s the only character who does anything out of a natural intuition that it might be the right thing to do. When she refuses to attack the Na’vi, it is without the benefit of Jake’s lived experience in one of their bodies, or the scientists’ decades of research and humanizing interaction. Unprompted and with seemingly little to gain, she breaks Jake and the others out of prison at a critical juncture. When Jake cobbles together his Na’vi army and launches an attack against the human military, Chacon dubs it a suicide mission but takes part in it all the same, bringing her aircraft and her one solitary life to the fight. Just before she’s blown out of the sky, she apologizes to Jake and tags out over the radio, a consummate professional to the end.
Trudy Chacon is the kind of coolly self-sacrificing character who has gotten real live people killed as long as there have been tales of heroic deaths, which might be why she is the most human thing in the film. And that she chooses in her own quiet way to go down with the ship of her humanity links Avatar to Cameron’s other marvel of digital world building — Titanic. Like Aliens, Titanic is a significantly better film than Avatar in every non-technical respect, but Avatar will undoubtedly be remembered as Cameron’s crowning achievement. Like Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, Avatar is the first of its kind, and if an audience’s breath is taken away, it is because the film literally opens an IMAX-sized window onto the future. Looking through, you know you are beholding what “the movies” will very soon be like — good movies, bad movies, action flicks, dramas, romantic comedies, adaptations of Richard III, all of it. That both Avatar and The Jazz Singer concern the problem of living and working in the other man’s literal skin is only a kind of pervert’s gravy, the kind of cognitive distraction that bogs certain temperaments down in circular future-shock, while the rest of the world moves on.
In the end, our obsession with the specifics of who gets to step into whose skin will seem trivial when compared to the marvel of being able to look back at your old body the way a butterfly looks back at a cocoon. Cultural theorists like MIT’s Henry Jenkins already speak of ours as an age of transmedia, where the most powerful stories are those whose underlying structure and internal object relations transcend any spectator’s particular, momentary encounter with a text. Transmedia is ultimately about surpassing identity, and if Avatar is a parable, it’s not about Indians or the environment, but about the end of gender, race, nation, and everything that previously made humans what they were.
Of course, some will remember that a thing — a story, a brand, a crippled soldier —wanting to become something else is an ancient fantasy. It’s as old as any tale about a shapeshifter, as amply theorized as the machinations by which lead might become gold, as common as the insomniac’s certainty — flat on her back, staring at the blank screen of the ceiling — that she really should have been born someone else. But these are yesterday’s concerns, as beside the point as looking at Avatar and coming away with the question, “Who cries for Trudy Chacon?”