eco-theology, film, James Cone

Reconsidering Avatar: Eco-theology and Ontological Blackness

Now that it has been months since the release of Avatar, perhaps we can consider it without all the hype and with the benefit of helpful criticisms.

First, lets get Avatar’s crimes out of the way. John Petrakis at the Christian Century slammed the film: Avatar paled in comparison to District 9. Indeed it did. Frankly, Avatar was crap. It was eye candy. Unobtanium? Really? The movie was so obvious, it was like a giant sledge hammer. Unfortunately, it had the aspirations of being a classic — something nimble, multi-layered, etc. I agree with Petrakis that the film got by on flash (flash that Ebert has condemned), and that also, the film could be interpreted in one of the various ways:

• a paternalistic tale of the lone white man who saves the noble savages from disaster because they are incapable of helping themselves

• an anti-American screed that attacks our military for needlessly slaughtering innocents for our own financial gain

• an environmental slideshow that celebrates the possibilities of humans bonding with nature while expressing serious doubts about their relationships with each other

• all of the above

And this leads me to David Brooks rightly ripping into Avatar for its messiah complex, specifically its white messiah narrative. For a supposedly post-colonial movie, it stumbled badly. The white messiah mythos is entirely problematic, and no one adequately situated in racial discussion would have done something quite so stupid to employ it. We’ve seen this mythos before in colonialism and Christianity — in fact, missiologists and missionaries are finally coming to grips with ministry by white messiah. Yeah, even Christian agencies are second guessing themselves, but Cameron’s story hardly questioned itself on this account.

And then we’ve got the violence as the answer and a poorly done religiosity — does it bother anyone else that the Na’vi religion is potentially reduced to synapses and “uploading and downloading memories”? Debra Dean Murphy has shown how the story is far from radical, particularly in its rather flat pantheism and narrowly imagining that an entire planet’s response could only be violent.

Frankly put, Avatar is a poor retelling of Native American history. By and large, it may have done more of a disservice than anything else. The story’s sins are quite large, if not impossible to avoid. Wen Reagan is wrong in my estimation, Avatar wasn’t a masterstroke of imagination, it was simply immersive without a helpful imagination and radical answers. In my estimation, the story failed. Why then should we remember this film? There seems little going for it.

But there is more to consider. And here is the point of the post.

Many, many, many people have seen this movie. In some ways, the movie functions as a language on such a large scale that less heavy lifting needs to be done when commenting certain subjects that the movie touches on. We can therefore do what Eric has done, and use Avatar as a launching pad. This shows the impoverished nature of Cameron’s story, while at the same time use a common language to pull people beyond Cameron’s banal world.

In fact, I use Avatar in the same way, but rather than point to eco-theology, I note how James Cone’s notion of ontologically black actually exists in the movie — which I attribute to a happy accident. The character Trudy Chacon is a helicopter pilot who has qualms with killing the Na’vi. By the end of the movie, she and her helicopter are painted in the war paint of the Na’vi. She has become part of the Na’vi struggle, and seeks to serve them (as opposed to lead, which is an important distinction for solidarity). However, Chacon can never be one of the Na’vi — there is no Na’vi body for her to join and she could therefore never live in their world without the aid of an oxygen tank. She will always be human, and yet, she is dressed up like the Na’vi when she dies. When I was at Union, someone in class asked Dr. Cone, “Who is an example of ontological blackness?” Cone replied that Bonhoeffer is the first person who comes to mind. Yet, Bonhoeffer is not well known. Far more people know about Chacon.

And here is the value of Avatar: it stepped into a world, and did it loudly. And while Cameron did it poorly, he at least did it. There is much to learn from a bad book. And there is equally much to converse about when a bad story sets the language. The value of Avatar is not that it is a good story or a good film — it is neither — but rather that it has provided a landscape within American culture to talk about militarism, environmental abuse, and native peoples.

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4 thoughts on “Reconsidering Avatar: Eco-theology and Ontological Blackness

  1. Hey David,

    I like the connection you’ve made here. I’m planning on using this example the next time I teach Cone (with due credit, of course). Many of Fordham’s first-year students have a hard time getting past the offensiveness of being told that blackness is a co-requisite of salvation. Nevertheless, I’m sure that they’ve got some kind of sympathy or narrative resonance for the basic idea, and pointing to the example of Trudy in the film might help them to see it.

    • When I’ve made the connection for other people, generally I get an “Ooooh.” and “Huh.” Which, as you note, is measurably different than “Hell no.” Good luck using it, and let me know how it turns out.

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