San Dieguito Academy Newspaper

Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)

The Problem with “Avatar”

Avatar: The Way of Water faces criticism from indigenous tribes across the nation.

February 2, 2023

Over a decade after the original Avatar, the long-awaited sequel “Avatar: The Way of Water ” is now in theaters. Although its cinematography and graphic design might be enticing and impressive, the film is all but glamorous to Indigenous tribes across the nation calling for the sequel’s boycott.

The storyline of Avatar follows a science fiction retelling of the history of North and South America in the early colonial period. The Na’vi are a tribe of alien species whose life gets disrupted by the “sky people”– also known as humans– from planet earth. In the film, the sky people parallel that of early European colonizers while the Na’vi characters are heavily based on indigenous tribes from around the world. However, this indigenous “representation” has been harshly criticized.

After the original movie’s release, Indigenous critics were quick to call out the movie’s romanticization of indigenous colonization and stereotypical depictions of the Na’vi through the eyes of colonizers. For example, many of the Na’vis tattoos and body designs were added on for decoration when in real life, the Maori, the indigenous Polynesian people of mainland New Zealand, found it disrespectful for the film to turn the educes ta moko, a type of tattoo that is passed down through generations in their tribe, into a meaningless design for the film.

The storyline of Avatar is also problematic as it promotes the “white-savior trope” as the outsider, Jake Sully, inflates the Na’vi to save them from exploitation from his own “sky people.” The white savior trope has been used throughout history to justify racial superiority. The white savior trope often focuses on a white main character who’s considered superior, whether they realize it or not. Jack Sully acts as a savior who swoops in to “make a difference,” saves the Na’vi tribe from extinction, and even falls in love with one of the Na’vi women, which draws parallels to the controversial Disney translation of Pocahontas and John Smith.

Many hoped that the sequel would fix its errors and try to reach out and collaborate with Indigenous tribes for better representation and collaboration, however, that was not the case.

In “Avatar: The Way of Water,” the ocean Na’vi clan central to the second film was heavily influenced by the Maori and still played by non-indigenous actors. Even though the director claimed that the film strayed away from the white savior trope, Jake Sully promotes the colonial ideologies of “going native” as Sully easily adapts the practices of the Na’vi in a single week only to literally become the tribe’s leader. 

Indigenous activist and graphic artist Yuè Begay quickly saw the parallels and took to social media to call for the sequel’s boycott. Begay urged people to support marginalized communities by donating to Black and Indigenous relief funds and amplifying Indigenous voices instead. 

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    Mia RacineFeb 2, 2023 at 7:14 pm

    Joy, this was a very interesting read. You brought up a lot of things I had never thought about in regards to Avatar. Thank you for this article <3