Why is Avatar 2 being accused of racism? Controversy explained

Cameron Frew
A still of Tonowari in Avatar 220th Century Studios

Native American groups have called for a boycott of Avatar 2, branding the sequel “horrible” and accusing The Way of Water of racism and cultural appropriation – but why?

Avatar: The Way of Water comes 13 years after James Cameron’s 2009 mega-hit, still the highest-grossing movie of all time to this day, and considered by its fans to be one of the great sci-fi epics – however, not everybody sees it that way.

While amassing billions of dollars, critics slammed the original blockbuster for having a “White Messiah complex”, while Indigenous viewers took issue with Cameron’s explicit comparisons to the history of Native Americans.

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With Avatar 2 in cinemas now, several Native American groups have been protesting the movie on social media in an effort to highlight its alleged racism and co-opting of Indigenous culture.

How the Avatar 2 racism allegations started

The Avatar 2 racism allegations stem from Cameron’s comments in 2010, following the release of the first movie. The director had been protesting the building of the giant Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in the Amazon, which threatened the Brazilian Xingu people’s way of life.

Speaking to The Guardian, he said “a real-life Avatar confrontation is in progress”, explaining: “I felt like I was 130 years back in time watching what the Lakota Sioux might have been saying at a point when they were being pushed and they were being killed and they were being asked to displace and they were being given some form of compensation.

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“This was a driving force for me in the writing of Avatar – I couldn’t help but think that if they [the Lakota Sioux] had had a time-window and they could see the future… and they could see their kids committing suicide at the highest suicide rates in the nation… because they were hopeless and they were a dead-end society – which is what is happening now – they would have fought a lot harder.”

James Cameron on the Xingu river in 2010AmazonWatch/YouTube

While Cameron argued it was his duty to help, believing any destruction of the Amazon rainforest would have a grave impact on the planet, others didn’t take kindly to his comments.

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One columnist in the Monitor Mercantil newspaper described “Cameron’s colonialist message” as an attempt to “exterminate the future of Brazil”, and a campaign soon arose to boycott the original movie, citing its “anti-Indigenous rhetoric.”

In 2012, amid lawsuits from people claiming Cameron stole their idea for Avatar and rampant comparisons to FernGully and Pocahontas, he addressed each facet of the film and his inspirations.

“Avatar is a science fiction retelling of the history of North and South America in the early colonial period,” he wrote, as per Business Insider.

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“Avatar very pointedly made reference to the colonial period in the Americas, with all its conflict and bloodshed between the military aggressors from Europe and the indigenous peoples. Europe equals Earth. The native Americans are the Na’vi. It’s not meant to be subtle.”

Avatar 2 racism allegations explained

Yuè Begay, a Navajo artist and co-chair of Indigenous Pride Los Angeles, a key group in the rallying against Avatar 2, slammed the movie as “anti-Indigenous” in a tweet. “Do NOT watch Avatar: The Way of Water,” she wrote.

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“Join Natives & other Indigenous groups around the world in boycotting this horrible & racist film. Our cultures were appropriated in a harmful manner to satisfy some [white] man’s savior complex. No more Blueface! Lakota people are powerful!”

In her tweet – which has racked up nearly 15,000 retweets, along with thousands of likes on Instagram and Twitter respectively – she accuses James Cameron of appropriating Native American aesthetics for the Na’vi while casting “non-Indigenous folks” in the roles. “This is a form of racist caricature known as Blueface,” she added.

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“It is a combination of Redface, Blackface, Yellowface, and other racist tools creators use to justify not centering or validating the experiences, voices, and bodies of Black, Indigenous, and other marginalized People of Color.”

With The Way of Water hitting theaters and Cameron’s comments resurfacing, others have chimed in. Dr Johanna Brewer of Smith College tweeted: “James Cameron apparently made Avatar to inspire all my dead ancestors to ‘fight harder’. Eff right off with that savior complex, bud. And everyone, please go watch a real native movie instead of that badly appropriated blue trash.”

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Lydia Jennings, a Wixárika and Yoeme soil scientist, also wrote: “Eww, way to victim blame & not reflect on your own positionally/ privilege. Saw original Avatar; was annoyed people celebrated the story while not reflecting on how many Indigenous Nations in the present are fighting to do so. Support Indigenous storytellers, not white saviors.”

Brett Chapman, a Native American civil rights attorney, described the first film as a “white savior story at its core… I won’t be seeing the new one. It does nothing for Native Americans but suck oxygen for itself at our expense.”

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Avatar 2 open letter in full

In an open letter to Cameron regarding Avatar 2, Begay wrote: “This is unacceptable! Black and Indigenous people are more than enough to play aliens based on us.

“We should’ve been the ones whose faces and voices appeared onto the screen. We are the experts in portraying our hurt, suffering, and more importantly, our resilience.

“My Lakota relatives were one of the most powerful people the United States came across. They did fight. They won. Their ancestors would be proud of their descendants for thriving, living, and just existing with their culture in tact.

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“But you do not show that in your films. Instead, you choose to show or glorify colonialism. White people being aliens based on actual Indigenous people. That’s colonialism. That’s colonization.

Make it right. Hire us! Hire our experts in your writing rooms, as your consultants, as your talent, as your leaders. Stop trying to lead. You are NOT our leader. You are an outsider. A guest to our lands and culture. Act like it.”

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Avatar: The Way of Water is in cinemas now. You can check out the rest of our coverage here.

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About The Author

Cameron is Deputy TV and Movies Editor at Dexerto. He's an action movie aficionado, '80s obsessive, Oscars enthusiast, and a staunch Scot. He earned a First-Class Honours Degree in Multimedia Journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University, accredited by the NCTJ and BJTC. He began his career at UNILAD, starting as a Junior Journalist and becoming Entertainment Editor prior to joining Dexerto. You can contact him at cameron.frew@dexerto.com.