Just as the long year of 2022 was winding down to an end, renowned director James Cameron’s newest film “Avatar: The Way of Water” released to stunning commercial success, smashing annual and historical records to quickly become one of the highest-grossing movies of all time. Although it was released a whopping 13 years after the original “Avatar,” the sequel’s success demonstrates the clear interest audiences have in witnessing this story continue.

However, “Avatar” has one big problem that has become a hot talking point both online and across the media: to many, it’s outright culturally offensive! As popular as “Avatar” and its sequel are, they are also a prime example of why POC perspectives and influence are still an urgent necessity in the filmmaking industry.

“Avatar: The Way of Water” continues the overarching storyline introduced in the first film, focusing on the otherworldly Na’vi people of the alien moon Pandora. Their identity and way of life, a prominent focus in the films, has been directly inspired by and compared to various indigenous cultures across the globe. Cameron himself has called the Na’vi a reference to Native Americans, although many aspects of their customs and appearances stem from various indigenous Polynesian and Asian peoples such as the Māori people of New Zealand. In a conflict tackling the dangers of imperialism and colonialism, the alien race finds their home under invasion from mankind, who aim to pacify the natives and exploit their moon for its land and resources. Audiences are taken into the world of Pandora and shown how the Na’vi live, growing to sympathize with them as they are shown their struggles and victories against the oppressive militaristic force of the humans.

Alongside the anti-imperialistic themes of Avatar, however, are a slew of dubious cultural portrayals and questionable implications that have upset audiences and activists alike. With the release of “The Way of Water,” discussion over these issues has returned to the spotlight. A common complaint concerns main protagonist Jake Sully. Jake is a former US Marine tasked with using an artificially grown Na’vi “avatar” to infiltrate Pandora and negotiate with the natives. The first film follows his perspective as he learns more about their society, falls in love with one of their own, and eventually becomes a leader of the race before permanently transferring his consciousness into his avatar. Rather than rooting for Jake, people have often seen his character arc as pushing a white savior narrative. The concept of the “white savior” revolves around the depiction of white people as liberators, saviors, or mentors for the rest of the world. It’s generally considered a very racist and condescending idea, one that disregards the strength and agency of people of color. Jake, being a white man who impresses the indigenous-inspired Na’vi with feats of heroism before becoming one of their leaders, unfortunately becomes a white savior in his own way. The presence of such a protagonist in a story that’s supposed to be about the struggles and efforts of an indigenous community is rather jarring. Additionally, the portrayal of the Na’vi in general has drawn a lot of ire from the public, stirring accusations of cultural appropriation and painting different indigenous values and traditions in a monolithic, alien light. After all, the movies are borrowing customs and ideas from several separate real-world cultures and incorporating them all within a bizarre, otherworldly, and exotic fictional race. In a sense, the Na’vi are an inadvertently unflattering stereotype of their original inspirations.

Amidst the controversy there is a major underlying root issue: the inherent disconnect between the perspectives of the creator and the creation. The “Avatar” movies are about colonialism and the struggle of indigenous people… from the perspective of a white male protagonist, in a story written by a white male director! Cameron, the leading creative mind behind “Avatar,” is ultimately a complete outsider to the very real cultures and conflicts that have inspired this fantasy saga of his. In terms of thematic intent, the story being told comes off as benign, but ignorant. Cameron himself has acknowledged the complaints that have been directed towards the movies, expressing the desire to continue learning and honing his stories, but there remains a gap that cannot be crossed. From a production standpoint, the films are lacking the indigenous perspective and influence needed to tell a story about this sort of issue. As a result, the “Avatar” movies merely cherry-pick from different indigenous cultures in a performative, shallow way while still rendering them subservient to the white presence via the main protagonist.

The topic of cultural representation versus exploitation has been a long-standing discussion in the film industry, one that is certainly not exclusive to just Avatar. These issues have pervaded countless movies for decades on end, including classics that I’m sure many of you are very familiar with. Disney, for example, has spent the better part of a century building a long line of animated films, establishing a legacy built upon the diverse representation of various peoples, cultures, and regions. “Aladdin,” “Mulan,” “Moana,” “Pocahontas,” “Princess and the Frog”… the list just goes on and on! Many of these movies are childhood staples and acclaimed classics, but they often contain questionable stereotypes, prejudiced portrayals, and excessive romanticization that all reflect poorly upon scrutiny.

Similarly to “Avatar,” “Pocahontas” is a tale about the impact of colonialism on an indigenous community, this time between the early English colonists and the Powhatan Native Americans. Historically speaking, the colonists and Powhatan people were initially co-existing trading partners. This relationship, already a tenuous one rife with kidnappings and negotiations, began to sour upon the increasing demands and encroachment of the colonists, eventually leading to all-out war. The Powhatan and their allies endured unprecedented losses, marking the conflict as one of the many grave difficulties that European imperialism brought upon the indigenous people of the Americas. As many of you probably know, however, Disney’s family animated adaptation of the events is a dashing, romanticized princess fairy tale filled with acts of heroism and love, where the big bad is defeated and the natives and colonists all get together to (metaphorically) sing kumbaya. Titular heroine Pocahontas, portrayed as a young adult Native American who bravely stops the fighting, was actually a young teenage girl who was tragically separated from her people by the colonists. Pocahontas wasn’t even her real name! It was Matoaka, with “Pocahontas” merely being a nickname that meant “playful one”. Standing alongside Pocahontas in the movie is supporting protagonist John Smith, who plays the essential role of the heroic white sympathizer to the natives, not unlike Jake Sully — but completely unlike the real-life, authoritarian colonial leader Smith was based off of. 

Disney’s “Aladdin,” similarly, was inspired by the nations of the Middle East and Arabian Peninsula. Set in the fictional sultanate of Agrabah, the film depicts Arabian culture and people as exotic and alien in a similar, albeit less literal case than that of “Avatar”’s Na’vi. Agrabah is a harsh, desert wasteland full of magic, mischief, and eccentric characters. It’s a bizarre, barbaric land where the men are all mustached brutes prone to violence, while the women are all scantily clad objects of eroticism. Notably, main protagonist Aladdin is slim, fairer-skinned, clean-shaven and completely lacks any kind of regional accent or inflection, making him distinctly whitewashed when compared to his supporting cast of walking stereotypes. Like Jake Sully, he stands out as the “superior” anglicized insert into a foreign culture, once again pushing the unfortunate implication that said features are synonymous with heroism and necessary for an audience to be able to empathize with their protagonist.

Both “Pocahontas” and “Aladdin” were released in the 1990s. It could be easy to say that these movies are simply products of their time, alongside the dubious cultural implications that they carry. However, this is an issue that plagues Disney in modern years as well, as seen with the 2019 live-action adaptation of “Aladdin.” Several bouts of controversy and backlash were sparked prior to the film’s release due to questionable decisions being made during production. For instance, at one point it came to light that the filmmakers were “browning up” white actors in order to play colored extras and minor characters, using makeup to darken their skin in what resembles the unfortunate practice of brownface. The main cast fared little better, with ethnically incorrect casting being swept away with the cheap studio excuse that there simply weren’t enough feasible choices when it came to talent. Altogether, the production of “Aladdin” (2019) shows a modern-day example of the clear cultural disregard and insensitivity that creators have exhibited in the movie-making industry.

Over the span of decades, countless movies have attempted to display diverse representation only to turn towards the performative appropriation, romanticization, or transformation of very real cultural identities into caricatures for entertainment’s sake. The root cause of this issue is the fundamental personal disconnect between the creators and what they are portraying. When topics as nuanced as colonialism or foreign representation are handled by this outside white perspective, a gap formed by the creator’s personal distance from the matter begins to manifest. As we have seen time and time again, this is a gap that stereotyped beliefs, biases, and cultural faux pas seep into, tainting the stories and messages that we as viewers take in.

Diversity as a fundamental concept is not a problem. There’s no question that film, and really any creative art in general, can only stand to benefit from the increased scope of worldviews and people. Portraying diverse cultures in media allows audiences to learn about values and ideas they knew little about beforehand, opening up people’s minds to the world around us. However, it’s because of this need for diversity that the film industry needs the POC perspective, instead of the outsider attempts at substitution that we so often see. We don’t just need diversity playing out on a movie’s scenes — we need it behind them as well. Without a varied array of authentic perspectives and experiences, our film industry would lack the range of vision it needs to reach its full potential, telling stories of complicated human and cultural matters with the nuance they require. It is a necessity that absolutely shouldn’t be ignored, and although steps are being made, people of color are still an ultimately underrepresented demographic in the industry. Non-white leads still make up a small minority share when it comes to roles, and there are even fewer writers, directors, and producers of color out there. According to UCLA’s annual “Hollywood Diversity Report”, people of color only make up 30% of directors and 32% of film writers. The remaining 68-70% are all white, painting a sobering picture of the prejudice and privilege that continue to dominate the film industry to this day.

From where we stand right now, however, we’re fortunate enough to have been graced with some shining, creative examples of what the authentic POC perspective can bring to cinema. Black director Jordan Peele, for example, has famously written and directed “Get Out,” “Us,” and last year’s “Nope.” Each of these movies are deeply enthralling, thrilling films that tackle various societal concepts, such as systemic racism and classism, the power that privilege holds in life, and the pursuit of luxury, entertainment, or spectacle at the expense of life. Additionally, Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has carved a reputation for himself as a beloved contemporary director. His filmography includes the dark fantasy classic “Pan’s Labyrinth,” as well as a very recent, critically acclaimed stop-motion adaptation of “Pinocchio.” Each and every one of these wonderful movies shows the power the POC perspective holds.

Through their creation, consumption, interpretation, and reception, all mediums of art tell a story. A web of ideas, themes, and emotions takes a firm hold on each and every piece, and it’s no different when it comes to the art of movies. The film industry should strive to accurately and justly portray the world we live in, and the fact is we live in a very large world. When you have a diverse array of people belonging to countless different countries, ethnicities, and belief systems sitting down in front of their screens to witness these stories unfold, it is absolutely imperative that an equally varied share of creators from different backgrounds can get their chance in the director’s seat. Otherwise, Jake Sully sporting dreads as he flies around on his mountain banshee will continue to be just one wave in a sea of cinematic culture shock.