Avatar: Race FAIL? Or Convert and Immigrant WIN?


Over at LiveJournal, Zoethe said that Avatar is a massive race FAIL and her other half TheFerrett basically said that it's a beautiful movie with no actual plot, so I was totally ready to like Avatar only for the geek factor of the CG when my son and I found ourselves at the theater today. Guess what? I think that they both missed something huge here. Avatar isn't just the story of the strong white guy coming in and saving the poor natives, it's a story of a broken person finding wholeness in a new community, becoming a convert and an immigrant, and proving themselves by laying their own life on the line for their new people.

(Spoilers be beyond this point...)

Jake Sully is not a man of power who comes in to destroy the natives and has a 180 turnaround. He's a broken man who is trying to find a way back into something like the life he used to know. He wants to be strong again. He wants to have the respect and validation that he used to get from being a soldier, so when he gets the opportunity to work with the military forces as a sort of spy, he jumps at the chance. He doesn't go in all gangbusters to destroy the people, though. He thinks at the beginning that he will be able to get to know these people and then negotiate with them so that they will move and the mining company can have the land. It's clear very early on in the meetings with colonel Quaritch that Sully does not feel comfortable with the idea of hurting these people.

There is no sudden conversion. He doesn't start as a Na'vi hater who embraces them and saves the day. Quite the opposite. Sully genuinely wants to be accepted in this community. We've already seen that he longs for community and belonging, but what really changes here is that he realizes which group he actually WANTS to belong to. He doesn't want the destruction of the "Sky People" from Earth. He wants the connectedness of the Na'vi. He doesn't get an easy path, though. He has to work to become a convert to the Na'vi way. He has to learn their ways of doing things, their beliefs and their rituals, and he must experience the things that they experience.

Do you know what this reminds me of? It reminds me of the conversion process to Judaism.

Now, I have no idea personally why anyone would want to convert to Judaism. We Jews are not the powerful Elders of Zion that some people would like to imagine. We get to be outsiders even in the places where we are insiders. We get to spend a few decades or even generations thinking that we've assimilated into a place and then someone decides to scapegoat us for some problem or another and suddenly we're the victims of pogroms again, or expelled from our homes. Add to that some bizarre and, in my mind, very twisted thinking, and the rabbis have made it extremely difficult to convert. In some times and places it is more difficult than others, and at times it's even impossible. And yet, people from all walks of life and from all ethnicities choose to become Jewish.

In order to become Jewish, you have to spend a period of time walking like a Jew, talking like a Jew, learning our language* and studying our body of knowledge before you can even contemplate acceptance in the community. When you are deemed ready, you have to go through a sort of ordeal by fire, standing before a court of three judges who ask you lots of questions and generally put you on the hot seat, in order to decide if you'll be allowed to go through the ritual to become a Jew. The ritual of conversion itself can be nerve wracking, and for men, rather painful, too. And then you are a member of the tribe.

Oh, but wait... not REALLY. We fooled you. We TOLD you that once a convert always a Jew. We TOLD you that once you were accepted no one should ever question your commitment to Judaism. We TOLD you that you are one of us now and we look at you as an equal member of our community. We lied.

Because these days you will spend the rest of your life under a microscope. It will always be a question as to whether you just did it for the money and power (Say what?) or so that you could move to the great paradise of Israel (No, seriously?!). People will ask you which rabbi "converted you". And in some cases, another rabbinical court can declare that you weren't ever really converted at all. If you are a woman, that means that any children you've had since that conversion just got de-Jewificated**, too.

And you know what? This isn't just a Jewish problem. It's an immigrant problem, too. Throughout the world, not only in the US, immigrants are looked on with suspicion long after they have legally become permanent residents or even citizens. Some countries don't even give citizenship to the second or third generation of people born in that country. (A friend of mine from Thailand told me how the patrilineal decent rules for Thai citizenship are sometimes enforced by way of DNA testing these days!) As an American-born Israeli, I personally hear a lot of comments about what "real Israelis" think or do, even from people who will in the next breath tell me how important it is for Israel to have immigrants like me.

So, what does all that have to do with Avatar? Everything. Sully has converted to the ways of the Na'vi. He's gone through all of their tests and initiations. He has flown with dragon-like animals that soar through this planet's skies. He has communed with the most sacred trees. He has taken a wife from among the Na'vi as a full adult and member of the society. But when there is a battle between his old people and his new people, no one even wants to hear what he has to say. They reject him without letting him show that he is really a true convert.

Oh, you say, but he admits that he was sent to convince them to leave Tree Home. Yes, he does. And he says that it hurts his heart that such a thing is true, and he wants to do anything to save his people -- HIS people are the Na'vi.

Has he missed part of the point? I mean, it's not just the people that need to be saved. It's the "network of all living things" that Dr. Grace Augustine tried to describe to the mining company executive that is vital to protect. I don't think he's missed that point entirely, though. It's just that he feels helpless against the powerful people and weapons from Earth. I mean, really, how can the Na'vi fight and win? The real transformation, the fullest conversion, happens when Sully realizes that the he needs to call on that entire network of living things to protect itself as a single community.

This is not a story about a white guy who realized that the natives were important to protect who suddenly "saves them". This is a story of a broken man who is made whole by becoming first a member, and then a leader, in a community that he was not born into. As an immigrant he has brought some valuable knowledge and experience with him, but he is not swooping in and saving the world. He is working as part of the people that he has joined. He is working within the context of their culture. In the end, the savior is not the one man, but the World Spirit itself, starting from the sacred tree where Sully prays. The network of all living things communicates across the planet and brings the "non-intelligent" animals across the planet into the battle.

The lesson I'd like to share with you in all of this is that you should never discount anyone's role in a community based on their race, ethnicity or other identifying factor. Immigrants are vital to any community, as they bring new blood and new ideas into the mix, even as they work to fit in as best they can. Converts are not outsiders coming in to change the face of the community that they have joined, but history shows that they can bring many great things to their adopted community.

What do you think about Avatar? Race fail or Immigrant win?

* Converts must learn both a minimum of Hebrew for prayer and the pastiche of Jewish lingo that we use for all sorts of things in life. The first is a formal requirement, the second is more of a survival in the community kind of thing.
** I just made that word up.