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Avatar: The way of white saviorism

Updated: Mar 9, 2023

By Antara Gangwal Feb. 15, 2023

Reuniting viewers with an acclaimed fictional universe, the sequel to the award-winning film “Avatar” sparked controversy by Indigenous activists, many of whom believe it promotes a storyline of white saviorism.

Jane Hong Art

“Avatar” is currently the highest grossing film of all time, earning over $2.9 billion since its release in Dec. 2009, as per Box Office Mojo. The sequel “Avatar: The Way of Water” was released over 13 years later on Dec. 16, 2022 to high anticipation from global fans of the first film. Deadline reports that the new installment made over $2.12 billion by Jan. 22, cementing its place as the top fourth grossing film worldwide.

“Avatar: The Way of Water” takes place 15 years after the events of the first film and, once again, follows protagonist Jake Sully after he chose to live on the fictional moon Pandora and don a body based on its indigenous inhabitants—the Na’vi—in the first film. In the sequel, as chief of the Na’vi Omaticaya clan, Sully and his family must fight against human colonization of Pandora.

Jane Hong Art

Along with praise, however, the film has also become a topic of debate; Indigenous activists such as Crystal Echo-Hawk, the founder of social justice organization Illuminative, have accused the storyline of perpetuating a white savior narrative. In an interview with CNN, Echo-Hawk explained that white director James Cameron limits his exploration of colonization by centering the story on a white character.

Similarly, a tweet demanding a boycott of the film by Navajo artist and co-chair of Indigenous Pride Los Angeles Yuè Begay stated that the film employs blueface; it blends many native cultures together to create characters that are played by white actors. In the tweet, Begay also mentioned previous anti-indigenous statements made by Cameron in a 2010 interview with The Guardian, where the director explained that he was inspired to create “Avatar” after imagining what would have occurred if the Lakota Sioux tribe had fought harder against colonization. Since it was posted on Dec. 18, 2022, Begay’s tweet has garnered over 48,000 likes and 15,000 retweets, inciting debate over Cameron’s comments and the casting of the sequel, which includes Black, Indigenous and Latino actors yet still a majority of white actors.

“While I thought that the film was lacking in its plot and that I would not want to watch future installments, I was not previously aware of the criticism it received. Nonetheless, I agree that more Indigenous people should be in the cast and crew, as the plot is entirely based on their culture,” Sophomore Saanvi Deb said.

Other films have been comparably denounced for submitting to white savior stereotypes in the past. For example, the Last Samurai—a 2003 film about efforts to fight U.S. westernization of Japan—is centered around a white general played by Tom Cruise rather than its Japanese characters. However, Japanese actor Ken Watanabe, who portrayed a side character in “The Last Samurai,” stated in a 2022 interview with The Guardian that his role was important in changing stereotypical Hollywood Asian representation. Likewise, Lakota activist and attorney Chase Iron Eyes told CNBC that “Avatar: The Way of Water” accurately depicted Lakota beliefs through its portrayal of the connection between the Na’vi and the natural world. Iron Eyes has also accused the film of blueface and having limited Indigenous representation.

Cameron responded to backlash in an interview with Unilad in Dec. 2022, stating that he recognized the importance of listening to criticism about the perspective of white privilege. He elaborated that he meant to celebrate indigenous spirituality rather than misrepresent them, and that it was not his intention to induce a white savior storyline with Sully’s character.

Some will continue to boycott the upcoming installments to the Avatar franchise, while others hope to find improvement in the upcoming third, fourth and fifth films. Above all, Indigenous activists like Begay continue to advocate for media where Indigenous people are writing and starring in their own stories.


About The Contributors

Antara Gangwal

staff writer

Antara Gangwal is a sophomore at Leland High School and is a staff writer for The Charger Account. Her hobbies include reading, watching films and listening to music.

Jane Hong


Jane Hong is a freshman at Leland High School and works as an artist for The Charger Account. In her free time, Jane dances to K-pop, watches k-dramas, and practices drawing.

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