The White Messiah Fable

I know, I know. Reviews of Avatar are a bit played out at this point. But David Brooks’ review in today’s New York Times caught my eye. First of all, he is no conservative, so his critique comes from an entirely different angle. Second, his critique deconstructs the story-formula itself. Brooks argues that “Avatar” fits the genre of “The White Messiah fable,” and he suggests that such stories are offensive. He writes:

“[The white messiah fable] rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.”

Read the rest here.

14 Responses to The White Messiah Fable

  1. John Holmberg January 8, 2010 at 3:27 pm #

    Denny,

    Why don’t you post any positive reviews? Seriously, why do you dislike this movie so much? Is it really just because of some political agenda? Can’t you just enjoy the story and evaluate it on that basis?

  2. Don Johnson January 8, 2010 at 4:12 pm #

    That was a pretty devastating review.

  3. Bob January 8, 2010 at 10:35 pm #

    Uhh…David Brooks, whom I’ve seen giving commentary countless times, is very much a conservative, just a unique one. I’m only just beginning to dissect his absolutely bizarre sensitivity to what he’s calling the “White Messiah” fable…can’t figure out if he’s offended by the liberal bias of Avatar and so is sneakily using a liberal argument against a liberal film, thereby trying to gain attention and fans, OR…whether he’s just jealous and offended that another writer can do something as cool as Avatar, and is pulling out all the critical stops to get back at Cameron. Intriguing, but it’s certainly not as simply as crying about the White Messiah fable.

  4. David Vinzant January 9, 2010 at 4:22 pm #

    It’s true that Brooks is not a member of the religious right or a fan of Sarah Palin. That might automatically make him “no conservative” to you, but AFAIK he does consider himself a conservative. He is a Republican and supported Bush and McCain. He certainly isn’t a liberal.

  5. Ray Lauzzana January 9, 2010 at 9:17 pm #

    David Brooks seems to be suffering from an “oppressed white minority” complex. Its really sad to hear this kind of nonsense propagated in the NY Times.

    Granted, central casting really fouled-up with the casting for this one. The entire cast of the military-industrial side was all-white. I hope this wasn’t intentional. But, nevertheless, it was obviously a mistake that allowed the racially under-privileged, like Mr. Brooks, to jump in with his sort of inflammatory comments.

    The casting director could certainly be much more politically correct. He could have cast someone like Halle Berry or Jennifer Lopez to play the marine. If not, try Denzel or Will Smith. Even a racially ambiguous male like Keanu Reeves would have been better.

    Recasting might have mute his criticism. But, nothing well ever overcome Mr. Brooks white-paranoia.

    I can hardly wait for the sequel and Mr. Brooks comments when the cavalry return to Pandora (Little Big Horn).

  6. Denny Burk January 9, 2010 at 10:07 pm #

    Hello, all. Brooks is pro-choice, pro-gay “marriage,” and pro-gun control. He thinks the small government philosophy of Reagan and Goldwater was a mistake for Republicans. He is a frequent admirer of President Obama, and he used his column to implore him to run for the presidency.

    I know that Brooks is billed as a “conservative.” I just have a hard time recognizing him as such, given his views.

  7. russware January 10, 2010 at 3:17 am #

    I don’t have time to go read the review right now, but in the case of Avatar it seems like the natives would not have needed the white messiah in the first place if it hadn’t been for the white oppressors, and at any rate one could argue whether the deeper message of the movie was the white man helping save the natives way of life/planet, or the natives helping save the white man’s ‘soul.’ Who is really saving who in this movie?

  8. russware January 10, 2010 at 3:20 am #

    For instance, in Dances With Wolves, (basically the same movie, right Denny? 😉 )… is that a story of the Costner character saving the tribe he befriends or them saving him?

  9. Nate January 11, 2010 at 11:20 am #

    Russ: I think you are accurate in stating that the real message of the movie is the natives saving Jake Sulley. However, I think this movie parallels Disney’s Pocohantas far more than Dances with Wolves. The stories are very similar, right down to the sacred tree. The movie is great as far as the 3D and CGI, but the story lacks depth. Sulley’s interactions in becoming one of the natives was rushed and really could have used more time. BTW I did enjoy the movie, but it certainly isn’t an instant classic.

  10. Brian Krieger January 11, 2010 at 12:25 pm #

    Nate:

    I have thought it paralleled Pocohantas as well (not to say DWW isn’t there as well).

    I agree with one comment made in the myriad of maelstrom over this and that is that the CG in the movie was really cool, but after a few minutes of “WOW!” the movie just didn’t have anything to sustain it at all. All plots are reused nowadays (hey, we’re even coming out with a film version of The A Team…….without Mr. T!), but at least many of those films make a narrow attempt at changing concepts or complications or….something. For me, I had immediate trouble getting over the laughability (sic) of using “unobtainum” as a serious part of the plot (seriously, come up with at least a tiny crack at a serious science term, not the butt of a plethora of engineering jokes) and the tree falling in the wrong direction, etc.. I also don’t often enjoy the pure evil you must hate him bad guy or really cheesy lines. But that’s all personal stuff. There are folks who enjoy that kind of a movie and so be it. But even outside of that, there seems to be some line of over-politicalization and religiousization that was crossed that really made me wince. And that’s why I wish I had read reviews prior and won’t be going again (and believe me, the movie studios are now cringing!). Again, so be it. Cameron has every right to make what I think is a poor movie with fantastic effects a less than stale plot overly politically correct film. He can even name the tribe leader Sal Jore, the General Jorge Whoosh and call the giant bombs Grapalm. He can even not care one wit that I have this opinion (I have a sneaky suspicion that is the case ;-)). Oh, well. But it seems there is a add backlash against not liking this film that seems puzzling. To that, too, I suppose, I should say “oh, well.” So, Oh, well.

  11. Matt January 11, 2010 at 1:11 pm #

    Have to chime in and rebut Dr. Burk’s labelling of David Brooks. Brooks may be off the reservation on some key issues, but he is a conservative. Truth is their is more to conservativism than gay marriage, abortion and guns, and it’s that sort of thinking that got us into this mess.

    If National Review, the Weekly Standard, YAF, the Heritage Foundation, etc. want to say Brooks is no conservative, fine, but I think Dr. Burk isn’t quite there yet.

  12. Ray Lauzzana January 11, 2010 at 10:04 pm #

    Whatever Brooks’ politics are it really doesn’t matter he is just as racially underprivileged as Cynthia McKinney or Joe Scarborough. They just don’t get it.

    Their mental framework conceives of everything from a racially polarized perspective. Scarborough’s recent rant about Harry Reid is an neurotic form of political correctness of the same kind as Mr. Brooks’ article.

    Bottom-line: russware has it right neither Scully or Costner are Messiahs!!! They are the ones that get converted. Its as if Jesus was converted to Roman Paganism and made war with the Hebrews.

  13. Jeff January 13, 2010 at 2:13 pm #

    Brooks’ assertion of the White Messiah in Avatar is inaccurate and subconsciously racist. The Terrans bent on the plunder of Pandora were of many ethnic derivations, it was by happenstance that Jake is handicapped caucasian. Further, the history of our world is filled with instances of one society which possesses greater killpower raping another which doesn’t in order to seize their natural resources and they have been of all ethnic groups.

    I suppose the only summation which I can draw from Brooks’ commentary is the mantra of the reactionary, “greed (and violence)is good”.

    jHh

  14. Josh Hamor January 22, 2010 at 2:14 am #

    I agree whoever you are; I felt the same way. This movie, intentionally or not, reinforces deleterious psychic structures. Besides the preeminent one detailed in the OP-ed piece, there’s also the serendipitous circumstances surrounding the character’s “rise to glory”, as it were. Would it be so bad to have a character whose worked hard and achieved reasonable goals?

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