Avatar and Twilight: Native Representation on screen 2.0
One of the things I enjoyed most about my experience with Reel Injun, was the chance to look back at movies that I grew up watching, studied in university, but haven’t necessarily watched in a few years. Much like Reel Injun itself, it was a great reminder of just how far the representation of Native people on screen has come in the century or so of cinema.
However, some recent additions to the canon serve as reminders of just how far is left to travel. Watching James Cameron’s Avatar, as well as the last two movies in the “Twilight Saga” brought back some of the emotions I felt when revisiting films from decades past. In so many ways, these thoroughly modern blockbusters (modern in both design and intent) rely on many narrative tropes revealed in the Westerns exposed in Reel Injun. Both embrace a modern view of Native people that is indeed somewhat welcome; these are Native people of the present or future, not of the past, and this is something needed more in movies. However, while intending to be modern in their representation, both Twilight and Avatar are deeply rooted colonialist stories that may be inseparable from the dominant culture that crafted them.
“The Twilight Saga” features dynamic performances from some exciting young Native actors, including heartthrob Taylor Lautner. Lautner portrays Jacob Black, a member of the Quileute Nation in Washington State. In the first movie (and book), Jacob relates his people’s story to Bella (Kristen Stewart), the brooding love interest at the centre of the “Twilight” story. He tells her that his ancestors, including his great grandfather, made a treaty with “the cold ones” or vampires, the natural enemies of the werewolves from whom Jacob is descended. According to this legend in Twilight, the Quileute joined with the Cullens, a family of good vampires including Edward (Robert Pattison), to keep the bad (read: human eating) vampires away. Ultimately, this leads to conflict when some blood suckers intent on killing Bella arrive in town, leading both Jacob and Edward to fight over their right to protect her. Jacob’s transformation from teen to man comes in the second part of the series New Moon, where the newly buff Jacob not only turns into a werewolf for the first time, thus fulfilling his tribal legacy, but also cuts his once long hair and ceases wearing a shirt; a moment of objectification the film never truly explains but does acknowledge and exalt in.
However, more worrisome than a group of shirtless, flexing Native men is the original conceit of the treaty signed between the Quileute and the vampires. While the violation of the treaty is at the centre of the story the narrative never makes an allegorical connection with the history of treaty rights in North America. But one shouldn’t look to a vampire movie for this sort of affirmation of past wrongs. It’s actually in the very notion of the treaty that Twilight’s colonialist elements are exposed. In the simple act of equating vampires with the Quileute, Twilight suggests that Native people and their stories are the stuff of fantasy. Vampires after all, are fictitious creatures. The Quileute are not. In suggesting a treaty between the two, Twilight has the effect of fictionalizing Native people and their history. In doing so, Twilight absolves much of American history of its treatment of Native people – after all, they’re the same as vampires. Watching Twilight reminded me of a trip to a toy store I once made. On a shelf were small figurines depicting the characters from Lord of the Rings, including elves and orcs. On the same shelf were displayed figurines of Native people; part of the “Wild West Collection”, as if they too might have sprung from the mind of J.R.R. Tolkein. I bought one called “Medicine Man” and I keep it on my writing desk as a reminder that we are not fictional and that allowing others to portray us as such, even as toys or in movies, robs of us of our real history.
Twilight is a vampire movie, and that is not a point lost on me, nor is the fact that Avatar is a movie about blue people on another planet, far far away. However, more than any other recent Hollywood production, let alone a record setting 3D one, Avatar is steeped in Hollywood’s traditional and not so well worn representation of First Nations people. Rather overt in its allegorical intent, Avatar’s Na’vi, are clearly modeled after the indigenous people of the Americas, or at least how they have been historically portrayed in Hollywood. This is revealed in the Na’vi’s long braided hair, often adorned with feathers or a headband; their connection to the environment, which is made physical by their ability to plug into the land using their hair; their war whoop, a sound, that as Reel Injun points out, is a fabrication of Hollywood; even their language is based on Native languages. If you need more obvious connections, the Na’vi are referred to as “indigenous”, “natives”, “aboriginals” and “savages” throughout the film, all terms used to identify the First Nations of the Americas in the past.
Using the Hollywood Native as its allegorical tool, Avatar employs another worn Western narrative cliche; that of the colonizer, becoming one of the colonized in order to repel the attacks of the invaders. This same story is easily recognized in films such as Dances with Wolves. The story involves a futuristic soldier who adopts the appearance and ultimately the cultural beliefs of the more technologically primitive Na’vi, falls in love and ultimately saves them from destruction. This classic narrative has anti-colonial intentions, but in its very construction, undermines those values. By making the Na’vi’s salvation dependent on their acceptance of one of the colonizers, it reinforces the notion of a dominant culture. In Avatar, the Na’vi would have allowed their own destruction, mostly out of their own naivety and cultural innocence, if not for their adopted leader, who in this case, becomes their near deity in three months. The notion that one can move from one culture to the next and easily retain cultural knowledge and history, is a colonial one. The ability to choose which culture one belongs too is the creation of a dominant culture; that choice is simply not available to subcultures. So at its very narrative core, Avatar is a film that suggests cultural and racial superiority, while recreating a narrative well past its due date of cultural acceptability. It’s ironic of course, that a film of such technological advancement and wonderment, is undone by its reliance on outdated narrative and cultural tropes. And even as the film sails to new record box office numbers, perhaps it will serve as reminder of how much more progress is needed when it comes to representation of First Nations on screen.
Now, there have been many alternate readings of the portrayal of Native characters in both Twilight and Avatar, and certainly they have validity. Especially poignant is the observation that Avatar is really a comment on the current war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as being an environmental parable, as offered by its creator James Cameron. However, within entertainment such as this, it is still crucial to examine the choices made by filmmakers. I would argue that it’s even more important to interpret these choices in such populist entertainment. Ultimately, we are dealing with two films deeply rooted in fantasy, one populated by emo vampires, the other by large blue people with tails. In narrative worlds such as these, anything is truly possible. The vampires of Twilight didn’t have to make a treaty with the Quileute – they could have had a treaty with anyone, even aliens. The Na’vi of Avatar didn’t have to war whoop and wear braids – they’re blue, they could have done anything. But, that’s not what the filmmakers or storytellers chose to do. Instead, they used Native people, and once that choice is made it’s important to confront and understand it.
We have come out of a century where our stories were not being told by us, and where our representation on screen was out of our hands. That is not true anymore, and accepting a return to the storytelling of that era should be unacceptable, not just to First Nations people, but to everyone. More films like Twilight and Avatar may require their own Reel Injun to reclaim our screen image once again.
Jesse Wente has been the weekly film critic for CBC Radio in Toronto for nearly a decade. He also appears on Q, CBC Radio’s national arts and culture show and is seen regularly on TVOntario’s Saturday Night at the Movies. Jesse is a programmer at the Toronto International Film Festival as well as the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival. He is also president of Native Earth Performing Arts, Canada’s oldest Aboriginal theatre company.