James Cameron threatens to tell only "Avatar" stories from now on, despite the harm done

Faced with cultural appropriation accusations, the director doubles down on his colonizer mentality

By Alison Stine

Staff Writer

Published December 29, 2022 5:50PM (EST)

Tsireya (Bailey Bass), Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo'ak (Britain Dalton), and Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in "Avatar: The Way Of Water." (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)
Tsireya (Bailey Bass), Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo'ak (Britain Dalton), and Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in "Avatar: The Way Of Water." (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

Asked by Empire Magazine if James Cameron regretted spending so many years – about a quarter of a century – on one story, that of the Na'vi, giant blue humanoids who live in accordance with nature, the director gave a surprising answer: "The world of 'Avatar' is so sprawling that I can tell most of the stories I want to tell within it [Pandora]." He went on to say, "Secondly, yes . . . our time as artists is finite. I will always mourn some of the stories that I don't get to make. But I feel a great satisfaction when other directors want to explore some of my ideas."

Back to the first part of that statement. Is Cameron really at peace with centering the remainder of his career in one so-called embarrassing world? Since the original "Avatar" was released in 2009, Cameron has shot two sequels to it, including "Avatar: The Way of Water," which opened in December and parts of the third film, as well as developing two other sequels. Variety writes, "It's quite possible the 68-year-old Cameron only directs 'Avatar' movies for the rest of his career. Not that that's a problem for Cameron."

He may be fine with it, but in the wake of accusations from Indigenous people about cultural appropriation and harm from the films, are we? No one asked for more "Avatar." No one, except Cameron himself.

Much has changed in the years since "Avatar." One thing that hasn't changed is James Cameron.

The original "Avatar" tells the story of Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) who is a paraplegic. It's the future. Earth's resources have been depleted. Somehow, we made it to 2154, which already seems highly improbable, but fine. To replace his deceased brother, Jake is sent on a mission to the moon Pandora, which greedy Earth folk want to mine for unobtainium. There's a problem. Pandora is populated by a "primitive" humanoid species who live in harmony with their natural world and don't take kindly to strangers. Jake infiltrates the group by assuming an avatar that looks like them. This also allows him to move without his wheelchair. But Jake falls in love with the Na'vi, their ways, and one of them in particular. 

Obviously, the original "Avatar" had some issues. One is that it's basically "Heart of Darkness" with Jake as a white savior. The other is that it stinks of ableism. Much has changed in the years since "Avatar." One thing that hasn't changed is James Cameron.

Avatar: The Way Of WaterRonal (Kate Winslet), Tonowari (Cliff Curtis), and the Metkayina clan in "Avatar: The Way Of Water." (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)"Avatar: The Way of Water" is set more than a decade after the first film. Jake has a family with the Na'vi, but our old threat returns and he must lead the Na'vi to defeat their shared enemy. The new film has garnered tepid reviews, with most critics praising the visuals but lamenting the paltry story and dialogue, and using their reviews as a chance to get bitingly creative without sparing the puns. The Guardian called it "soggy" and "twee," describing it as a very expensive "screensaver." The Los Angeles Times went with "Na'vi gazing" while The Telegraph said watching the film "feels like being waterboarded with turquoise cement." That was a one-star review, if you were wondering.

It's a hodgepodge of stolen things.

But the most damning criticism comes from Indigenous people, with many calling for an all-out boycott of the film. Indigenous people, like Navajo artist Yuè Begay, object to the film's romantic view of colonialism and its sweeping generalizations about Native people. Stories and communities have been twisted and maligned to create the Na'vi, which writer and filmmaker Jason Asenap describes as a "curious mixture of surface Indigeneity signified from a white man's perspective: long braids and dreadlocks attached to foreign bodies, the bodies laden with "exotic" ta moko-style tattoos." 

Avatar: The Way Of WaterJack Champion as Spider in "Avatar: The Way Of Water." (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)It's a hodgepodge of stolen things, and Cameron himself hasn't helped. In comments from 2010, which have now resurfaced, he told The Guardian he was inspired by the "plight" of Native people, saying, "This was a driving force for me in the writing of 'Avatar' – I couldn't help but think that if they [the Lakota Sioux] had had a time-window and they could see the future . . . and they could see their kids committing suicide at the highest suicide rates in the nation . . . because they were hopeless and they were a dead-end society – which is what is happening now – they would have fought a lot harder."

South Dakota State Senator Red Dawn Foster told Native News Online, "James Cameron's comments are wholly inaccurate. He has fallen into the trap of viewing the Lakota as the 'ignorant savage.'" Native News Online also quoted Dr. Kyle Hill, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa (enrolled), psychologist and assistant professor, who said, Cameron's "generalization about suicide is problematic and lacks accuracy. The colonizer mentality that we were in those circumstances is us being doomed is wrong, but for us, we passed on our knowledge and our stories when snow was on the ground. That was a promise of survival."

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When do such mischaracterizations, overgeneralizations and appropriations such as Cameron's become dangerous? Native women already face rates of violence two to three times higher than women of any other race. The 2021 Hollywood Diversity Report found Native representation in film was only 0.6%. Meanwhile "Avatar: The Way of Water," directed and co-written by a white man, has made over 1 billion globally. America especially loves easy stories, stories where a white man is a hero, where a disabled body is cured, where Indigenous people are magic. But real people are saying these stories are damaging; they are asking audiences to listen.

Nobody wanted more "Avatar" movies. We are paying for them in ticket prices and paying for them, long-term, in harm to actual people. It's fine if you spend the rest of your life on Pandora, James Cameron. But we don't have to go with you.


By Alison Stine

Alison Stine is a former staff writer at Salon. She is the author of the novels "Trashlands" and "Road Out of Winter," winner of the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, and others.

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Avatar Avatar: The Way Of Water Commentary Disney Film Indigenous James Cameron Native