The Jewish Na’Vi Riding The Six-Legged Camel: Unpacking The Star Wars Episode 1-Style Maori Mindfuck Of AVATAR 2
AVATAR 2: The Way of Water makes the bizarrely blatant choice to portray the water-cultures of Pandora very directly as Oceanic.
By that I don’t mean “of the ocean,” I mean “of the Oceania area of planet Earth.” For those who don’t know, “Oceania” is the very real name for the massive southern hemispheric area that encompasses Australia, New Zealand, Papa New Guinea, Guam, Fiji, and Samoa, as well as twenty other island nations. Now that you’ve got the geography, I’m sure you can place the “vibe” in your head.
The movie does this with zero subtlety; Cameron cast Maori actors to play the new tribe, and even cast actors from New Zealand to staff the new villainous crew of human whalers. The “metkayina” Ocean People bear face and neck tattoos that look essentially identical to those of the various tribes of the Polynesian and Samoan Islands.
The original Avatar was, at the time, a bit of a hot-button. “Racism” doesn’t always mean aggression towards another race; long before the term “racist” was politicized, it had a slightly broader meaning, sometimes called “racialism.”
Racialism: the belief that different races possess distinct characteristics, abilities, or qualities, especially so as to distinguish them as inferior or superior to one another.
Which brings us to the original AVATAR.
A movie nakedly embracing the white savior trope, it presented aliens with dreadlocks who rode horses and shot bow and arrows, even making whooping and hollering sounds cinematically familiar from rampaging Indians battling calvary and cowboys in 1950s Westerns. At the time, a kind of unspoken intellectual argument was be made that any similar bipedal tribal alien race might maybe possibly evolve to ride horses, shoot bow and arrows, wear facepaint like the Native American tribes of North America…have hair like them too.
It was a dumb intellectual argument, sure. But Avatar felt too well intentioned to call dismiss it completely as simply racist, but rather evoking a kind of grander “back to the earth” fantasy and pulling on old-fashioned (and yes, racist) visual cultural shortcuts to get there. It was what it was; a lark about the man from the city rediscovering his soul by visiting an ancient tribe.
But the way of Water is just so much weirder.
The production of Avatar 2: The Way of Water openly acknowledges that the Metkayina are inspired by the Maori, but leans much harder and more directly on Oceanic cultures than Avatar 1 ever did with Native Americans. Even the fucking whales have tattoos like Roman Reigns and The Rock. When enraged, the Metkayina begin doing a traditional tongues-out haka chant.
They’ve got freaking Jermaine Clement standing right there, even if he does appear, weirdly to be attempting an American accent. The movie is saying, outloud, full throated, yelling in your face in fact:
THESE ALIENS ARE MAORI. THEY ARE LITERALLY MAORI. THEY’RE MAORI ALIENS AND THEY FIGHT PEOPLE FROM NEW ZEALAND.
Culturally, the acceptance of this has been, seemingly, without controversy. This would not be the case in 2015. Maybe it’s because the Oceanic peoples, outside of The Rock and Moana (which features the Rock), aren’t that represented in modern mainstream pop culture, and have generally been exoticized and fetishized as they were annexed and exploited by the west for hundreds of years.
Hawaii was literally the only state to join the US against the will of its people. Doesn’t make the beaches any less beautiful, but certainly changes the tone at the Luau show once you know the history; Mike White explored this brilliantly in the first season of White Lotus.
The Maori aliens are definitely being presented as a kind of extremely sideways win for representation; after all, he did cast the Maori actors. Even in the original avatar, the Maori were listed as an “inspiration.” But that to me just makes it even more bizarre, now that we’re literally on islands in tropical huts. It’s so literal it defeats the imagination.
I can’t speak to whether this is “problematic” or “offensive” or not, and that’s ultimately not central the point I’m making. I’m not Maori or Polynesian or Oceanic at all, and I’m sure there’s a lot of different individual responses one could have to this.
Although, now that I think of it, I definitely would feel really fucking weird if next Jake goes to the desert part of Pandora and meets the Jewish Na’vi riding the six legged camel. Even if he was played by a REAL ISRAELI ACTOR or something. Oh man that makes it even weirder, oh my god.
That actually just made me feel awful even typing it, I can’t image your experience reading it, and I’m so sorry. I keep seeing the Na’Vi on the camel. Now he has a headscart. Now there’s a sexy Na’vi lady with green eyes in a hijab. You can’t let your brain go on this one. It takes you to really, incredibly weird dumb places.
My mind wanders back to Episode 1, and the weirdly Asian Nemodians, the sort-of-outright racist Jar Jar Binks caricature, and the hook-nosed, money-grubbing Middle Eastern/Jewish Watto. But, and I can’t believe I’m going to say this, in Star Wars, at least it makes sense! It’s a fantasy! These racist cartoons were at least coherent in the world they existed in.
In the movie Bright, Orcs have been said to be racist caricatures of black people. Though that’s certainly truer in the movie than in the script I wrote, even so, the film’s modern Los Angeles urban environment forgives a lot of the cultural appropriation; the orcs are literally meant to be culturally appropriating, and adopting and coopting human cultural identities as human-adjacent society. The racial lines aren’t synchronized to those of our world, and it’s kind of a reverse Star Wars: Episode 1, where cultural bleed is organic, rather than made up from whole cloth.
But then we come to Avatar: The Way of Water… which isn’t a fantasy. Do you see the issue yet? It’s twisting my brain in half. It’s not even about whether it’s racist or not. I’m making an even dumber point.
It’s a sci-fi movie. Earth EXISTS. Pandora is an alien planet. So uh..
uhh…They have…Guys from fucking New Zealand on the boat, chasing around the Metkayina. So like, the central buy-in of the entire production design and lore of the movie is just totally insane. Think about it. It’s head-splitting. It doesn’t make any sense.
It’s baffling and bizarre and invisible because it’s right in front of you.
Wouldn’t these New Zealand guys…I mean wouldn’t they be like,: