Film Study: Dances with Wolves and Avatar

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Film Study: Dances with Wolves and Avatar
is the story of paraplegic Marine Jake Sully, who decides to take his dead twin brother’s place in a mission on the distant world of Pandora. There he learns of greedy corporate figurehead Parker Selfridge's intentions of driving off the native humanoid "Na'vi" in order to mine for the precious material scattered throughout their rich woodland. In exchange for the spinal surgery that will fix his legs, Jake gathers intel for the cooperating military unit spearheaded by gung-ho Colonel Quaritch, while simultaneously attempting to infiltrate the Na'vi people with the use of an "avatar" identity. While Jake begins to bond with the native tribe and quickly falls in love with the beautiful alien Neytiri, the restless Colonel moves forward with his ruthless extermination tactics, forcing the soldier to take a stand - and fight back in an epic battle for the fate of Pandora.
Many differing opinions have been expressed about the message of the film Avatar and it’s portrayal of indigenous people. Some say that it highlights many positive components of native cultures. For example, it is highly critical of the rampant materialism and unchecked capitalism so prevalent in Western cultures, and praises the native protagonists of the film, who display an understanding of the truth of what our relationship to the natural world should look like. On the other hand, many critics claim that it is merely a recycled stereotypical Western dressed up with fancy graphics and technology, upholding the belief that Native people are in many ways inferior to their powerful white colonizers.

As you watch Avatar, consider the following questions:

  • How does the film portray a positive message about Natives? A negative one?

  • In what ways are Natives romanticized or fictionalized in the film?

  • Describe the antagonist (the bad guy). Who is he meant to represent?

  • Describe the protagonist (good guy). Who does he represent? What role does Jake Sully play in helping the Na’vi defeat the human invaders?

  • Avatar has been called “Dances with Pocahontas in Space.” What are the similarities with Dances with Wolves
    and Pocahontas?

  • In your opinion, do the positives in the film outweigh the negatives? What is the impact of this film on the identity of Native peoples?

Your task: Write an essay on the portrayal of Indigenous people in the films Dances with Wolves and Avatar. Consider the messages or stereotypes that are communicated through individual scenes, the impact that these films have on the public perception of Indigenous people and how these films would be interpreted by different groups - Native people, non-Natives, other ethnicities, etc. Try to look at the films critically and just defend or condemn them because of how you feel about them. Your essay should have a clearly developed thesis and be organized into five clear paragraphs (introduction, 3 body paragraphs and a conclusion).

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