Avatar 2: The Way of Water has come out, and critics are not happy. The sequel film to the original Avatar movie is facing calls for a boycott over its alleged “appropriation” of indigenous and African cultures.
The film, a sequel to James Cameron’s 2009 smash hit Avatar, focuses on the Na’vi, the blue-skinned inhabitants of an alien planet called Pandora.
A majority of the cast is white, with Zoe Saldana and Cliff Curtis standing out among them. The omission of Native voices in the writing, production, and overall creation of a movie about indigenous trauma cannot be overlooked, especially in light of references to indigenous histories.
The Avatar franchise is no stranger to criticism surrounding amalgamating aspects of various Indigenous cultures while casting several white and other non-indigenous actors in the roles of the Na’vi.
A Native American influencer and co-chair of Indigenous Pride LA, Yuè Begay, is among many to publicly propose a boycott against Way of Water, stating, “Do NOT watch Avatar: The Way of Water. Join Natives and other Indigenous groups around the world in boycotting this horrible and racist film. Our cultures were appropriated in a harmful manner to satisfy some man’s savior complex. No more Blueface! Lakota people are powerful!”
This is not the first time that Cameron has faced backlash and criticism for cultural appropriation. Back in 2010, Cameron faced backlash for comments that he made in which he appeared to suggest that Native American tribes could have “fought harder” against colonial displacement and genocide, stating, “I felt like I was 120 years back in time watching what the Lakota Sioux might have been saying at a point when they were being pushed and they being killed and they were being asked to displace, and they were being given some form of compensation. This was a driving force for me in the writing of Avatar.” He tells the Guardian.
“I couldn’t help but think that if they had had a time-window and they could see the future … and they could see their kids taking their own lives 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.”
Sundance Institute director Adam Piron says he hasn’t yet seen the latest installment of the Avatar franchise but plans to. However, he believes Cameron’s sci-fi epic is part of a long tradition of White filmmakers imposing their own ideas of Indigenousness rather than involving Indigenous people directly.
They have also been accused of cultural appropriation due to the way they portray the fictional Na’vi as combining disparate elements of Indigenous cultures. Although The Way of Water does draw inspiration from Maori culture, Echo-Hawk suggests a deeper collaboration could have helped.
“It’s based on what James Cameron’s notion is of what he thinks Indigenous history is, what he thinks Indigenous culture is,” she said. “Everyone thinks that we’re a monolith. What it does is flatten who Indigenous peoples are, what Indigenous cultures, language, practices are.”
Toronto Indigenous Filmmakers Collective founder Rhonda Lucy, who also runs the media production company Sun Raven Arts, said she wouldn’t see The Way of Water.
“I live that reality. My community lives this reality,” Lucy said. “Why would I want to pay the small amount of money I make to hand over to a massive money-making machine to pay them to show me heartache and pain that’s just glazed over?”
While she appreciates the criticism, she hopes Indigenous creatives will use this as an incentive to develop their own ambitious projects.
“We have a whole bunch of nerds in our community who love writing and creative writing and doing so much sci-fi,” she said. “I want to see our people leave all of this stuff in the dust and say, ‘We made our own.’”
But How is Avatar: The Way of Water Doing?
Even though the sequel has been subject to controversies, it appears that the movie is doing reasonably well. Despite freezing weather in large parts of the U.S. and audiences staying home during the winter storm, Avatar 2 continued to do well.
In its first weekend, the sequel raked in $64 million; through Monday, it had more than $90 million. It was expected that the sequel would earn $56 million over the weekend and $82 million over the holiday period, but the numbers were higher than expected. As a result of these numbers, the sequel is now close to making $900 million, which will make it the fifth highest-grossing film of 2022.