Altruism at the Oscars: Legitimizing racism, inequality and imperial design

| March 6, 2010
District 9 poster

The unusually lengthy list of nominees for this year's Best Picture Oscar features a slew of do-gooder films about the suffering of others. Most are about people who are at a considerable cultural distance from the white, middle-class Americans that are the primary consumers of these films.

Lee Daniel's Precious transports us to Harlem, to the world of Precious Jones, an illiterate, obese and sexually abused black teenager. John Lee Hancock's The Blind Side -- adapted from a biography of NFL superstar, Michael Oher -- follows the troubled life of another overweight and undereducated dark-skinned teen. Loaded with racial allegory, the science fiction blockbusters up for Best Picture also promise insight into the plight of the culturally distant -- segregated blacks under South Africa's apartheid regime in Niall Blomkamp's District 9, and aboriginal communities on the brink of colonization in James Cameron's Avatar. One might add to this mix last year's Best Picture winner, Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, which ventured into the sprawling slums of Mumbai to chronicle the journey of a young boy, Jamal Malik, as he navigated through a childhood ravaged by poverty and crime.

In each of these films, the audience is bombarded by a series of distressing images: shocking cruelty, violence, destitution and filth (who can forget the greasy pigs' feet of Precious?). They are meant to be vehicles of social justice -- stirring calls to action. Precious stands praised for its "inspiring message" and "glimpse inside a world we'd rather pretend does not exist in America," Slumdog Millionaire for "entertain[ing] people into taking action for a compelling cause," and Avatar for its anti-imperialist voice against "totalitarianism and genocide." Many of Slumdog's Oscars were dedicated to "the children," and the child actors in the film - who are actually slum-dwellers -- were paraded about in tuxedos and colourful frocks. I'm sure there'll be an onslaught of righteous acceptance speeches at this year's Oscars too.

But does it work? Does the moral outrage provoked by these beacons of cinematic philanthropy draw us closer to the Precious Joneses of the world, enlarging our understanding of their suffering? Or does it amplify distance, by reproducing stereotypes and erasing agency and history when they count? I'm going to bet on the latter.

Films such as Precious, District 9 and Avatar shed little light on how the "oppressed" in question would explain their own condition and articulate their own needs. What they render clear, however, is that familiar predatory relationships are very easily repackaged in the neutral language of altruism and multiculturalism.

At the heart of the problem is a parade of ugly stereotypes.

Slumdog and Precious serve up an unnervingly similar view of the spaces inhabited by the urban poor. The slum of Jamal's childhood swarms with marauding religious fanatics, petty warlords and monstrous beggar-makers who gouge out children's eyes. In the Harlem of Precious, we encounter idle men who kick the pregnant Precious to the ground, and her demonic family -- a father who persistently rapes her, and a dissolute mother who blames her for soliciting his advances.

While it's plausible that individuals such as Jamal and Precious do exist, having failed to experience one single moment of affirmation or achievement, the various snapshots of deprivation and debasement add up to a pornographically bleak picture of spaces such as Harlem, masking their vibrancy of life and the agency of their residents.

Mumbai's slums and Harlem are far from desolate hinterlands. They have rich histories of community solidarity and local activism -- social and political resources much beyond the purely individualistic sorts we see in the films. Both are sites of dynamic housing rights movements that have campaigned for decent housing for the poor and resisted the gentrification policies of their cities.

One wonders if it's the politically engaged Harlemite that we'd rather pretend does not exist in America.

The denials of humanity and agency we see in Precious and Slumdog are not without consequence. They provide ideological justification to policy agendas that only deepen the misery of the poor. Viewing the "slum" as a worthless space mired in evil and decay only paves the way for involuntary relocation and demolition (on this, see my earlier review of Slumdog). The spectre of the sexually voracious, criminally fertile, welfare-cheating black mother of Precious has been used to restrict the access of single black mothers to federal poverty programs and subject them to forced sterilisation (on this, see Melissa Harris-Lacewell's review of Precious).

The theme of pathological black motherhood also runs through The Blind Side (Oher's "mama's on the crack-pipe" and can't remember who fathered him or how many children she's had). In a particularly unsettling snatch of dialogue we're told by Oher's rich, white adoptive father that "Michael's gift is his ability to forget." Forget what exactly? His life of poverty, or his blackness?

Masquerading as films about "aliens," Avatar and District 9 also repeat vicious stereotypes. In Avatar, the planet "Pandora" is the pristine home of the nature-loving noble savage who "wants nothing from us" and is oblivious to their perilous future. Once again, the objects of our benevolent gaze are seen as having passively invited their own alienation and despair -- a patronizing portrayal that deflects attention from what earthly aboriginals do want from us, such as sharing in our rights as human beings.

District 9 doesn't bother with the "noble savage" trope. Its aliens, who languish in a filthy, military-guarded slum in Johannesburg, are a repulsive and destructive horde. They lack all capacity for collective action, and as Nicole Stamp points out, "destroy property for no reason and piss on their homes." Any notion that this is how actual black South Africans lived during the apartheid era is nothing short of outrageous. In fact, the unquenched racism of Blomkamp's true view of black Africans is forced to light in his outlandish depiction of the cannibalistic "Nigerian" mercenaries that sexually service the aliens and sell them raw meat.

If the intention is to whip up sympathy for the aliens, this is an odd way of doing it. One can see why Johannesburgans want the aliens expelled to the outskirts of the city, with the barely-human "Nigerians" in tow. As with Slumdog Millionaire's "slum," the only reasonable solutions are containment or obliteration.

These films not only deny the sorts of agency that count politically, they deny history and context. The dysfunctional or mysterious life-worlds we enter appear to exist outside of social relations.

In Precious, the derelict Harlem of the 1980s is a spatially bound insular world, unconnected to practices such as the bank redlining of the 1970s, which left very few Harlem residents owning property, and increased the vulnerability of low-income families to the Giuliani administration's privatization drive. The aliens in District 9's internment camp aren't the product of a long history of dispossession through land-grab, but have dropped down from a giant spaceship. Avatar's "Pandora," populated by the "indigenous Na'vi," is at a convenient distance of "4.4 light years from earth."

The suicidal choices we see -- dietary and otherwise -- are always framed as the cause of the problem, not the symptom.

One might argue that Avatar and District 9 are somewhat better at acknowledging systemic sources of poverty, and our complicity, as audiences in the West, in the tragedies that unfold. Yet the admission of guilt remains shallow. Both films rely on simplistic good vs. evil narratives that allow us to separate ourselves from greedy corporate heads and trigger-happy soldiers -- the "bad white guys" -- and stress our individuality and innate capacity for goodness.

Hollywood's cinematic altruism ultimately serves an important function. They affirm us as wealthy, virtuous and lucky. They strengthen our sense of entitlement to intervene in the worlds of those we deem as impoverished, depraved and unlucky. And they harden our demand for gratitude.

It is surely significant that these films have attained enormous success at a time of acute economic crisis, and more importantly, the sputtering of numerous "just wars" against the culturally distant.

In each of these films, someone's stuck in a wretched "other" culture who is bleating for a connection with ours -- its values, knowledge and bodies -- be this through an imported quiz show (Slumdog Millionaire), a light-skinned and supremely bourgeois teacher (Precious), affluent white Christians (The Blind Side), or fresh-faced white men suspended at different stages of Kafkaesque metamorphosis (District 9 and Avatar).

Indeed, these films are testaments to the insidious practice of pushing a few palatable local heroes of colour to the forefront to distract from endemic racism, material inequality and imperial design.

I realize that it's futile to chastise commercial cinema for failing to explore complexities of class and race. I'm sure Hollywood will continue to appropriate the voice of those who lack the power to produce images of their own suffering.

My aim is not to beg for change (though that would be nice). It's to offer such cinematic altruism as evidence that the camera is not a dispassionate instrument of sight, but one that reflects the relationship of power between those who're being viewed and those who're doing the viewing. The point extends not only to Hollywood's philanthropic repertoire, but to other forms of filmic altruism, such as CNN's unctuous dispatches from Haiti.

Mitu Sengupta is an assistant professor in the department of politics & public administration at Ryerson University in Toronto. A version of this article appeared in The Monthly Review.




While I found the article above most informative and thought-provoking, I found the remarks related to Avatar (the only movie mentioned that I've seen) somewhat weak.  For example,  that action occurs at a "convenient" distance of 4.4 light years from earth seems totally irrelevant, since what happens is more important than where, and this is science fiction or fantasy.  

For me, the movie was mind-blowing in the obvious indictment of the US military.  How could this movie be made in Hollywood where movies often thank the US army for use of their equipment as props?  Perhaps the advent of special effects, and that this was written by a Canadian, provide some explanation.

My biggest quarrel with the movie is that the peace-loving and tree-hugging natives resist the foreigners by gathering the tribes and engaging in an all-out vicious and destructive war to the last person standing.  I guess a war was needed to showcase the special effects.  But from the point of view of message, it seems to me it reinforces the convention that the way to settle disputes even by enlightened peoples is by killing your enemy.



I read this elsewhere and it exemplifies the same knee-jerk cultural commentary that is too apparent these days in academia. While some of the points about Precious, District 9, and Slumdog Millionaire are valid, for Avatar, it does misses major plot points that elevate a traditional Hollywood film using common tropes to another thing altogether.. What these critiques miss is that Avatar arrives at a far more radical even with the realms of fantasy than most other works of fictions. To do so, and to be seen by so many has to count for something.

A much stronger case for legitimizing oppressions could have been made for Invictus (where apartheid was whitewashed by the unity-building trope of rugby whose fans remain thuggish and often racist) and The Hurt Locker (where the victims of the Iraq War are completely disappeared by the focus on the heroic monomania of the protagonist US soldier).

From this take I would imagine that in the university hallways of 2154, the same critical commentaries would be made against Grace Augustine and Jake Sully for their liberal human guilt and their expropriation of the Na'vi indigenous struggle, even while these same self-styled radical academics would be working at institutions funded partly by RDA money and writing up a storm, while the world crumbles around them.


avatar calls for armed resistance against white people.  and larryk only armed resistance beat back the colonial devils from destroying the land.  its something to think about, and start pressuring our government and culture to stop our destruction.

99% of movies suck, award shows are a waste of time and resources.  we know whats wrong out the world, avatar is the most recent movie to point it out.

oh and i can see the appropriation of culture and the fact that it is a white guy behind the avatar... but, they kill evil whitey and force us off thier land.  its beautiful





The more problematic society and politics become the more Hollywood mainstream becomes irrelevant. Majority of the movies employ real life problems as pretext to entertain us with shocking reality backed up now with computer graphics and 3D, and, of course, good professional acting and directing. Even Avatar that has been frequently referred in comments and in the article sends us a vague, unclear message, drowned by overwhelming 3D exercises. This movie might has made a very strong social and environmental call 5 - 7 years ago, but now, I'm sorry, it's late. Our today's life reality is different. Browse the Net and read independent websites articles. In this context, I'd agree with the main Mitu's idea on the Hollywood approach. It still tries to entertain us. But today this entertainment is different: trying to keep the pace, Hollywood scares and shocks audience. I find it irritating

I'm really tired of liberals/lefties rushing to defend Avatar. Wake up! Nothing but Dances with the Wolves in space. I agree with Mitu's point that any admission of guilt is disgustingly shallow. UGH. On the whole there are a lot of good ideas in this article, though not all well developed. I'd like to have seen a more scathing attack on Avatar.

As for Ceti's rant against academics making cultural commentaries, sounds pretty anti-intellectual to me. So is the insinuation that such commentaries are a waste of the tax payer's money.   

Still wondering why people think Avatar is so progressive. The whole movie is about the goodness of Jake and the good scientist.

In response to cynicalbong, I am at my end sick of knee-jerk lefties rushing to attack Avatar, out of all proportion to its actual merits because it is simple to do so from an undergraduate essay writing level. It is not anti-intellectual to point out the dead-end that a lot of the cultural left finds itself, unable to connect to a population that is rapidly becoming propagandized to go off merrily of to war for whatever reason the corporations tell them is necessary. This fault finding is so easy -- especially with a hatchet job approach that might warm the cackles of fellow academic inmates, but does very little to rouse the conscience of the public into questioning at the very least the framing of their own society.

And also this kind of commentary comes with dangerously flimsy evidence -- what are the reactions of the audience to the film? What to do they think and talk about after watching it? What might strike the jaded academic reviewer is not what is seen by the average film viewer or even enthusiast who may get more out of the deeper themes of the film.

And anyways, Avatar is a moot. Now you have to deal with The Hurt Locker sweeping the Oscars. Now you have your Iraq War revisionism to deal with so I would suggest spending more time on this.

That's funny. The only undergrads I know (and I know many, seeing as I'm a recent grad) seem to have the same view of Avatar as Ceti does. As though it's some sort of huge indictment on American imperialism. Ceti seems inclined to making personal insults against academics and undergraduates rather than offering any real evidence or real arguments about why Avatar will help people question the war. Whatever.

Finally saw Avatar last week-end.

a) absolutely like a space version of Dances with Wolves: why is the white guy always the saviour? (rhetorical question)

b) deserved Oscar for tech re: animation and loved the 3D

c) dialogue and acting sucked

d) i'm sick of the transformer things

e) making the indigenous people blue does not mask the fact that they aren't white

f) did very much like the twist of the audience rooting for the indigenous/Mother Pandora uprising and against the military industrial complex in a blockbuster film (ironically one that has made loads of $$ off that same system)

g) i don't believe this film, in and of itself, is going to turn anyone who wasn't already environmentally conscious/active into an activist

h) that said, i loved the proximity of the opening scene of environmental devastation to the reality of what is taking place in the Alberta tar sands, and I do believe that activist orgs working on that issue can use that part of the film in their advocacy outreach to youth, in particular

i) now understand what Krystalline Kraus was getting at in her article on the other missed opportunity in Avatar re: ability issues


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