Nearly 13 years after the release of James Cameron’s first Avatar film, its much-awaited sequel finally hit theaters last month. Despite being long-delayed, much to the chagrin of diehard Na’vi fans, it has now grossed over $2 billion worldwide, becoming one of only six films to ever cross that benchmark. Avatar: The Way of Water picks up sixteen years after the ending of the previous film, with protagonist Jake Sully and his family fleeing their forest home to seek refuge with a clan of Na’vi previously unknown to audiences.
Cameron has never been subtle about the deeper meanings of his films; “The European destruction of native peoples, using military force, in order to acquire their land and resources, is the obvious basis for the Avatar story..” said Cameron in 2013. The return of antagonist Miles Quaritch and his campaign to kill Sully and exploit Pandora’s aquatic resources is a crucial part of the film’s representation of historical violence towards indigenous groups of all kinds. Native Americans losing their land and livelihoods to new settlers, Canada’s cultural genocide of the First Nations peoples, the list goes on and on.
A Look at the Maori-Inspired Metkayina Clan
The Way of Water introduces us to a new offshoot of the Na’vi people: the Metkayina clan. Loosely based on the indigenous Maori communities of New Zealand, the film draws upon their culture as inspiration for the Metkayina. Cameron himself has acknowledged the “fine line” between cultural appropriation and appreciation and made it a point to direct his films with respect. While many characteristics of the Metkayina are based on those of the Maori people, the film refrains from fully copying their culture and instead puts a sci-fi twist on it.
Perhaps most obviously, we can see the Maori-inspired facial markings on some of the newly introduced Na’vi. Ronal (Kate Winslet), and several other female clan members, are decorated with lip and chin tattoos reminiscent of moko. The Maori practice of tattooing, tā moko, results in a unique moko on each individual that can represent their social status, genealogy, or even their occupation. Ronal’s most likely represents her high status within the clan.
Jake Sully’s arrival into the home of the Metkayina brings along the threat of the RDA, a human organization whose goals include the colonization and exploitation of Pandora. Returning antagonist Colonel Miles Quaritch leads the charge, frequently exacting physical violence against the Na’vi race; he kills one of their tulkuns, whale-like animals that share a deep connection with the Metkayina, in order to extract their brain fluids which act as a powerful and expensive anti-aging agent in humans.
Quaritch and his followers clearly represent the colonizers and settlers that have historically committed mass violence against indigenous groups of all kinds, Cameron himself has said the Na’vi are fictional depictions of Native Americans. Between Jake and his family being forced from their forest home due to the threat of invading humans to the violent conflict between the Metkayina and the RDA, the story is heartbreakingly similar to what many of us have seen in our own history books.
Maori culture is not only represented on-screen but within the cast members as well. Tonowari, the chief of the Metkayina clan, is played by indigenous actor Cliff Curtis. When discussing the potential “haka”, or traditional Maori dance, to be shown in the film, Maori and Indigenous Studies lecturer Hamuera Kahi’s subtle reluctance to believe the dance would be represented correctly was overshadowed by his confidence in Curtis as a trained performer who studied the haka under Maori elder Mita Mohi. Curtis’ experience acting in other films that deal with indigenous cultures, such as The Whale Rider, adds to his credibility in accurately portraying the powerful Tonowari.
In addition to Curtis, Duane Evans Jr. appears in the form of Rotxo, a clan member who is close friends with Tonowari’s son, Ao’nung. Evans is of Maori descent and is fluent in the native language.
Appropriation or Appreciation?
The Way of Water is certainly a step in the right direction for more diverse representation on the big screen, but its reception among indigenous communities has been mixed; while some see the film as a positive showcase of their culture, others are criticizing it for stepping over the fine line between appreciation and appropriation. But what makes something cultural appropriation? The Cambridge Dictionary defines the term as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture”. During an exclusive interview with The Wrap, Cameron discusses his own views on celebrating the Maori culture without exploiting it; he says that the Avatar films are meant to celebrate and place the characters into these cultures that, although fictional, are inspired by real communities. Cameron acknowledges some of the more negative reviews of his most recent film, but says it’s not his place to tell people, especially those who are of indigenous descent, that their feelings are “wrong”.
In comments collected by Washington Post author Samantha Chery, indigenous critics voice their issues with The Way of Water. Cheney Poole from New Zealand calls the film a romanticization of colonization. Sam Worthington’s character, Jake Sully, is often criticized as a so-called “white savior” who first assimilated himself into Pandora by simplifying looking the part. Even though he eventually becomes one of the people, as depicted in the first film, his previous life as a white, human Marine raises concerns about making him the constant savior of the Na’vi race.
19-year-old Mana Tyne from Australia says Cameron’s sci-fi take on the moko reduced the traditional Maori tattoos, symbols of dignity and power and familial pride, into “abstract, meaningless shapes”. Others have brought up that Ronal, one of the newly-introduced characters with the most visible moko, is played by white actress Kate Winslet; despite a relatively diverse cast as a result of Cameron and producer Jon Landau’s global search for new actors, only Cliff Curtis (Tonowari) and Duane Evans Jr. (Rotxo) are of Maori descent and both have little screentime in comparison to some of their fellow cast members.
“I would love to see more Maori people and culture represented on screen in cinema, but I want to see Maori people playing them…” says Mana.
Supporters of The Way of Water say the film puts a spotlight on Maori culture, showcasing its beauty without directly copying any of its practices and portraying it as a strong, dignified culture through the Metkayina clan. Critics claim it still falls short of true representation; only two Maori actors in a film largely inspired by their culture borders closer to cultural appropriation than appreciation. The Way of Water has its issues, but it still may be a step in the right direction towards decolonizing Hollywood film.