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What if Avatar's Jake Was Played By Will Smith?

Updated on January 9, 2010
Jake Sully is played by Sam Worthington. Would the film's racial message be different if Will Smith had the role?
Jake Sully is played by Sam Worthington. Would the film's racial message be different if Will Smith had the role?

James Cameron's Avatar has done what blockbusters are supposed to do: Fill the seats and earn revenue. Wikipedia reports that just three weeks after its release it was already the second highest grossing film of all time. It has also, in my opinion, pushed the boundaries of 3-D. I know the verdict is mixed on this, but count me among those suitably impressed. In addition, unlike most movies, Avatar has also generated considerable political buzz, from both sides of the proverbial isle. Readers interested in a brief summary of the main talking points, along with the prerequisite links, can read this piece by Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page.

One of the primary critiques leveled against Avatar from the Left has been that the film presents a "white fantasy" of cross-cultural contact in that it is 1) entirely told from the point of view of the white characters and 2) relies on one of these white characters to "save" the victimized "people of color" who would not have survived without this benevolent intervention. The most publicized such critique can be found here.

I discuss the merits of this critique in my own racial analysis of the film for Psychology Today, but there is one aspect of this issue that I didn't discuss and, as far as I know, no one else has either. The question, raised in one of the comments to the above blog, is would the above "problems" have been avoided if Jake Sully was played by Will Smith, an actor of African descent who also has considerable mainstream appeal (i.e., white movie goers would pay to see him).

In my opinion, a non-White Jake Sully would have helped in one important way. He would have required the film audience to put themselves into the shoes of a person of color. Just as the avatar was humanity's connection to the Na'vi, Jake was "our" (humanity's) Avatar, our connection to Pandora and all its wonders. Several people of color pointed out that just that was offensive on some level, that it would be nice if they didn't always have to connect and relate to a story from a white perspective, especially in a story like this in which the white person represents all of humanity. A film that required whites to vicariously enter the consciousness of a person of color would have been more progressive and, in a film about cultural contact, quite appropriate besides.

All that said, the film wasn't meant to be be read on this level. It was intended as a racial metaphor in which ALL the humans represent whiteness and the Na'vi represent indigenous people and other people of color. On this metaphorical level, who plays Jake is irrelevant because the story arc would still have the "white" human saving the "natives".

Does Jake really save the natives? I think it's a little more complicated than that. For one thing, Jake is really part Na'vi at that point, not just culturally but genetically too (the avatar has both Na'vi and human DNA). For another, the planet itself has agency and, ultimately, saves itself. I provide a more extensive analysis in the Psychology Today piece (see link above). The purpose of this hub is just to say that the "white messiah" problem is more than skin deep.

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