The Motive of a Motion Picture (Avatar and Gran Torino)

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Hollywood is a factory for stereotypes. Hollywood films attract an immense audience and, therefore, have a large impact on the way people think and treat other people.

James Cameron’s 2009 film Avatar is the highest grossing movie of all time, even surpassing the beloved Titanic in its box office performance. Despite Avatar’s huge success and critical acclaim, it has also become the center of political and racial controversy.

The film has been criticized for its “white messiah,” main character. This white male protagonist is the savior of a non-white, indigenous people. In her article, “Race Relations Light Years from Earth,” Mitu Sengupta summarizes and observes the many judgements against the film. Avatar is certainly not the only film guilty of using the “white messiah” and particular stereotypes, but its wide-reaching impact makes it a necessary target for criticism.

Main character Jake Sully is sent to the planet of Pandora in the year of 2154. Sully takes control of a Na'vi avatar to befriend the Na'vi population on Pandora and gain access to their valuable resources. He neglects his mission after forming a love for the planet’s forest, people, and Neytiri, a Na’vi chief’s daughter. Neytiri communicates the traditional values and ways of her people. The Na’vi eventually perform a ritual that permanently transforms Sully’s human body into his alien avatar. One of Sully’s former comrades eventually accuses him of “betraying his own race.” Soon enough, the Na’vi and humans are at war against each other and Sully leads the Na’vi to victory.

Cameron is very clear about whom the Na’vi symbolize. They are repeatedly referenced to as “indigenous,” “aboriginal,” and “savages.” The aliens of Pandora are also played by actors of color and aboriginal descent. Sengupta finds this particularly ironic as, “indigenous movements, in particular, have issued powerful critiques of imperialism,” (416) which is a central theme of Avatar. There is no Jake Sully in real life to be the savior of these people. The story of the Na’vi and humans in Avatar greatly resembles the exploration and colonization of the Americas. The Native Americans were seen as savages by the colonists, just like the Na’vi. They, too, faced conflict with their imperialist invaders. Unlike the Na’vi, the Native Americans were not successful in defending their land. Would they have been victorious if someone like Jake Sully was fighting on their side?

Sengupta cites negative views of Avatar from a variety of writers and critics. Among the first to criticize the film for its use of the white messiah trope was Annalee Newitz, a liberal editor-in-chief at Newitz claims the film is a “white guilt fantasy” in which the “white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color, and become leaders of the people they once oppressed” (413). Jake Sully of Avatar acts out this fantasy when he begins to assimilate himself into the Na’vi culture, becomes a “traitor” to his own race, and eventually leads the Na’vi to victory in war. David Brooks of The New York Times, called this “a racial fantasy par excellence” which “rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic, and that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades” (413). Sully gains acceptance from the Na’vi after living with them, attracting Neytiri, and it turns out he is also far more skilled in what they do then they are. The Na’vi, or the Natives, are the supporting characters in a story of white self admiration.

Additional criticism of Avatar stems from its depiction of marines and military personnel. Many of the marines are shown to be stereotypically aggressive, oppressive, and eager for conflict. A Marine and author under the pseudonym “America’s 1stSgt” explains that the Marines depicted in Avatar “completely betray our core values for the sake of the bottom line and bow low to their corporate masters like mongrels” (America’s 1stSgt 1). Director James Cameron fired back, stating that the “anti-military [criticism] is kind of tough for me because my younger brother Dave was a Marine… I got nothing but respect for those guys. This is my tribute… my tribute to them” (Nolte 1). But Cameron’s explanation did not silence his critics, and in fact, fueled even more rage towards the film. Cameron’s relation to a Marine does not excuse the brutish and demeaning portrayal of Marines in his film.

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Comparably, the Western film industry has ignored Asian American actors, rarely giving them starring roles. Asian actors are usually cast as token characters that fit Asian stereotypes. Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino is one of the first mainstream films to feature a substantially sized Hmong-American cast. Clint Eastwood not only directed Gran Torino, but starred as the movie’s protagonist, Walt Kowalski. It is Eastwood’s second highest grossing film to date, and has been viewed as inspirational and honest in its content. Despite receiving such praise, Gran Torino has also received harsh criticism for its Asian stereotypes and racism.

Walt Kowalski is a Polish-American, Korean War Veteran, and recently widowered. Kowalski is bitter, racist, and has alienated himself even from his family. He lives alone with his dog Daisy in a neighborhood where poor Asian immigrants have recently begun to reside. Among these immigrants, are the Vang Lors, who move in next door to Kowalski. One night, the youngest son of the Vang Lors, Taoh, is pressured to steal Kowalski’s prized Gran Torino car as an initiation into his cousin’s Hmong gang. Kowalski catches Taoh in the act and scares him away with his rifle. A day later in the evening, the Vang Lors and the Hmong gang members are fighting outside over Taoh, it turns physical, and the conflict eventually travels onto Kowalski’s lawn. Hearing the commotion, Kowalski steps outside and intervenes with his rifle, threatening both parties to step off his property. After hearing that Kowalski was able to break up the altercation and save Taoh from harm, the Hmong community leaves floral arrangements and cooked dishes on his front porch. Kowalski finds their gestures irritating, claiming that he did not save anyone, and just wanted the “gooks” off his property.

A few days later Kowalski rescues Taoh’s older sister, Sue, after she was being harassed by three black teenagers. Sue is not scared of Kowalski and talks to him freely despite his flagrant racism and negative demeanor. On his birthday, Sue invites Kowalski to their family barbecue, which he agrees to attend as long as they do not make a feast of his dog Daisy. Attending the barbecue allows Kowalski to learn about the Hmong culture and realize that he has more in common with them than he does with his own family due to their old fashioned values. As atonement for the attempt to steal their neighbor’s Gran Torino, Taoh’s mother forces him to work for Kowalski. Under Kowalski’s request, Taoh helps clean and update the appearance of neighborhood homes, and the two gain a mutual respect for eachother. With this growing respect, Kowalski gets Taoh his first job at a construction site, teaches him the way of American men, and even encourages him to ask out a Hmong girl.

However, conflict again arises when Taoh is walking home from work one day. The same Hmong gang assaults him, burning a cigarette on his face and damaging his work tools. When Kowalski learns of the assault, he retaliates and attacks one of the gang members without Taoh’s knowledge. He hopes that this attack ceases the gang’s advances towards Taoh, but it instead backfires. The same evening, the gang fires dozens of bullets at Kowalski’s and the Vang Lor’s home, and it is learned that they kidnapped and raped Sue. Because the Vang Lor’s stay quiet about the crime, and there are not enough witnesses, the Hmong gang is not arrested and still roams the neighborhood freely.

Taoh seeks Kowalski’s help to plot revenge against, or kill, the Hmong gang, but Kowalski tells him to wait and come back when he has a structured plan. During their time apart, Kowalski goes to get a haircut and have a suit tailored for him. When Taoh returns to meet with Kowalski, Kowalski locks him in his basement and tells Taoh that he does not want him to live with the consequences and guilt of killing someone. He leaves Taoh behind, phones Sue of Taoh’s whereabouts, and leaves Daisy with their grandmother. Kowalski believes the family will never attain peace as long as the Hmong gang is around. He makes his way over to the Hmong gang’s home, where a standoff ensues outside as the neighborhood watches from a distance. He reaches into his pocket, making them believe he has a gun, and they shoot at him, leaving him dead. The sheer number of witnesses ensures the arrest and imprisonment of the Hmong gang.The Vang Lors attend Kowalski’s funeral opposite to Kowalski’s own family. When his will is read, Kowalski has surprisingly left nothing to his own family, but only the Gran Torino to Taoh, with the condition that he does not modify the vehicle. The film then concludes with Taoh and Daisy driving by the sea (Eastwood, Gran Torino).

Eastwood’s character is particularly conservative and racist at the beginning of the film but his character transforms as he builds a relationship with his Hmong neighbors. The film conveys a message of battling racism in modern day America, but critics feel the movie does more to propagate these racist ideas than criticize them (Adia and Jessie). Some of these critics feel that Eastwood’s recent defense of president elect Donald Trump in an Esquire interview validates their view of Gran Torino as a racist film. Eastwood stated that Americans should “just fucking get over it” in regards to Trump’s accusations of bigotry and misogyny (La Ganga). Brogan Morris of Paste Magazine found this appalling, stating, “Here was one of the greats of the American cinema, a goddamn cultural icon, sounding off like a regular Trumpeteer, labeling millennials the ‘pussy generation,’ decrying a culture of ‘political correctness’...” Eastwood was born in California of 1930, a time where Jim Crow laws and segregation were enforced, and, therefore, he speaks about these issues with a unique perspective (1). In Gran Torino, there are no Hmong individuals to protect or go after the gang members that terrorize the community.

It is important to note that these gang members are also a part of the very group of people they terrorize — they are Hmong. Adia and Jessie of Racism Review state that these roles are “consistent with stereotypical images – Asian Americans are either passive, docile, and acquiescent, ‘model minorities’… or dangerous criminals” (2). Similar stereotypes are seen with the portrayal of African American individuals in the film. They only appear once in Gran Torino and merely as thugs who are put in their place by Kowalski. The authors argue that these stereotypes illustrate minorities as powerless, as reliant or in need of a “white messiah” like Kowalski to defend them from their illicit counterparts. (3)

Many find the way Eastwood’s character is able to escape his deeply ingrained racism to be inspirational. However, some of the Hmong cast of Gran Torino were insulted by their treatment on set and particular racial slurs used in the film. Actor Bee Vang starred alongside Eastwood as neighbor Taoh Vang Lor. Vang claims that he and his Hmong colleagues were treated “unfairly,” and left uninvited from cast events because it was “immediately assumed that Hmong actors were exactly like their character counterparts — unable to speak English clearly or to understand anything” (Reyez-Ortiz). It is additionally noted that the Hmong community was not accurately portrayed, with their important political statements left without English subtitles, and their tea ceremonies inaccurately performed. Vang also claimed that Eastwood did not allow the Hmong cast to modify their scripts for authentic portrayal of their characters, although Eastwood personally stated otherwise (1).

Despite all accusations and criticisms made, Eastwood has used his career to empower and give voice to minorities (Garcia). Lewis Beale of states that this is the exact reason why Eastwood cannot be deemed a racist. Eastwood has cast and worked among actors of different race and background throughout his sixty years in the industry, and for seventeen years, he was married to Dina Ruiz, a woman of Hispanic descent. Beale states that Eastwood’s “current antics do not negate the years when he was one of the few white filmmakers in Hollywood who showed some sensitivity toward minority performers and their stories.” (1). Clint Eastwood’s career and positive impact on minority groups cannot be disposed of despite any political or offensive commentary recently made.

Avatar and Gran Torino have generated all sorts of controversy, both political and personal. Many recognize the use of a “white messiah” and cultural stereotypes throughout the two films. Though, one can assume, because Clint Eastwood has continuously focused on social issues, that Gran Torino was intended to be a story of overcoming racism and not meant to offend audiences. A racist would not create a film focusing on problematic racial structures in the way Gran Torino does. Today’s society is exceedingly sensitive and analytical when discussing the portrayal of racial issues in popular culture. Celebrities have critics looking at them under a microscope, waiting for any tidbit of information that could stir controversy. One quote or word taken out of context could signal the end of a person’s career. In contrast to Gran Torino’s politically and socially charged message, Avatar was only meant to be a light hearted film with eye popping visuals. However, James Cameron fails to acknowledge the negative effects a popular film as Avatar could have on future cultural interactions. Disregarding this effect on popular culture, Cameron created a film that downplays the struggles indigenous peoples have faced throughout history. To expect interesting social commentary from a typical action and adventure movie might be wishful thinking, but such big budget films have a responsibility to not belittle such social issues.

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