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Don’t you just love how everybody sees things differently?

I wondered after hearing that James Cameron’s blockbuster “Avatar” has been rewarded for its creative and technical brilliance with nine Oscar nominations — after receiving heaping doses of a less-obvious “reward” that also puts butts into movie seats:


As Oscar hype tempts the handful of heretics who passed on the highest grossing movie ever to repent, let’s recap the numerous controversies that show how filmgoers who bought $2 billion in tickets to “Avatar” saw very different things in it.

The breathtaking 3-D flick about Jake Scully, a wheelchair-bound Marine whose mind is inserted into an agile, alien life form or “avatar” on the fictional planet Pandora, was scorned by the Vatican as being “bland” and “bogged down by sappiness linked to a worship of nature.” It has been blamed for suicidal thoughts among fans enraptured by its gorgeous alien world, dissed for the Sigourney Weaver character’s smoking, and accused of stealing its narrative from Poul Anderson’s 1957 short story “Call Me Joe.” (Anderson’s paraplegic hero also telepathically links with an artificial life form to explore a harsh planet and eventually abandons his wheelchair-bound humanity.)

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Politically speaking, “Avatar” offers plenty to chew on, including China’s recent decision to pull the blockbuster from most theaters (allegedly to boost box office for the government-sanctioned “Confucius”), and some conservatives’ gripes about the film’s pro-environment, anti-war, anti-corporate stance. But I keep returning to the criticism that surprised me most:

“Avatar” is racist.

This charge frankly stunned me; I’d found the movie an indictment of intolerance. Yes, Pandora’s willowy blue inhabitants, the Na’vi, wore dreadlocks, were played by minority actors (including Dominican-Puerto Rican actress Zoe Saldana and Cherokee actor Wes Studi), had tails, and were demeaned as “monkeys” by their contemptuous human adversaries, but I never saw these graceful creatures as being “black” nor considered the movie racist — although many of the humans intent on destroying the Na’vi couldn’t have been more prejudiced.

That people I respect saw “Avatar” entirely differently was fascinating and instructive. I’d taken the graceful blue creatures at face value as aliens, certain that Cameron intended his film to portray the ugliness of technologically advanced cultures making war on simpler cultures in order to co-opt their resources. Such deadly lack of regard to “the other’s” humanity has for centuries been a real-life tragedy, played out as racism and colonialism across the globe. So what if Avatar’s aliens have tails — they’re aliens. As for their locked hair, I too wear locks — and feel better about the deeply spiritual, nature-loving Na’vi sporting my ‘do than some profane, crotch-grabbing rappers who wear it.

Some Avatar-is-racist proponents cite Cameron’s admission that he was influenced by “Dances With Wolves” — which was simplistic, not racist — and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter series. Of course, movies based on Burroughs’ Tarzan character wrote the book on cinematic bigotry, portraying black Africans with such searing racism that as kids, my brothers and I denied any connection to our ancestors’ birth continent. Critics who compare “Avatar” to Tarzan overlook that the white “Ape Man” would never have fallen in love with a black native, respected her kinsmen, and killed scores of fellow whites to protect them. Would Tarzan have adopted African culture as his own? Let’s all envision Johnny Weissmuller, like Scully, happily abandoning his whiteness to become black — um, blue.

Racism is about a group perceiving itself as superior, using that false perception to oppress its supposed inferiors. As depicted by Cameron, most of Avatar’s humans — some of whom are black and brown — are greedy, bullying liars whose only dominance is military and whose contempt for nature killed their planet. If any species is portrayed as inferior, it’s them. Even Scully isn’t at first heroic; immature and deceptive, he infiltrates the Na’vi only in hopes of conquering them. That he grows and changes is the arc for heroes in most movies, and a testament to every soul’s potential for redemption.

I understand these critics’ strongest argument: That “Avatar,” like too many other films, features a brave white hero who saves the day for otherwise helpless minorities. Scully, in avatar form, does indeed lead the Na’vi in defeating the humans and becomes their leader (another arc typical to action flicks which have little or no racial angle). Such arguments might have been shushed by, say, Will Smith playing Scully. Yet I must point out two things: The guy is a Marine — and therefore best equipped to understand humans’ weaknesses and how to fight “fire with fire” as he helps the peaceful Na’vi avoid being wiped out by tech-savvy invaders. And — it bears repeating — the Na’vi are aliens. Not black.

Unlike the tree worshipped by the Na’vi as a divine storehouse of their ancestral heritage — which embraces Scully despite his humanness — people tend to make appearance-based assumptions. I suspect real racists would despise Avatar’s unambiguous suggestion that what bigoted people feel, say and do is shameful. That’s why I loved the Na’vi greeting “I see you”– an unmistakable echo of the South African isiZulu greeting sawubona, which has the same meaning. At Avatar’s end, the phrase is poignantly exchanged by the married Na’vi-human pair as a substitute for “I love you” in a scene that shows love’s power to help us all to see beyond outward appearances into the soul. What could be more embracing?

I’d go on, but my most reasoned arguments against “Avatar” are probably useless. I’m no more likely to change critics’ minds than are the people who try to convince me that the racism I perceive is anything but. In fact, we don’t love it when other people see things differently, especially when they try to talk us out of what we know — or think we know. Every soul’s personal filter is fashioned by innumerable factors, some cultural, others intensely personal. Each day, racism wounds real people, not fictional 3-D creatures, and denies their real lives. Each day, my own motives confound me; how can I pretend to see into James Cameron’s heart, or into the hearts of those whose differing interpretation of his movie — and everything else — is based on their own indelible experience?

That’s why “Avatar” can be described as both a call for peace and a celebration of violence; why some Christians praise its sense of God and others reject it as nature-worshiping claptrap. It can be seen as prejudiced against whites — several white characters are indeed reprehensible — as well as blacks. Everyone can see different things — whether resonant or repulsive — in it, which probably contributes to its humongous box office in Italy, China, the United Kingdom, Germany and Russia as well as here.

Yet few, I suspect, would argue with this: Avatar’s real villains are greed and the willful blindness that refuses to see “the other” — in this case, the Na’vi — as worthy of life, respect, and as much right to live peacefully as anyone else.

Avatar’s bad guys are those who would never say, “I see you”– and in the best way, mean it.