Is 2010 the Year of the Noble Savage at the Oscars?

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As the oft-repeated joke goes, all you have to do is be in a movie about the Holocaust, and Oscar night is yours. Kate Winslet made the crack on an old episode of Extras, and three years later there she was, winning her Oscar for The Reader. Perhaps not coincidentally, Inglourious Basterds has become this year’s most-whispered dark-horse candidate for best picture.

Of the many axioms at the Academy Awards, though, a faithful old trope has returned aggressively this season. Three films of the expanded best-picture field—Avatar, District 9 and The Blind Side—showcase the forays of Caucasian protagonists into the lives of characters who are distinct “others,” be it aliens or an African-American teenager more or less treated like one. An old literary standby, the “noble savage,” has entered into the discussion more than once, and this year the centuries-old narrative seems like a plausible formula for Oscar success.

The “noble savage” is a durable fable, imagining an unprejudiced, simple being, apart from modern civilization, who lives a purer, more natural existence. The idea is to reflect on how we are soiled by the fixations of contemporary life. Writers at NPR, The New York Times and even Collider.com have evoked the idea in reference to Avatar, and it’s easy to see why—the movie features a brazen former Marine who travels into a world of slinky, ethereal aliens who have a psycho-biological connection directly into the other organisms of their world. As immersive and beautiful as the movie is, on one level, it almost plays like a self-conscious noble-savage fable poking fun at itself.

District 9 and The Blind Side don’t fit in as cozily with the old myth, but it’s the same basic idea. District 9—about aliens forced into impoverished slums to separate them from other “species”—has a South African setting that makes its allegorical ambitions pretty obvious, if they weren’t already strident enough. The limits of human tolerance and experience, packaged and delivered nicely at the foot of a nifty sci-fi action flick.

And The Blind Side has moments that can be almost painful to watch in how obviously they’re calculated to assault the audience’s sense of human decency. It follows the very loosely fact-based travails of a white woman who takes in a black teenager after he is admitted into a Christian school despite his periodic homelessness. Naturally, the woman (played with a smile and a smirk by Sandra Bullock) is the protagonist. A parade of scenes highlights the teenager’s uncomfortable transition to his new world—He’s never had a bed! Little girls with pink bows are afraid of him!—to a nauseating, fetishistic degree.

This is, of course, to say nothing of how each movie treats such material, which can be more complex than it seems. District 9 makes an honest bid to interrogate an apartheid legacy within the mechanics of a contemporary action movie, and it’s often very successful. You can make the argument that Avatar is about transformation, and it features some alarming images of former U.S. military members meeting frank ends at the hands of aliens (this isn’t exactly Independence Day). And for all the things to lament about The Blind Side, its commercial success suggests it has inspired a lot of people.

But it’s the platform these movies share that makes them natural Oscar contenders. District 9 and The Blind Side are considered novelties this season, part of the new fun engendered by the expanded best-picture category, but they’re really very easy fits into the race. Think Dances with Wolves, Lawrence of Arabia, even Out of Africa—all former best-picture winners, all narratives that pack in the exotic with unfamiliar backdrops in which white people learn and live and blah, blah, blah. Is this reductive or unfair? Sure. But there is no denying that these movies are constructed with similar thematic thrusts, and they have a timeless appeal to this voting demographic. At the Oscars, 2010 is the best year in many for these stories.

The Academy is largely white and tends to think of itself as a cultural compass, but really, there’s no need to excavate the reasons these movies pop up again and again. They are usually very successful and obviously speak to something in many of us, not to mention Oscar voters. Unless The Hurt Locker pulls off a coup we can’t quite convince ourselves is going to happen, Avatar will be named the year’s best picture, and willing to admit it or not, that has to do with more than a $2.5 billion gross.

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