Racebending and whitewashing in The Last Airbender
Whitewashing in The Last Airbender: why it matters
There’s no doubting that M. Night Shyamalan always delivers a brave storyline. With movies under his belt like SIGNS, UNBREAKABLE, THE SIXTH SENSE and THE VILLAGE he cares passionately about creating a tale that leaves the viewer asking “and what happens next?”. He is a master of treating storytelling as a craft, of avoiding cliches and keeping the viewer guessing. He is, essentially, a talented and frontier-busting writer and director, arguably respected by critics and box office alike.
His latest film, THE LAST AIRBENDER, is surrounded by controversy. Let’s take out our cultural magnifying glasses and have a closer peak…
Avatar: The Last Airbender (ATLA) started off as a cartoon on Nickelodeon and it became ridiculously popular with children and adults alike.
Unlike most cartoons that are either too anvilicious or psychotically slapstick (*cough* Spongebob), Avatar (as referred to by fans, and certainly not to be confused with that movie with blue people) has a good balance of Asian philosophy and morals while remaining funny enough for all ages to enjoy.
When the fans heard there was to be a movie, they rejoiced. Initially, at least. And then the heartache began…
M. Night Shyamalan, who had been suffering from a flop streak (The Happening, Lady in the Water), volunteered to helm the project. It was said that he wanted to use ATLA to help himself get back in the game. Sadly, it all went downhill from there.
The Last Airbender is a fantasy about Asians saving the world. And it’s brilliant. Re-casting the fantasy with non-Asians is – well, it’s pretty unacceptable. The initial roles were given to Caucasian actors, namely Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone (Twilight’s Jasper) and Jesse McCartney (a pop singer!). Then an unknown, Noah Ringer, was cast as the lead role.
Fans were outraged. Isn’t ATLA Asian? Many kids of Asian descent felt like they had someone to relate to when the cartoon first came out. Most kids before ATLA had to look for inspiration somewhere else. For example, my only Asian TV idol as a kid was Yellow Ranger, Trini Kwan in the Power Rangers. I spent most of my older years wanting to be a Caucasian girl as I outgrew Power Rangers and looked up to Marilyn Monroe instead. A cartoon inspired by Asian culture was finally here to give Asian kids their own heroes. Yet, as the cartoon makes its transition to the big screen, those Asian kids are now to be deprived of their role model.
A fuss was made. The online forums were swimming with disgust. Maybe word got to the studio, because after pop singer Jesse McCartney dropped out, Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) was cast instead. Suddenly it seemed Paramount and Shyamalan were perhaps half-heartedly trying to shut the fans up. It didn’t work. In fact, it added fuel to the fire.
Let’s look at how actors are racially cast for the different tribes in ATLA. Darker-skinned actors play the villainous Fire Nation. Boo! Darker-skinned actors equal villains, do they? Do they really? Boo! The Earth Nation are Korean. The Water Tribes are fishy. The Southern Tribe does have actual Inuit actors, but only in the background. The important actors – Sokka, Katara and Grandma – are Caucasian. The Northern Tribe is Caucasian too. Some argue that this is because Grandma was from the North but it does not explain why her grandchildren were completely Caucasian. They should have been at the very least three-quarters Inuit, surely?
M. Night was proudly saying in an interview that his movie is very “diverse”. Born in India and raised in Philadelphia, Shyamalan clearly didn’t intend to perpuate racism in the film industry. However, if you look at the character casting, by ‘diverse’ he clearly meant the villains and victimized nations are non-Caucasian, while the heroes are Caucasian. Um. Diverse. Indeed.
Based on the majority of poor reviews, the “best actors for the job” argument doesn’t hold. The acting was said to be wooden and lifeless. The dialogue was slammed as downright awful.
It seems to me that the movie was doomed to begin with, right casting or not. I have chosen to boycott the movie to highlight awareness about the casual racism inherent in its casting choices.
You, of course, are welcome to see the movie. However, the reviews out there suggest that M.Night Shyalaman has not redeemed himself and you will be better off watching the Karate Kid.
You will certainly benefit from going direct to the source and watching Avatar: The Last Airbender on Nickelodeon.
What Guy Aoki has to say about THE LAST AIRBENDER movie
“I’m Guy Aoki, Founding President of Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), the only organization solely dedicated to monitoring the media and advocating balanced, sensitive, and positive portrayals and coverage of Asian Americans.
I just wanted to make sure you know about the controversy surrounding M. Night Shyamalan’s film The Last Airbender. It’s based on Avatar, the TV show, where all of the characters were Asian or Inuit. It was popular with a lot of children and their parents and for once gave Asian Americans their own heroes. For the film, the casting directors sent out notices with a stated preference for white people, which is what they ended up withfour white starsuntil one of them dropped out. Dev Patel now plays the bad guy leading a nation of brown people against the good guy white nations. It sends the message that Asians can’t be the heroes in their own story.
It’s more of the white-washing Hollywood’s done to films based on Asian/Asian American source material like 21 and Dragonball: Evolution (Mickey Rourke recently announced he’s going to play Genghis Khan in a film for John Milius!). They made these movies with unknowns, so they didn’t need big stars to make them successfulthese projects were sold on their concepts. Unfortunately, even Shyamalan, who’s Asian American himself, has fallen for the cynical assumption that whites will not pay money to see Asian Americans starring in a film. I hope you’ll make note of these issues in your review of the film or write about this important subject.
MANAA even met with Paramount President Adam Goodman to discuss our concerns, and weve received coverage on this issue from the Los Angeles Times, CNN, and Associated Press. MANAA and racebending.com are calling for a boycott of the film because we don’t believe discriminatory practices should be rewarded. “
More on whitewashing in The Last Airbender *spoilers*
- The Last Airbender – Primer (no spoilers here)
- Journalists / Critics tackle the casting controversy in The Last Airbender
- Airbender review
- What Rotten Tomatoes have to say about it all
- For your amusement
- This ATLA character is clearly Caucasian. She shouldn’t be.
- This ATLA character is clearly Caucasian. She shouldn’t be.