Monday, May 31, 2010

Avatar: The Last Airbender - Part 3

A massive debate still rages over the casting for the movie version, even though it will be released in a couple of weeks. Should M. Night Shamylan and the producers have used solely Asian and Inuit actors in the starring roles?

The debate has extended into our own house. Both DH and I think they should have used Asian and Inuit actors, but we're also old enough to pick up on the TV series cultural clues. GK thinks it shouldn't matter as long the actors capture the true spirit of the characters. And aren't DH and I always telling him he should judge a person by his/her actions, not skin color?

Anyone else want to weigh in on the film controversy?


  1. I think it's pretty outrageous that they cast all white actors for the four leads. Then after there was a surge of outrage online, suddenly one of the actors had a "schedule conflict" (who knows if it was true or not, but I doubt it) and they cast Dev Patel, who's from India, as a substitute. Well, at least we're on the right continent now, even if we're a couple thousand miles off. :/

    And guess who he's playing -- the bad guy. So instead of having three white kids saving the brown world from the evil white kid, now we have three white kids saving the brown world from the evil brown kid. Umm, yeah, that's an improvement. Except not.

    It's not like they could even say they did it for box office. In the case of Prince of Persia, which also had some casting controversy based on the fact that the lead is played by very much not-Persian Jake Gyllenhaal, I can believe the choice came from a focus on the bottom line rather than racism. Jake was cast (IIRC) shortly after Brokeback Mountain was released; he was one of the hottest properties in Hollywood at the time, and it was pretty clear they cast him in the role to sell theater tickets. Okay, fine, whatever.

    That's not the case with the four white kids cast for Airbender, though. They were all essentially unknown, and therefore wouldn't have any more box office weight to bring than three unknown Asian actors and one unknown native American actor would have. Dev Patel is known now, after Slumdog Millionaire, but he was a later, post-controversy addition.

    The original casting call for the leads said they were looking for actors who were "caucasian, or any other ethnicity." Which is code for, "We're looking for someone white," and sure enough, that's what they hired. The casting call for the extras said, "Any ethnicity." So of course they got a lot of white people there too, although not completely. (Although there shouldn't be any white people in Airbender, even in the backgrounds.

    The studio insisted they cast the best actors they could find, and that those four best actors "just happened" to be white. But the actor playing Aang needed to have a stunt double to do some of the martial arts for him, and I heard recently that one of the other actors had to be sent to acting classes. Umm, right; clearly that was the best they could find. :/ Seriously, does anyone believe they couldn't have found three young Asian actors who could do their own martial arts? Four young brown actors who'd already had acting lessons and weren't in desperate need of more during filming...?

    The vast majority of the leading roles available in Hollywood specifically call for white people. It's all but impossible for an Asian (or native American, or black, or Hispanic) actor to get steady work, much less a lead role. (The fact that you can probably count every famous Asian actor you know on your fingers makes my point.) So when a movie comes along in which the original licensed property very clearly calls for four brown leads, casting white actors is a serious slap in the face to all actors of color.

    Saying, "But it's more diverse if we include white people!" which the studio has been doing, is bullshit. White people are massively over-represented in Hollywood as it is; we don't need any special additions in the name of diversity. Asian actors have a hard enough time finding work at all, much less good roles, without seeing excellent opportunities like these go to white actors in yellowface.


  2. The subtle twisting of the race issue is my main concern. Like Paramount execs, many people use another justification for their racism. The Tea Party folks come to mind. But as you pointed out, the sheer wording of the acting calls display Paramount's idiocy, which prompted the original discussion at home between DH and me.

    The question becomes how do we battle such racism when the folks acting in such a way are lying to themselves?

    And how do we teach our children proper conduct when the issue becomes so twisted and complicated it becomes difficult to discern a person's real motives?