Thursday, July 01, 2010
"Some viewers heads are spinning over the look of 'The Last Airbender,' which opens July 1. Not over the fantasy-action 3-D special effects, but over the faces of the main characters, which are largely white in the movie but Asian and Inuit in the popular Nickelodeon cartoon that inspired the film.
Complicating the accusations of racial insensitivity over the casting is the fact that those casting decisions were made by director M. Night Shyamalan, who is of Asian descent himself. In fact, Shyamalan bristles at the accusations and insists that, not only is his cast as multicultural as possible, but also that it's his critics who are the real racists.
The characters in the TV series 'Avatar: The Last Airbender,' created by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, are clearly drawn from Asian and Inuit cultures, from their names to their costumes to their martial arts styles. The hero, Aang, is inspired by Tibetan Buddhist monks. His friends, Katara and Sokka, live in a realm of anoraks and igloos. Antagonist Zuko and his tribe appear as classical Chinese warriors.
In the movie, all four characters were initially cast as Caucasian actors: Noah Ringer (Aang), Nicola Peltz (Katara), Jackson Rathbone (Sokka), and Jesse McCartney (Zuko). Before shooting began, however, McCartney was replaced by Dev Patel, of 'Slumdog Millionaire' fame. That change did not appease the project's critics, who noted that the heroes were still all white Westerners, while the only Asian in the principal cast was the villain.
The clearinghouse for the protests has been the website Racebending, which is calling for a boycott of the film. "American actors of color rarely get to play the hero, if ever," said Marissa Lee, one of Racebending's co-founders, in a statement. "We're really disappointed. Paramount felt that white actors were better suited to play heroes of color than hardworking, underrepresented actors who are actually of Asian or Inuit descent."
Shyamalan has insisted he had no intention of whitewashing the characters. In a recent interview with Indie Movies Online, he went into great detail about the casting choices, which he said were entirely his and not Paramount's. He argued that the complaints didn't look beyond the principal players to note the entire cast, which consists of actors from multiple cultures and racial backgrounds playing the 'Airbender' world's four tribes. Of the protest, he said, "The irony of this statement enrages me to the point of ... not even the accusation, but the misplacement of it. You're coming at me, the one Asian filmmaker who has the right to cast anybody I want, and I'm casting this entire movie in this color blind way where everyone is represented. I even had one section of the Earth kingdom as African American, which obviously isn't in the show, but I wanted to represent them, too!"
Why, then, did he cast white actors in the leads? "Noah Ringer walked in the door -- and there was no other human being on the planet that could play Aang except for this kid," the director said. "To me, he felt mixed race with an Asian quality to him. I made all the Air nomads mixed race – some of them are Hispanic, some of them are Korean." Patel's people had to look like him, too, which is the reason the members of the hot-tempered Fire tribe are all played by darker-hued actors.
With three of the tribes played by non-Caucasian actors, Shyamalan said he felt the fourth group, Katara and Sokka's Water tribe, could be played by white actors. "If you don't have an edict of "don't put white people in the movie" then the Water tribe can be European/Caucasian," he said. So, by his logic, casting white actors as Katara and Sokka was actually an act of inclusion, not exclusion. (It's worth noting here, as Shyamalan has, that the cartoon's adherence to the visual conventions of Japanese anime, including round eyes and light skin, have added to the racial confusion. If the characters are drawn with racially indeterminate features, why shouldn't his casting follow suit?) "
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