The Last Airbender: don’t do it

Some of you may remember a rant or two I’ve posted in the past about the whitewashing of the forthcoming film adaptation of the Avatar: The Last Airbender series.

Well, it’s finally almost here.

So here is my plea to you, as an Indian-American and a huge fan of the original show: if you want to watch it, don’t watch it in theaters. (Take that to mean what you will.) Please don’t support this film financially, because that will signal to Hollywood that it’s okay to engage in racist and discriminatory casting.

If you missed my rant and all the talk of racebending, here it is in a nutshell:

Avatar: The Last Airbender was a wildly popular and critically acclaimed animated series. Its creators wanted to explore Asian tales and myths instead of the typical western ones. Everything about the show–the characters (clearly Inuit and Tibetan and east Asian), their names, their clothing, the architecture, the writing, the bending styles (based on distinct forms of martial arts), the governmental and political systems, the other major and minor artifacts throughout–is based off Asian culture and religion and mythology. Not only that, but they took great pains to make sure they were faithful depictions, and not in the last bit stereotypical, employing cultural and martial arts consultants and a traditional Chinese calligrapher.

M. Night Shyamalan’s film adaptation, though, involves a cast of white protagonists and dark-skinned minority antagonists (Indian, Iranian, Maori). The casting call asked for actors who were “Caucasian or any ethnicity,” so this really wasn’t them casting whoever they thought was right for the parts–they went straight for white actors.

This is wrong for several reasons:
– Part of the show’s success was rooted in its diversity and ethnic richness, something that’s quite rare in western media and something that resonated with millions of viewers of all backgrounds and ages. These casting decisions demonstrate a total lack of awareness of what was so significant about the show.
– It is well documented that Asians very rarely are the primary characters in American movies and TV shows. This would have been a prime chance to highlight talented Asian actors.
– Hollywood is perpetuating the ridiculous notion that Asians can’t carry major films and can’t draw in the same money that white actors can.
– There is no ambiguity in the characters’ ethnicities, as many try to argue: every single other facet of the Avatar universe is Asian, so it follows that the characters are meant to be Asian as well.
– It’s not reverse racism to want Asians to play these roles: it’s a cry against institutionalized racial discrimination and whitewashing in Hollywood, which has occurred in a number of other movies historically and recently (Prince of Persia, Dragonball, 21). Racist depictions are nothing new, either (Sex and the City 2 and its really horrible depiction of the Middle East). Jacksone Rathbone, the actor playing Sokka, was quoted as saying that he needs to “shave his head and get a tan” in order to play the part. (“Get a tan?” Are you kidding me?)
– How on earth can an Indian-American director allow for such racist casting, and then claim that he isn’t being racist? What a slap in the face that is.

Think about this, too: one of the things that made Pirates of Dark Water so unique was the diversity of its cast. Ren, Tula, and Ioz–none of them are white! Tons of fans have noticed that, too, and commented on it in a very approving way over the years. Conceptual artist Floro Dery did state that he based Tula’s character design heavily off Middle Eastern influences, and you can see similar influence in Ren and Ioz’s character designs.

So, yeah…that’s all I’ve got for now. I’ve ranted about this so many times to so many people that I occasionally forget some of my speaking points because I thought I hit them already, haha. Please do steer clear of seeing this film, or at least don’t go see it in theaters. The show deserves a much better adaptation than this, and Asians have been jerked around by Hollywood more than enough already.

11 Responses to “The Last Airbender: don’t do it

  • It’s completely understandable to be frustrated about the casting choices. However, the one thing that this movie has going for itself is that it will be in 3D.

    Now, I’ve always thought of 3D as a fad, but this year has got to be the year of 3D. And with all the 3D movies rolling out this year, it will still stand to benefit. Even if it has a poor audience turnout, even if DVD sales are sluggish, it will still benefit because of the 3D effects. And I think Hollywood was planning that all along. Sad to say…

  • Ever since I saw Lady in the Water, I’ve seen Mr Night Shyamalan as a young hack, someone who takes way himself too seriously and for that reason shouldn’t be hired by Hollywood. Yes, yes, The Ring, but the Ring was a remake of a successful, existing horror movie. I am not surprised he has destroyed the casting of this movie as well. He probably believes he is “too good” to hire Asian actors, which is a shame.

  • I think you are just a racist in disguise. It does not matter who the actor is. What matters is if the people watching are willing to use their imaginations to allow an actor to give the performance they were granted. It is difficult to get a decent part and when someone is hard working and earns a spot to perform…they should give their all and the audience should be willing to just sit back an enjoy.

    The movie was good and will likely go see it again.

  • Cass–yeah, no kidding, what’s up with all the 3D this year? Though I’ve heard from people who did see the movie that the 3D in Avatar was just added as an afterthought and isn’t very well done.

    Alexia–I don’t think Shyamalan did The Ring, actually…? I’m not sure, though. And actually, I don’t know that Shyamalan himself did choose all the main cast members, but he has stated publicly that he approves of the casting and doesn’t seem to get that this is about perpetuating historic racism in Hollywood.

    Anon–“Use their imaginations?” To picture that the light-skinned actors look like the Asian and Inuit characters in the original? When they could have just cast Asian and Inuit actors to begin with? Or would it have been better if the light-skinned characters put on dark make-up to resemble the original? That’s called yellowface (or brown/black/redface, depending on the ethnicity), and it’s a phenomenon of historic racism that’s existed in Hollywood for decades, with the intent of excluding actual Asians and pantomiming them in horribly offensive ways. Please read this:

    Actually, Mako, the original voice of Uncle Iroh, was one of few Asian actors to make it in a white-dominated world, and though he was often put in subservient roles, he handled them in such a way as to make viewers respect him. He and many others working on the show are/were strong activists for appropriate Asian representation in Hollywood.

  • Well, I just saw the movie today in 3D. I MUST say that overall it was horrible.

    The good news – the casting wasn’t whitewashing. The cgi effects were wonderful and the scenery was nice. Also the costumes were adequate, so the visual details were okay.

    The bad news – the movie was mostly miscasted. The ethnicities were completely inverted. Just about every dark-skin person was light and every light-skin person was dark. Only Aang and Iroh were, more or less, cast right. I also get the feeling that Aang and Katara were too young.

    The plot was bad. I know season 1 had to be condensed into a 2 hour movie, but it could have had better choices. There were history rewrites in the movie which made certain segments unnecessary. For instance, Kioshi Island was SOMEHOW part of the Earth Kingdom and it was conquered by the Fire Nation. So they staged a rebellion there to free the town. But there were no Kioshi warriors and more importantly, there was NO ISLAND. It just became a town. I understand that Shyamalan made some rewrites, but still.

    The fight scenes were horrible. The only one that was decent was the one without the airbending. They relied too heavily on the 3D effects. There were awkward pauses in the fight scenes. If you’re fighting an opponent, you wouldn’t expect them to just stand around. You’d expect them to move or get out of the way. But that wasn’t the case. They just paused.

    The 3D effects were so-so. The movie was too zoomed in on the characters. So you couldn’t really get a broad-view of the movie and all the 3D elements of it.

    The dialogue was awful. Here’s an example.

    Zuko- I’ve captured all the elderly in this village. Will you be my prisoner or will I have to kill them?
    Aang- Okay I’ll be your prisoner.

    That’s it. No fight scene. No arguement. No conflict. Nothing. That’s basically the dialogue throughout the movie. And only one comedy scene.

    Overall, it was the same characters, but they were acting out of character. There was no character development. The rewrites threw off the pace of the movie. Too much fighting and too much 3D. In the end, it was just a mess.

  • I don’t feel it was racist. The original casting would have been in a way but really, people went PC on it and said that it had to be more diverse. So suddenly the Fire Nation (Japan) became India which judging from the performance of Iroh, worth it. Even Zuko was believable.
    As for the actual quality of the movie, meh.
    I mean I enjoyed it, but I knew what was going on from the show. I hated how they chose to pronounce things, and I feel the movie had about an hour cut from it.
    Katara was HORRIBLE. The exposition padded scenes dragged while at the same time, were rushed it was weird.
    Also the narrations were unneeded and annoying.
    BUT, Iroh kicked butt, Zuko was emo, Aang was a emotionally complex kid (despite his verbal acting his facial expressions were great) Yue’s death was actually better than in the cartoon… ect.

    Is it a racist movie, no. Is it a good movie, no.

    Is it a delightfully bad movie, yes.

  • Sephren
    9 years ago

    In retort to the original post, can you name me 10 asian movies with an american/western cast? No? What about just one? Also it’s a Shyamalan movie, ofcourse it sucks, but it’s not racist nor has it ever been racist to cast a “fictional” characters. There was tv show, now there’s a crap movie, suck it up. Plus do you then also think it racist to have american voice actors on the tv show? In a nutshell it’s Shyamalan, you can’t polish a turd nor it’s offspring. Dark water rocks!! Peace out!!

  • For people who still maintain that the film was not racist, I would appreciate if you would read this in full. Please feel free to contact me to discuss this further, because I really want to make sure people understand that we are perfectly earnest, serious, and justified in making these claims. I deplore people playing the race card needlessly. This is not one of those cases.

    The creators of the TV series specifically set out to make this a show rooted in Asian cultures, featuring Asian characters. I’m not making that up: it’s in the A:TLA series bible and they have reiterated it many, many times in interviews and the like. The show is based heavily in Asian cultures and involves fantasy elements: it is NOT a fantasy show with “Asian flair.”

    Think about it: the characters’ names and clothing are Asian. The architecture, writing system, martial arts/bending forms, food and eating utensils, and every other aspect of the show you can possibly think of are Asian. So considering the deep Asian roots that pervade every single aspect of the show, why would the characters’ races be white?

    However, when the casting calls went out for the main heroes, they asked for “Caucasian or any other ethnicity.” They stated their preference for white actors up front. It wasn’t that the white actors were the best ones for the parts. (Jacksone Rathbone, who played Sokka, made comments about how he had to get a tan to play the part. Brownface, anybody? And Shyamalan commented that he liked Noah Ringer for Aang because he “had an Asian look to him.” Instead of going for “an Asian look,” why not actually get an Asian actor?)

    Just because Aang doesn’t “look” Asian in the animation, that doesn’t mean he’s automatically white. Asia is home to 1/3 of the population of the entire planet. There is an ENORMOUS amount of ethnic diversity there, which is apparent in the very wide variation of skin tones and facial features. For example, there are North Indians who have brown hair, blue eyes, and fair skin, yet they’re fully Indian. Not all Chinese, Tibetans, and other East Asians have “yellow” skin and “slanty” eyes.

    Beyond just the creators’ “cosmetic” intent, though, the cultures of each race in the show are essential in explaining the motivations of the characters that embody them:

    Aang’s character design was modeled off a Chinese boy (Mike and Bryan, the creators, have totally affirmed this). His personality–his way of handling conflicts, his vegetarianism, his outlook on life–it’s all rooted in Tibetan Buddhism. Look at his clothing and look at his mentors and the other air nomads. Monk Gyatso, Aang’s mentor figure, is named after the Dalai Lama, whose real name is Tenzin Gyatso. The way the air nomads chose Aang to be the Avatar is EXACTLY the same way the Dalai Lama is chosen: by choosing several key artifacts from among a large selection.

    Katara and Sokka are very clearly based off Inuit cultures. You can see it in their clothing, the food they eat, the culture that the water tribes themselves embody, the ships, the structures and buildings where they live, all of it.

    The Earth Kingdom is based off a wide swath of various modern and historic cultures within China (which is a very, very ethnically diverse country), as well as India (Guru Pathik) and Korea (in episode 2 of Book 2, the female doctor and her mother are wearing hanboks, traditional Korean dresses).

    Zuko and the Fire Nation embody feudal and imperialist Japan and China, in the government style, the social hierarchy, the clothing, and the architecture. Zuko is obsessed with reclaiming his honor, which was a really huge deal among East Asian cultures historically (and still is to a degree). And check this out: the Fire Nation’s conquest of the world was based off Japan’s imperialist “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” from WWII.

    As for the voice actors, there in fact are a bunch of prominent Asian and Asian-Americans who lent their voices to the show, in major and minor roles. The main three protagonists may not have been Asian, but they were stars on other Nickelodeon shows, so their casting for a Nickelodeon production did make sense. (Dante Basco, who played Zuko, is a Filipino-American and has also acted in other Nickelodeon productions.) And the creators also stated that they didn’t want to rely on stereotypical Asian accents, because they were avoiding historically stereotypical practices that Hollywood had engaged in over the years. But you can see it in the language that’s used, the honorifics and other aspects of the dialogue.

    Not to mention, how does somebody “sound Asian?” If you were to only hear my voice, chances are you wouldn’t guess that I’m Indian just based off that. And there are many instances of grown women voicing young boys (Bart Simpson, Jimmy Neutron, Ash from Pokémon, Naruto, and so many others), and other situations where liberties are taken in casting voice actors.

    Also, speaking as an Asian-American–the issue is not, “why can’t white people play Asians?” The issue is, “why can’t Asians play themselves?” It is not a matter of “being PC.” Hollywood’s record on minority representation is not very great, and they have historically discriminated against Asians, whether excluding them, relegating them to minor roles, or stereotyping/typecasting them. It’s not purely historic, either: look at the Prince of Persia. Look at the recent Dragonball movie. And Mickey Rourke will be playing Genghis Khan in a film adaptation in the next few years.

    There’s also the matter of the heroes being white, the villains being dark-skinned, and all the other Asians being relegated to (virtually) nonspeaking extra roles. Considering the diversity of the show, how can anyone claim that’s not racist? And it doesn’t matter that Iroh and Zuko ultimately come around; both Zuko and the Fire Nation are depicted in the film and the marketing as being villains. What does it matter if the so-called diversity of the cast only exists among the bad guys, while the protagonists are all white? Think about the image that paints.

    The creators have not spoken out against the casting, or commented directly on it in any way, except to say that they would probably have done things differently if they had a choice. This is because they had to sign a non-disclosure agreement. However, many other members of the production team have not signed any NDAs and have been very vocal online against the casting of the film, precisely for all the reasons I have mentioned.

    Once again, if there’s anything I haven’t touched upon or that you think is unclear, please contact me. I didn’t bring this up to pick a fight: I want to discuss and explain and educate.

    Thanks for reading. 🙂

  • jakeface
    9 years ago

    man, i just came to this site looking for stuff on podw, but as a white anti-racist activist, i have to chime in.

    i think what most people have trouble is in distinguishing racism from bigotry, so when people freak out and protest that The Last Airbender isn’t “racist”, they actually mean bigoted, in that no one is going around using racial slurs like “chink” or “nip” or whatever. and i mean, thank god for that, but the absence of racial slurs is not the same thing as absence of racism.

    racism is a complex social and economic (and in some cases legal) system that disempowers people of color while simultaneously granting a level of privilege to white people. this movie perfectly embodies that. hollywood is run by powerful white people, makes films for the white middle-class majority of this country, and thus the filmmakers are more likely to cast white people as the heroic protagonists of The Last Airbender. simultaneously, talented asian actors have been denied the opportunity to be the hero based on the fact that they aren’t white, and will also be paid much less for their role as the “dark” villains.

    i appreciate Smitha for being so on point about this. i know nothing about the last airbender, and it’s always good to be reminded of how pervasive racism is in our media.

  • I’m not sure how this movie is racist. Is it insulting – sure, that’s obvious. Is it some sort of implied racist – maybe. Thankfully there are no racial slurs, but is miscasting the same as racism? That would mean that the casting director/writer/producer (and whatever title he also has) is racist towards himself. And I just don’t see how that’s possible. Having dark-skin people playing evil characters would imply that the director M. Night is also evil himself – being that he is basically the same race/ethnicity as the evil characters. I don’t think that’s what he was going for.

    Also keep in mind that Zuko starts off as an evil character and then later redeems himself in season 3. So having a dark-skin person considered to be “evil” might make sense in the first movie, but it wouldn’t apply to future sequels (assuming that this will be a trilogy series).

    Regarding the protagonists, I have mixed feelings about that one. On the one hand, the dialogue was so bad that I wouldn’t want Asian people playing those characters. On the other hand, I would have been proud to see this movie casted correctly. It was disturbing to see how the races/ethnicities were inverted in this movie. I’ve heard of having “creative differences” but this takes the cake. I’m not sure how a movie can have both white-washing and dark-washing in the casting.

    The tv show was meant to be Asian and Inuit. If this movie was a true tv adaptation, it would have remained that way. But that’s just not how the director wanted it. That’s why there were so many noticeable differences and I think that’s why many people (including the serious fans) were pissed off. Just to note, it wasn’t just the protagonists that were white. The entire Water Tribe was white. Therefore, in this movie, the Water Tribe was of White descent while the Fire Nation was of Indian descent. That would make it a complete re-write of the tv series.

    As for Hollywood itself, yes there is that nasty history of white-washing movies. Dragonball and Streetfighter come to mind, and that’s another subject altogether. But there have been movies like Mortal Kombat and Rush Hour that were played by a leading Asian actor. Both movies are old and Hollywood has regressed since then, but it is still possible to have leading actors of Asian descent.

  • Jake–thanks for your vote of confidence. 🙂 By the way, I don’t think you should feel the need to qualify your comments with “a white anti-racist activist” (unless you actually do frequently speak out against racism in society, in which case, rock on!)–the outcry over this film is from a really diverse group (ethnicity, gender, age…), and in many cases, it just takes sitting down with someone and explaining in detail why this is an issue for them to come around. 🙂

    Cass–you do bring up a really good point. Is the actual film–the plot, the acting, etc.–racist? Probably not. They aren’t lampooning aspects of the cultures they’re depicting. However, racism doesn’t just exist in stereotypical portrayals of other languages and cultures. We do know the casting was racist, but it’s changed a fundamental point that the original series was making: that of racial diversity and harmony.

    In the show, Aang, Katara and Sokka, Toph, Zuko, and Suki are all from markedly different groups, yet they demonstrate that they can overcome their cultural differences (not that there were many real points of conflict, but there were differences) to come together in the end to defeat the villain. In the movie, all the good guys look one way and all the bad guys* look another (darker) way. (Well, at least so far.) That creates another message entirely.

    There’s also the message we all are aware of that the casting has brought about: that Asians aren’t good enough to be protagonists and to portray themselves on-screen. White-washing IS a form of racism, by signaling that audiences prefer to see white rather than minority protagonists.

    * I do know that Zuko joins the good guys–I think it’s such an excellent redemption story. 🙂 But for the purposes of the film, they marketed Zuko as a villain. So it’s easy to use that example.

    And M. Night has claimed again and again that he has no issue with the casting. Either he’s just being willfully ignorant or he really does not understand how damaging this depiction is. Either excuse is…really, really sad.

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