If you thought the recasting of characters from the film “21” from Asian to white was an insult to the Asian community, you’ve only scratched the surface of the injustices they’ve faced through mass media. The latest atrocity comes from the casting for the “The Last Airbender,” the Avatar live action movie.
For those of you who may not be familiar, “Avatar: The Last Airbender” was a very successful, Emmy Award-winning, American animated television series that aired for three seasons on Nickelodeon set in a world based entirely on Asian (primarily East, South Asia, and Inuit) cultures, values, and not just martial arts. Avatar features the clothing, food, and philosophies among many other aspects of Asian culture and the Inuit, as well as strong themes of multiculturalism and diversity among the Asian continent.
The actions of the production team and the studio perpetuate the concept that Asian Americans don't matter in American society and reinforce concepts of white privilege, cultural appropriation, and white washing. To cast white actors and deny Asian Americans (or any minorities for that matter) a chance at major roles in a big movie is a crime against the art, the creators, and not just Asian Americans but any minority that's ever been denied a role to a white person in fear of a production not appealing to the "mass audience."
Many will be quick to blame the director for this decision. However, I am not holding M. Night Shyamalan completely responsible for this, because I understand there are many influences in the creative process when it comes to mass media. Yes, he is one of three producers on this project, but the producer still has to answer to the studio, and in this case, his fellow producers, but casting is typically done by a casting director, which a director should have say over. Unfortunately, the processes and conflicts in making a movie are quite complex with all these chains of command to answer to: above the director, you have the producer, the production company, and if applicable, the studio, in ascending order. The studio in turn, has to answer to the parent company, if it is a subsidiary, and the parent company has to answer to the shareholders, if a public company, so things can get messy real quick in this business.
Sure, he could have chosen to walk off the project, but it would probably still get made. He could even fight them over this, but I have little reason to believe he did and fought valiantly. Perhaps what disappoints me most is that Shyamalan is a member of the Asian community. He is Indian.
Some opponents will say, "but the story doesn't even take place in our world, why should it matter if the cast isn't Asian?"
Even so, this has kept most non-white minorities from being cast into “white” fantasy worlds. Can you imagine the uproar there would have been if Peter Jackson cast non-whites in all the major roles of Lord of the Rings? The most recent exception to this I can think of is “Black Knight,” released in 2001, which stars Martin Lawrence, a black man, sent back in time to medieval England. Asians have such few opportunities in media (especially in entertainment) that any chance to be in the spotlight that is taken away from them or any minority for that matter is a serious blow to the community. A white person will most likely be able to find another job quite easily compared to a minority in this business, and a film adaptation of Avatar has potential for great success, which could propel an Asian talent to unknown heights and recognition that has been long deserved but denied by Hollywood.
Others will argue, "but the characters don't even look Asian in the series. Aren't you being racist for saying whites shouldn't be cast in the lead roles?"
No, affirmative action was put into place to level the playing field for minorities. White people have unfair advantages in life socially, politically, and economically. This phenomenon is known as white privilege. Affirmative action gives other people a chance that would not otherwise even be considered most likely. It encourages diversity, because society has proven that it does not want to do it voluntarily in many more instances than the contrary.
Also, the animation style is strongly influenced by the anime (Japanese animation) style of animation. Now tell me that most of the characters featured in anime are not Asian. Though there are non-Asians featured in anime, you will find they are in the minority. Unless the creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko come out themselves and say that the characters are indeed white, I have no reason to believe that they are.
Advocates of the casting proclaim, “I only care about the most talented actors playing the roles. Are you saying you'd put race over talent?”
Let's take a look at who has been cast into the lead roles:
Noah Ringer – Aang
Jackson Rathbone – Sokka
Nicola Peltz – Katara
Jesse McCartney – Zuko
Judging from this, they're all relatively no-names who were probably only hired due to their perceived "resemblance" to the characters. Jesse McCartney is a teen pop star, so he has some recognition but limited to a very small niche. Peltz and Rathborne have also starred in a few films, but they are not established in the industry. An example of the kind of effort that usually goes into casting is Daniel Radcliffe, who was cast as Harry Potter in the films based on the books due to his resemblance to the title character. I'm sure they could've found a much better actor than him. He was discovered in the theatre by the producer, whom his father, a talent agent, was friends with. Although he did have to audition, this encounter probably helped greatly in getting the part, and auditions like this are sometimes just simple formalities. It is not so much about your skills and abilities in this business, but who you know and chance encounters such as this one. I personally favor truly open casting calls because you never know who you will find in those, and because I think they should be Asian, I'm actually concerned with resemblance to the characters in the show to a certain degree. There are approximately 15 million Asian Americans and 4.1 million registered Native Americans in the United States. There must be at least a handful of people out of all of them that would be perfect for these roles.
It was recently announced that McCartney backed out of the role, citing “scheduling conflicts,” and Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire will now take on the part of Zuko. However, this still raises the issues of tokenism and the stereotype of the Asian villain. It is a minor step forward though just to have an Asian American on the cast and more needs to be done.
Still, I can be countered that there was an open casting call. However, open casting call does not and almost never means truly open, as one prospective actress writes about her experience trying to get an audition for the film. Talent needs agents to find out about and be able to apply for these auditions in most cases. One cannot just walk off the street and audition. Not everyone has access to representation in the entertainment industry, and therefore, people that could put on an amazing performance and do the characters justice get snuffed. Open casting also does not mean that the crew is casting with an open mind.
Finally, Avatar was very successful in its original form, and they made no sacrifices regarding content of the show for the sake of audience appeal. Animation in the US is still relatively regarded as a children’s medium, primarily aimed at males. Avatar went against the rules of its format featuring a complex, serialized story, strong female lead roles, and a diverse range of characters from a variety of backgrounds and ethnic origins. If the series has proven it can turn a huge profit, why change it for the movie?
In conclusion, if you still think nothing wrong is being done, I suggest taking a look at this photo essay of the world of Avatar, which clearly demonstrates just how much it was influenced by Asian and Inuit culture and values. I expect opposing views will come from all communities, not just the white community, even the Asian community itself to a certain degree.
A concerned citizen in their Livejournal proposes that we do a physical letter writing campaign to the studio. While I appreciate the effort, we all know protests only work one way: numbers...big, massive numbers. I'm talking tens if not hundreds of thousands of people voicing their opinions (in a non-violent fashion of course) even a million. The kind of crowds that make the police send out the people in riot gear just to make the protesters appear violent when they aren't, the kinds of actions that make the press salivate at the thought of an "interesting" lead story. The communists didn't leave Czechoslovakia because people wrote letters. No, they had to gather in huge masses in the capital and coordinate a massive nationwide strike to make them give up their power.
I know traditional Asian cultural values are all about "don't rock the boat," "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down," and “take everything in stride and wait for the opportunity to strike,” but I could be long dead by the time that time comes, and I don't want my children or any more people to be subject to the same kind of treatment and injustices that I and my ancestors have been. I sincerely hope that something (if not this but hopefully this) will galvanize the community and anyone outraged by this ignorance to take action finally against the majority. That is the only way progress will be made: by playing their game. This great country was founded on protesting against social injustice.
I recently discovered a movement has started against this and is growing on Facebook. They are planning to protest the next casting call which will be held in Philadelphia on February 7. The time to strike is now! I wish them success in their task.
I call for more active forms of protest (non-violent forms of course). I also call for the Asian community to be more proactive in situations like this to prevent similar scenarios from even getting this far in the future.
I certainly hope this message is not falling on deaf ears.
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