As some of you may know, Paramount commissioned (in)famous director M. Night Shyamalan to adapt the popular Nickelodian series “Avatar: The Last Airbender” into a movie trilogy. The TV series revolves a fantasical, Hayao Miyazaki-inspired universe that deals with individuals capable of controlling and manipulating (aka “bending”) one or several of the earth’s elements – Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire – and how the main protagonist, Aang, the Last Airbender, is destined to bring back balance when the Fire nation’s imperialistic and war-mongering desires get out of hand. The movie is slated for release July 1st this year, and its production has led to a lot of controversy specifically with regards to its casting.
Though I’m not a particular fan of the show (nor do I dislike it) and am simply neutral overall, I feel that it is necessary to state for several reasons why I will not support this movie for professional, philosophical and personal reasons.
History of American Facepainting
Americans have a long standing history of playing other ethnic minorities, starting as far as 1829 with the play “Metamora.” The play is about an Native American chief who at first befriends White settlers but through politics and a series of betrayals, eventually retaliates against the impending colonists, ultimately dying in a climatically melodramatic scene. The main character, Native American chief Metamora (who happened to be based off real Native American Metacomet, aka King Philip) was portrayed by Edwin Forrest, marking one of the earliest practices of Redface in which White actors played Native American roles.
The humble beginnings of Redface lead up to the infamous time period of popular Blackface in which White actors smeared their faces with black paint and depicted racist driven caricatures of African Americans such as Zip Coon and Jim Crow. These caricatures were depicted in minstrel shows to much popularity, a popularity distinguished by the first movie with a soundtrack, 1927’s “The Jazz Singer” in which Al Jolson portrays a Jewish son who dives into Broadway and the show business via blackface; in fact, the climatic scene involves Jolson putting on his make up, transforming his very Jewish distinction into a character popular to a widely racist White majority.
Eventually, Blackface gave way to other and more subtle racist interjections, a prime example being the 1961 film “West Side Story.” The studio opted to cast Natalie Wood as Maria, the Puerto Rican love interest and female lead. This was blatant Brownface in which White actors were favored over Latin actors, and a further criticism was how Puerto Ricans were depicted in the narrative. In fact, when approached for a possible remake, Ricky Martin downright refused, stating that he could not endorse what he believed to be an ethnocentric depiction of Latin cultural roots; Jennifer Lopez, also approached, disagreed with this sentiment and was enthusiastic about the project’s prospects. Though the basis for the ethnocentricism of “West Side Story” is still up for debate the fact remains that in the original 1961 film, a White actress was favored over a Latina actress, which is enough to argue a blatant Hollywood practice of Brownface.
These three history examples lead up to my foremost argument about Hollywood’s tradition in racebending, exemplified by two examples currently in the spotlight – Disney’s “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” and Paramount’s “The Last Airbender.”
Racebending in Practice - Modern Edition
Both “Prince of Persia” and “The Last Airbender” are great offenses that demonstrate a longstanding Hollywood tradition of racist undertones: both cast White actors to portray ethnic characters over respective ethnic actors. However, I believe that “The Last Airbender” offends more greatly than “Prince of Persia” for a few more reasons than expected:
“Prince of Persia” at least had some twisted Hollywood marketing sense in that they casted a A-list actor, Jake Gyllenhaal, to portray Prince Dastan; despite the movie being uncannily silly in premise and narrative function (foremost, it’s based off a video game franchise) a well-known actor on the list would invariably pull in the numbers.
As a disclaimer, I do not condone the casting for “Prince of Persia,” but for the record is was already a stupid idea to begin with and starred an actor that many Americans are familiar with. Given how it is a Jerry Bruckheimer production, I’m sure big money was involved with intent of creating another hit like Johnny Depp did for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, a franchise that was in itself silly and based off a classic Disneyland attraction.
So while “Prince of Persia” offends with its casting of a A-list White actor for marketing reasons, “The Last Airbender” offends even more with its casting of newcomer/lesser known White actors over equivalent Asian actors to portray its starring Asian characters. The marketing reasons attached to famous actors does not apply here; instead, the marketing assumption is that White actors are more “capable” than Asian actors for pulling in viewers, with a possible secondary assumption in their “superiority” in acting abilities. This overarching assumption is the basis for an institutionalized racism innate to Hollywood’s long, long history of ethnic narratives.
Why Paramount Pictures reinforces an Institutionalized Racism
In her paper “Levels of Racism: A Theoretic Framework and a Gardener’s Tale,” Camara Phyllis Jones (MD, MPH, and PhD) postulates that there are three levels of racism: internalized, personally-mediated, and institutionalized.
Internalized racism is how one personally feels about race and its meaning, though they may not necessarily act out on these underlying and internalized assumptions it most definitely affects them at the subconscious level (eg. “It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights-if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different.” – Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye).
Personally-mediated racism maintains social-structural barriers, the result of assumptions held by people or a community (eg. “This town was so much better before those goddamn ___ moved in. It’s their fault the town’s economy has gone down so much”).
Lastly, institutionalized racism is racism at the highest infrastructural level, in which policy is dictated by racial assumptions and discrimination (eg. South Africa’s long history of Apartheid in which black South Africans were politically and legally segregated from whites, spearheaded by the South African Nationalist Party from 1948 to 1994).
Herein this last level of racism lies Paramount Studio’s greatest offense of reinforcing institutionalized racism within the Hollywood business.
By openly preferring Caucasian actors over Asian actors in an open casting call, Paramount demonstrated their innate racist assumptions – that a no name White actor was more capable of increasing box office numbers and (perhaps) “acting” than an equivalent Asian actor regardless of the Eastern-based characters in the series. Additionally, by casting Asian actors as secondary or supporting characters, Paramount clearly wished to create an “authentically diverse” universe, one that is distinctly Eastern and non-Western in its roots.
This assumption is wrong, unfounded and offensive on so many levels. Who is to say a Asian American boy is less articulate in English and capable in acting prowess than a Caucasian boy? Pixar casted Japanese-American Jordan Nagai to voice act Korean-American inspired Russell in their 2009 film “UP,” and it was arguably one of the most commercially and critically acclaimed successes of the year. Obviously this assumption can’t be the case, especially considering the success of other Asian American cinema such as “Better Luck Tomorrow” in 2002 and “The Joy Luck Club” in 1993.
And who is to say Asian actors in distinctly Asian narratives are any less capable of drawing in American audiences? Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in 2000 opened the gateways to a Hollywood flood of Hong Kong and Asian cinema that had been established by star Asian actor predecessors such as Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. These legacies proved that American audiences do enjoy Asian cinema, and though they were heavily based on martial arts lore they were nonetheless marketable and a great potential for Hollywood to spread out and include more Asian actors in their films.
Perhaps the greatest offense that the “heroic” characters are portrayed by lily White actors while the “villainous” characters are portrayed dark-skinned Indian actors in lieu of the fact that all the characters have distinctly Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian and Inuit characteristics regardless of their “good” or “badness.”
This purports my conceit that Paramount blatantly reinforces racism at the institutional level, driven by innately racist assumptions and an ethnocentric desire to bundle Eastern culture – rich in history and human stories – into a big old Yellowface bowtie. Make it as pretty and shiny and “Asian-y” as you want – in the end, this movie is racist and a disrespectful slap in the face of the Eastern heritage it so wishes to profit off of. The studios underlying assumption about marketability and acting capability of White over Asian actors is insulting, and to claim that their production is “diverse” because they cast Asians as secondary and supporting characters ignores the bigger issue at hand – the starring, main Asian characters are portrayed by White actors instead of Asian actors.
Shyamalan – Sold-out, Oblivious, or both?
Indian-American director M. Night Shyamalan has consistently defended the movie as “diverse” much in the same vein of Paramount’s assertions, citing that the production team took careful means to create a film rich in Asian culture and aesthetics – and like the studio, not once has he addressed the bigger issue at hand, that White actors have been favored over Asian actors to play Asian characters.
He completely misses the point about ethnic and racial diversity: dress it up all you want, but at the end of the day it’s Yellowface all over again. It’s an insult to assume that Asians and Asian Americans will be ok with White actors once again taking on the starring roles that are Asian archetypes, and worse that Shyamalan seems peachy keen on the whole premise.
Shyamalan has even stated that he desired to work with Nicola Peltz, the Caucasian actress slated to play the water bender Katara. This statement highlights my other postulate that Shyamalan is not a dumbfounded, overridden director force fed to direct a Yellowface film – that instead he obviously had a say in who he wanted casted, that he fully endorse White actors over Asian actors to play the main parts.
Was he bought? Is he oblivious to the institutionalized racism he’s endorsing? Or is it a bit of both? Whatever the reason, it’s clear Shyamalan is in love with his cinematic vision despite the social implications at hand, and for that I’ve lost all respect for him, especially considering that he himself is a minority director and would presumably empathize with minority actors barred from acting roles due to Hollywood’s underlying racial assumptions. As of now, this director is unredeemable – in screenwriting, in career, and in a self-indulgent streak that ignores world issues for his own self-fulfillment. This is simply shameless.
Defenders claim that this just a fantasy universe, some stating that they saw main protagonist Aang as a “White guy” and that the casting is simply “interpretational.” This again misses the point completely – this is a narrative based explicitly on Asian roots, and for a movie that lavishes in the history and beauty of Eastern culture its casting of White actors in the lead “hero” roles is racist and ethnocentric. “Avatar: The Last Airbender” creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko have stated multiple time that the story is Asian inspired – characters, costumes, scenery, everything. They envisioned a fantasy universe that dealt with Asian folklore, with cultural and image aesthetics derived from their respective Eastern roots.
An additional angle of the “fantasy universe” defense is that this narrative is fictional and thus subject to interpretation in any adaptation – so why should “The Last Airbender” be sideswiped as an offense in its film adaptation?
Foremost, a great many narratives are fictional regardless of the universe they occupy. Period pieces/history-based, science fiction, epic fantasies, thrillers, romances, psychological – these are all human narratives with fictionalized characters in their respective universes (the exception would be for nonfictions and autobiographies, but even the factual legitimacy can be called into question). When critics lambasted “Inglourious Basterds” as inaccurate and a rewriting of history, director Quentin Tarantino replied:
“My characters don’t know that they are part of history. They have no pre-recorded future, and they are not aware of anything they can or cannot do. I have never pre-destined my characters, ever. And I felt now wasn’t the time to start. So basically, where I’m coming from on this issue is:
(1) My characters changed the course of the war.
(2) Now that didn’t happen because in real life my characters didn’t exist.
(3) But if they had’ve existed, from Frederick Zoller on down, everything that happens is quite plausible.”
Extending this to “The Last Airbender” story, the characters are presumably in a universe that is centered around what we otherwise identify with as Eastern culture. The characters themselves may not know it, but we know full well that they are analogous to many aspects of Asian culture. From the philosophies to the customs, the narrative of elemental benders lends itself to Eastern heritage; these characters don’t exist in real life, but in their universe they are very much Asian in roots, and with their existence comes the story popular and beloved by many fans of the series.
With this in mind, Paramount’s casting is even more offensive and disrespectful. If they had any sort of cultural humiliation and decency, the studio would understand that they are in fact depicting cultures that have histories and legacies of human stories and accomplishments specific to the Eastern hemisphere in this narration, and to bundle it all up all nice and pretty with a Yellowface frosting is nothing short of ethnocentrism and institutionalized racism.
But the voice actors spoke English in the original television series!
Of course they did. English is the predominant language in America, and let’s face it – most viewers prefer to watch instead of watch and and read at the same time. On the opposite fold, the anime series “Fullmetal Alchemist” is Western inspired with some Chinese and Middle Eastern characters – and yet they speak Japanese, simply because the production is Japanese and primarily marketed to a Japanese audience. Similarly, “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is an American production that was marketed primarily to a American audience that is predominantly English-speaking.
Does this make “Avatar: The Last Airbender” any less Eastern or “Fullmetal Alchemist” any less Western?
No. The creators of each series have explicitly stated their respective influences: “The Last Airbender” creators DiMartino and Konieztko listed Asian culture and Hayao Miyazaki’s cinematic legacy as main influences for their narrative premise; “Fullmetal Alchemist” creator Hiromu Arakawa detailed how she researched the European Industrial Revolution and Western-based hypotheses on alchemy in order to flesh out a convincing world.
Their narratives may be conveyed in the non-traditional language, but the narrative structure and influences are true to their origins in both series. This is what matters the most, and it’s what Paramount and Shyamalan completely misunderstand when they so thoroughly believe they are being “true” to the series’ distinctly Eastern cultural and aesthetic roots when they’ve casted White actors for the main roles.
“Isn’t it time we stopped looking at race?”
This argument flies from the ends of Shyamalan and Paramount defenders, who believe that in this day and age we should all be colorblind to race and its associated implications.
However, as presented in the PBS award-winning documentary “Unnatural Causes,” it’s been proven that ethnic minorities, compared to White Americans in the same socioeconomic statuses, have higher rates of chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular diseases and heart attacks than their white counterparts.
These higher rates are the result of allostatic load and weathering – the resultant and combined stresses that can result from differing levels of racism that are either explicit or implicit. For instance, a Mexican lawyer with a degree from Yale who is followed around in a store would experience self-mediated racism; another example would be a African American doctor with a MD and PhD who sees a woman gripping her purse tightly when they ride the same elevator together, in which case he would also experience self-mediated racism. Both examples highlight how ethnic minorities experience a day-to-day incident of racism, and presumably these incidents activate a certain amount of distress (stressors) that subconsciously build up and cause them to be more susceptible to illnesses when the stressors inadvertently compromise their immunity.
Consequently, ignoring the effects and significance of race, while a ideal vision, is inapplicable and inappropriate to current social and political infrastructures at hand. We must consider race as a factor in any case since racism still plays a active role in how people operate on a daily basis.
This is not to say that we simply cast aside all inhibitions: if you’re in the projects, it’s generally a bad idea to assist anyone “find their lost dog in the alleyway.” What is important and relevant is understanding our own racist tendencies in order to begin rising above them; furthermore, comprehending that other ethnicities are people jut like ourselves, that their behaviors and lifestyles are governed by their own culture, histories and respective political and social infrastructures that they occupy.
For these reasons, I was never a fan of the original “Karate Kid” because despite it’s casting of Noriyuki ‘Pat’ Morita as the famous Kesuke Miyagi (aka Mr. Miyagi), the story was a classic Western-style coming-of-age parable that, in a sense, shallowly alluded to Eastern philosophy for Western application and usage.
The newer adaptation with Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan – while not without its editing faults – dealt not only with a coming-of-age story but also with a universal message of humane goodness that unites us all despite cultural differences. The 2010 remake went even further to highlight these differences, and instead of exoticizing such discrepancies breaks away from traditional ethnocentrism and endorses cultural humility, a willingness to step away from an “all-knowing” outsiders approach.
This deep respect for Eastern cultural roots in the 2010 “Karate Kid” is gapingly missing from Paramount’s and Shyamalan’s approach in “The Last Airbender,” in which they so thoroughly believe in the appropriateness of their sidestepping Asian actors for White actors in the main roles, actors who could never fully empathize with the Eastern philosophies and aesthetics they are set to act out.
A Personal Argument
There’s a reason why “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” despite its untimely silliness, was so successful when it first launched in the US: for one, its cast was ethnically diverse alongside the awesomeness of gigantic monsters blowing up cardboard buildings and grey putty minions sidestepping haplessly as the rangers whooped their respective butts.
I knew many Asian children (especially Asian American girls) who loved the Yellow Ranger Trini Kwan because she was played by the late Vietnamese-American actress Thuy Trang. They loved her not only because she kicked ass, but additionally because she was Asian. Many of the same girls also loved Fa Mulan in Disney’s 1998 “Mulan” for this same reason, and it was a major plus that she was voiced by Macanese-born American actress Ming Na. These women, these characters – they were them, they empathized and sympathized with their cultural roots, they were heroes.
The point is that they had an Asian hero to look up to on the big movie screens and television series, that with these heroes they were assured that as Asians, they had value to some Hollywood and network executives. Above all, they were being represented, which meant that someone understood that as Asians they too comprised the American public.
I can only imagine how many disappointed Asian American children will flock to the theaters only to see that their animated heroes are now depicted by White actors who could never truly empathize with their distinct Asian cultural roots. This is a movie that casted actor Jackson Rathbone, who believes that being Asian means “[pulling] my hair up, [shaving] the sides, and definitely [getting] a tan. It’s one of those things where, hopefully, the audience will suspend disbelief a little bit.”
Suspending belief, Mr. Rathbone? I believe the term you’re looking for is Yellowface.
“The Last Airbender” had so much potential to break Hollywood’s tradition of racebending. Paramount disappointingly chose not to, and Shyamalan shamelessly agreed to the terms at the expense of his own cultural roots.
I don’t blame the actors – they are simply looking for work in an unforgiving business, trying to make a name for themselves. And while their comments can be idiotic it must be noted that they were recruited by a larger institution that revels in racist assumptions.
For these numerous reasons, I will not endorse this film. As a Vietnamese American, I find “The Last Airbender’s” production and casting a great offense to my cultural roots, and believe that Paramount – and especially Shyamalan – should be ashamed of themselves. Frankly, I hope they go down in film anthropology as infamous practioners of self-indulgent, self-delusional ignorance, stupidity and racism.
I only hope that one day, if I happen to have a kid, that they will have someone to look up to on the big screen, someone that shares their innate empathy and understanding of their Eastern (and perhaps mixed) cultural roots. If not, I’ll be damned to get Hollywood away from wallet when they try to profit off of racebending and that blasted 3D gimmick they seem to love so much.
YouTube series of personal reasons and messages in boycotting “The Last Airbender” film.
Link to Roger Ebert’s response in the December 23, 2009 Answer Man column regarding “The Last Airbender” casting controversy.
Edit on 7/9/10: A little over a week has passed this article has been published, and from the responses I’ve been getting it seems I may have missed a few key aspects about the controversy initially. For supplementary readings, here are a few links:
Sunday Roundup 7/4/10 – Q&A for a lot of the feedback I received. This clarifies a lot of misunderstandings and misconceptions about what I’ve written.
Cats, Cows, and Pies – A guest post by Viet Le of word/game, who perhaps articulated the most important point I missed in initially writing this article. I’m fortunate enough to be of his acquaintance and continuously bounce ideas off him and back.