Racist Casting: Will "Airbender" be the Last?
Today The Last Airbender premieres in movie theaters today. Ironic that a film so blatantly antagonistic towards Asian people opens on the weekend celebrating the founding of one of the most culturally diverse nations on earth.
I know you've heard the story. M. Night Shyamlan's adaptation of Nickelodeon's Asian-inspired animated series "Avatar: The Last Airbender" has raised the hackles of many in the Asian community because of the casting of mainly Caucasian actors in the primary roles.
I've discussed this issue with many people, and I must say that although most people are with me, I'm pretty shocked at the resistance I sometimes get.
So, were the hiring practices employed in this film racist? I believe so. Here are some of the most common arguments I hear from the other side, and my counters to them:
It's just a movie! What's the big deal?
It is a big deal. Asian-American actors have been the victims of discriminatory practices for most of the 20th century, and it still is continuing on to this day.
Hollywood seems to have done triple backflips in order to avoid hiring Asians whether it be by the use of make-up, ignoring the racial context of a story, or changing the story to exclude the Asian part. The excuses are many:
"There aren't enough Asian actors"
"There aren't enough GOOD Asian actors"
"This role doesn't call for a kung fu master, Chinese waiter, computer nerd, etc,",
"Asians don't do well at the box office",
"Whites won't watch movies with Asians in the lead roles".
All of these are just bullshit excuses, of course. In fact, if you look at the history, films that do the "yellow-face" thing have done miserably in the box office ( John Wayne's "The Conqueror", "Remo Williams", "Dragonball" anyone? ), while the few that have been made with the actual Asians are relatively successful ("Enter the Dragon", "Crouching Tiger" )
This film continues a tradition in America, of avoiding the hiring of Asian-Americans or Asians in films that Asian American actor were completely qualified to work on. This aversion to hiring Asian-Americans has either been remedied by the use of "yellow-face", that is dressing up a non-Asian with prosthetic make-up ( Mickey Rooney in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" ), changing the context of the story to fit the needs of a white cast ( "21"), changing the story to be about a bi-racial person ( "Miss Saigon", "Kung Fu" ).
In the case of "The Last Airbender", where the cartoon source material was so heavily intertwined with Asian culture and philosophy, that casting actors who were anything other than Asian seemed ludicrous, the filmmakers chose to completely ignore the connection between Asian culture and Asian people. In "The Last Airbender", Asians are relegated a token villain roles and background characters.
It's not ok to work in a restaurant and put all African-Americans working in the back, and all Caucasians in the front. Should the film business be any different?
We need to fight discrimination wherever it occurs. This is the 21st Century for cristsakes.
It's a fantasy world! Who's to say they aren't white?
Sure, it's a fantasy world! But it's a world based in Asian culture. The original creators have said as much! In the cartoon, they eat with chopsticks, write with Asian characters, espouse Asian philosophy, walk in pagodas, wear Asian clothing. Similarly, Middle-Earth in the Rings trilogy and Conan the Barbarian's Cimmeria are fantasy worlds based in European culture. Yes, they are fictional worlds, but no one ( and rightfully so ) would think of the main characters in those worlds as anything other than European. Simon Yuen as Gandalf? Bolo Yeung as Conan? Can you imagine the outrage if Peter Jackson or John Milius had made those casting choices? Good! Then you know how we feel!
The cartoons are done in an anime style, with big round eyes! Of course they're white!
The anime drawing style is a stylization based on copying western drawing styles. That doesn't mean all anime characters are "western". And who's to say that the round abstraction used to represent eyes can't represent Asian eyes as well? ALL eyes are round! The characters in Isao Takahata's "Grave of the Fireflies"( based in Japan at the end of WW2 ) all have round eyes, but there is no doubt they are Japanese.
There aren't that many experienced Asian actors around. What could they do?
That's another sad part about the casting of the film. Since a majority of the cast were kids, no one is expected to have a lot of experience. Young Asian actors could have been hired and the fact that they didn't have a long resume would have been a moot point. There are 13.4 million people of Asian descent living in the U.S. There are 2.4 million Native Americans and Alaskan natives. I can't believe that there are absolutely no talented actors that could have filled the appropriate roles among those numbers. Not to mention the large amount of actors they could have hired from Asia. This was a terrible, missed opportunity for Asian-American actors, who usually can't find work because they are told that there are no roles for Asians. Now, once there is a film with lots of roles for Asian-Americans, those roles were opened up to white actors as well. Can someone say "double standard"?
It's about the box office. They need big names in the leads!
Noah Ringer? Nicola Peltz? Jackson Rathbone? Yeah, those are names I would run to the theater to see!
The world should be color-blind! Everybody should be up for any role!
In a perfect world, anybody should be be up for any job they want, and let the best person win. They truth of the matter is that we don't live in a color-blind world. Race dictates a lot about who a person is, their history, their standing in society, their cultural values. That said, there are "race neutral roles" ( roles that should be open to anybody, regardless of race) and there are "race specific roles" ( roles where the character's race plays a part in the story or character ). It would be ridiculous to have Nicolas Cage play the Marvel's Luke Cage, just as it would be ridiculous to have Chow Yun Fat play George Washington. Clearly, the original source material in "Avatar: The Last Airbender" was based in Asian cultures, with Asian characters. Anyone who says otherwise is either willfully ignorant or completely blind.
This is just a fluke! It won't happen again! Why worry?
It's the 21st century and it's happening more than ever! There are several films on the horizon that are doing the "yellowface" thing. In fact, John Millius has proposed a movie about Genghis Khan starring Mickey Rourke! Are you kidding me ? And you thought the days of "Amos and Andy" were long gone! Below is a picture of the real Genghis Khan, followed by some pictures of actors who have played or have been considered to play him. Notice that in fifty years, Tadanobu Asano was the only Asian to play the role. Certainly a much better choice for the role than Steven Seagal and Channing Tatum, who were also up for the role. The film,"Mongol" ( a Russian production ), was nominated for an Oscar. John Wayne's "The Conqueror" can't make the same claim. However, even after all that, Hollywood still hasn't learned it's lesson, returning to the mindless yellowface of yesteryear. Mickey Rourke as Genghis Khan? Really?
So in conclusion, I'm asking you to avoid "The Last Airbender" at all costs. Don't pay money to see this thing, because doing so will only encourage this behavior. Early reviews are pretty negative, so you probably aren't missing anything.