M. Night Shyamalan’s new film casts white actors in what are clearly meant to be Asian roles.
Blackface, a theater tradition in which white actors would present themselves as African American characters using stage paint, has long been taboo. But M. Night Shyamalan plans to replicate such offensive casting with Asian characters in his forthcoming film, The Last Airbender. The live action film, based on the Nickelodeon TV animated series called Avatar, tells the story of a young monk in an Asian-inspired world who must reach enlightenment to bring down an evil regime. Dee Dee Ricketts and Frank Marshall, the film’s casting director and producer respectively, decided that three white actors should play the Tibetan and Inuit main characters in the film: Twilight’s Jackson Rathbone has been cast in the role of Sokka, a young warrior from a fictional tribe based on the Inuit peoples. Nicola Peltz plays Katara, Sokka’s younger sister, and Noah Ringer plays Aang, the monk who ends up the titular last surviving practioner of the Airbending discipline.
Rathbone, who last played a pale vampire, perhaps figured he could sidestep the issue of playing an Inuit character by getting a tan. (Photos of him at a concert after the start of filming show that his tan turned into more of a burn.) It seems Ricketts and Marshall think make-up and computer graphics will be enough to transform Rathbone and his co-stars into convincing Inuit and Asian characters, but they’re missing the point. There are thousands of real Inuit and other Asian actors available to play these roles without the aid of make-up and computer effects.
The general insensitivity and questionable casting of The Last Airbender has many fans of the original cartoon series up in arms. This is no mere gathering of angry fans hunched over their computer keyboards, flaming on Internet forums. Fans have been meeting up in person, protesting casting calls and making videos on YouTube. And it’s not just fans of the series: the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) has gotten involved, demanding an answer from Paramount Pictures on its casting practices. The East West Players, an Asian-American theater group that describes itself as "a home dedicated to promoting Asian Pacific American work and talent not available under Hollywood’s limited opportunities for Asian Americans," also contacted Paramount and received a form letter in response.
Marshall informed angry Avatar fans on his Twitter account that "the casting is complete and we [Paramount Entertainment] did not discriminate against anyone." Marshall then stated he was "...done talking about it." He also said that "the movie is actually more diverse than the TV show." Apparently adding white people to a story that wouldn’t otherwise include them does introduce diversity, if you want to get technical about it, but the Avatar TV show was already plenty diverse, depicting a pan-Asian world and characters to match.
Tibetan and Inuit actors who are in the film were, according to Ricketts, background extras dressed up like Ukrainian villagers. At a casting call for extras in Philadelphia in January, she said, "If you came with a scarf today, put it over your head so you’ll look like a Ukrainian villager or whatever." Whatever, indeed. She also advised those who hoped to be in the film to "dress in traditional cultural ethnic attire. ... If you’re Korean, wear a kimono. If you’re from Belgium, wear lederhosen."
So far, Paramount says that "the producers and the director have envisioned embodying the Airbender universe with a large and ethnically diverse cast that represents many different heritages and cultures from all corners of the globe." With the main characters made up of mostly white actors, it seems that the producers and the director need to re-examine their definition of diversity.
Of course, the actors aren’t all white. Dev Patel, of Indian descent, is set to play Prince Zuko, the villain of The Last Airbender. Now we have three white good guys against a dark-skinned bad guy. No racism here! It should also be noted that Prince Zuko is from the Fire Nation, a fictional country that is based mainly on the cultures of China and Japan. It would be a stretch to say that Patel could pass for either ethnicity.
But Hollywood isn’t getting it all wrong these days. Chris Weitz, the director for New Moon, which continues the Twilight saga, insisted that the Native American werewolves had to be played by Native American actors. Weitz spent months auditioning thousands of Native Americans, all of whom had to have papers proving their heritage to even be considered for the role. Weitz, who replaced Catherine Hardwicke as director in the Twilight film series, has shown that it is possible for a big-budget fantasy film to cast actors whose race matches those of the characters without the world coming to an end. The Last Airbender could learn something from his example.
Still, Airbender’s problem goes beyond angry fans and actors. Some have argued in comments on articles about the controversy that the casting of The Last Airbender movie doesn’t matter because children "don’t see race." But recent studies show that mental health problems are more common in children who experience racial discrimination. In fact, a new study conducted by UCLA found that “perceived racial or ethnic discrimination is not an uncommon experience among fifth-grade students and that it may have a negative effect on their mental health." The study went on to say that "children … who reported perceived discrimination were more likely to have symptoms of depression… oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder."
Asians shouldn’t always be shoehorned into only playing the “Asian” characters, but the source material for The Last Airbender clearly calls for Asian actors and actresses. Casting mostly Caucasian actors in a movie about Asian cultures for the sake of "diversity" is reverse affirmative action and claiming that white actors are underrepresented in movies is laughable and amounts to yellowface.
Encouraging colorblindness doesn’t solve racial problems. Children do, in fact, notice racial differences between themselves, their playmates, and their role models. The Last Airbender depicts Asian and Inuit characters played by white actors. In New Moon, Native Americans were played by Native Americans. The New Moon film has received little racial backlash, while The Last Airbender is inspiring more outrage from fans and non-fans every day. It may be too much to expect Hollywood to learn from this experience, but we can hope that they will decide that whitewashing is out.
Julianne Henry is an illustration major and will be a junior at UMass Dartmouth this fall.